The opening of my novel Sea Fret. (Completed but I’m currently 30,000 words into a radical rewrite.)

Peter settled himself down on the edge of the gently sloping grassy scrub on the cliff top and took in the whole sweep of the bay with a single glance. It was worth looking at in the afternoon sun. A heavy brown boulder clay expanse of cliff led out to Filey Brigg, pointing along the horizon to the far off, sparkling white, chalk headland over at Flamborough Head. There was nothing but air between him and the long shining stretch of sand a hundred feet below and it felt like he was flying. The gannets were plunge diving out at sea, dropping like bullets one by one into the water, performing a sleek, finely honed dance of death and the wind was singing in his ears. This was all right. It had been a good choice to come here. It was good for the dog too. He ruffled the scruffy black tufts of hair on the back of her head and she beat her tail a few times before shaking him off. The dog was a jack russell terrier and until two weeks before she had been spending her time sitting behind the wire mesh of a run in a dog rescue centre thirty miles away. Her habit of growling at anyone who went past had ensured that she had spent almost four years in there until Peter had seen her and told the incredulous girl in the green hoodie that he wanted to give her a home.
“You’ve never had a dog before?”
“No”, he had said defensively. “But I’ve got a garden now.”
It had all worked out. The dog had found the soft bed which he had bought for her in the coroner of the kitchen and made it clear that she wasn’t going anywhere and that she would be doing exactly as she pleased. That had been fine by him. She had a name, but dog was what he called her and she didn’t seem to mind. If there was something in it for her she responded to him and if there wasn’t, she didn’t. As a Yorkshire man Peter could relate to that. The two of them were looking as if they might be well suited. During the past three weeks they had walked miles together as they both got to know their new home.
He didn’t hear the girl coming up behind him, but the dog did. They both turned their heads. She was standing a few feet away, glaring, dark hair blowing back in the wind, five feet of untamed teenage attitude, thin as a whip and possibly almost as dangerous. Peter had been a high school teacher so he knew all about that. He turned back to the sea, hoping that she would go away.
The dog continued to glare back and the rumbling of a growl began in her belly.
“Does your dog bite?”
The voice sounded close. Peter didn’t turn round.
“Not so far.”
“Can I stroke her?”
“I wouldn’t trust her.”
The dog had other ideas. She was pulling on the end of the lead towards the girl now. Her front paws were waving in the air and the whole of her back end was wagging.
“She looks all right to me. Can I stroke her?”
Peter sighed. Bloody dog.
“I suppose so. Didn’t your mother warn you not to talk to strange men?”
She looked at him scornfully.
“I’m not a kid. Anyway you’ve got a dog. Axe murderers usually leave their dogs at home. My name’s Carly.”
Carly walked forward and knelt down in front of the dog who wriggled with pleasure and pushed herself against the soft surface of her fleece.
“She likes me.”
“You’re lucky.”
The three of them sat together silently for a while looking out to sea and watching the gannets feed. Peter wondered whether he should ask the girl to go away. She probably wouldn’t go.
He was going to have to get up and leave himself.
“The gannets don’t often feed this close in. I sometimes watch them round the back of the Brigg. There must be a shoal of herring sile that’s been blown in.”
She looked at him curiously.
“You don’t live here do you?”
“Yes I do.”
She was sceptical.
“How long for?”
He had discovered that this question was the first that any local would ask when you told them that you lived in Filey. Length of stay in a place where there were so many visitors was regarded as a badge of honour. Being born here set you apart.
“Three months.”
“Nearly a local then.”
They looked at each other and grinned.
“I run one of the chip shops.”
He could see that she was surprised. This was something she would have expected to know already.
“Which one?”
“The one that used to be Harrison’s.”
A slight frown crossed Carly’s face. This was obviously bad news.
“That’s where my mum works.”
“And your mum is?”
“A pain in the neck.”
“Jess Hunter.”
Peter nodded silently. Jess did a good job. She had been a Godsend while he settled in, reminding him of things that he had forgotten and making sure that she served the more intolerant locals herself. Now that he had been told, he could see the same sharp features and intelligent eyes that Jess had in her daughter. In fact as he thought about Jess he was surprised to realise just how much he had obviously noticed her. This was not good. Time to go.
“Anyway, that reminds me. They were putting up the new shop sign today and I need to make sure it hasn’t fallen down.”
“Right. My tea will be ready soon as well.”
Before he could stop her Carly lifted the dog’s front legs and put her face close. They stared at each other nose to nose.
“Bye dog. You’re cute. Get him to give you a decent name.”
She jumped up and ran back down the cliff path. The dog watched her until she was out of sight and then flopped back down onto the grass. He stroked her gently.
“Good dog.”
Peter wasn’t quite sure what the sound which the dog made in reply meant, but it was definitely not a compliment. He felt slighted.
“Come on then. She’ll be out of the way by now.”
They made their own slow way back down the cliff path, across the pitch and putt course and towards the long straight avenue that led back into the town. As they passed the end of the ravine that led down to the beach the last of the days visitors were making their way laboriously up to the car park, dragging spades, kites windbreaks and tents behind them. He was glad that now, when the car park was empty, he would still be here.

* * *

When Arthur got to his daughters he could hear shouting. He stood at the door, listening, wondering whether he ought to ring the bell instead of walking straight in as he usually did.
“Have you been hanging round that bloody bus shelter again?”
That was his daughter Jess.
And that was his granddaughter Carly, the light of his life. Arthur loved Carly very much, and not just because she was his only grandchild, but he wasn’t always sure that her mother did. Carly wasn’t shouting. She was sulking. She was probably sulking on the settee in front of one of the shopping channels. Arthur had seen her do that a lot. Carly was difficult, Arthur realised that; her mother had been difficult too. She had needed what Dorothy called firm handling. Sometimes the handling had been a bit too firm for Arthur, but you couldn’t tell Dorothy that. Sometimes he even heard Val say the same things to Carly that her mother had said to her, and they still made him wince. Anyway he couldn’t just go home, they would wonder what had happened to him, and there was nothing in his fridge. He opened the door.
“It’s only me.”
Jess came out of the front room very quickly, looking harassed.
“Hello dad. Go and have a sit down. Tea won’t be long.”
“Right you are.”
Arthur did the same with Jess, when she got worked up, as he had done with her mother. He agreed with her, then he kept well out of the way. No matter what. Over the years he had found that was what worked best. He went into the front room and, just as he had expected, Carly was on the sofa, remote control in hand, staring at the shopping channel. He sat down, facing the fireplace, in his usual chair.
“Now Carly.”
They were selling fleece jackets with wolves printed on them. Carly waved an arm towards him but her eyes stayed fixed on the screen.
“£49.99. No way.”
They sat watching the numbers on the screen flip round as the price went down and people bought. Arthur stared at the woman on the television. She had a bright red dress, shiny lipstick and surprised eyebrows. She was smiling all the time. Arthur decided he didn’t like her. Carly shifted in her seat and flicked the remote.
“Silly cow.”
Arthur adjusted his glasses.
“No need for that.”
Carly shrugged.
“Do you want your cookery programme?”
“Don’t mind. Whatever you like.” Carly flipped the switch on the remote. They were cooking a piece of tuna. This was interesting to Arthur. It was very dark, a different colour to the tuna he got in tins, and he wondered why.
“I bet that’s very tasty,” he told Carly. “Very tasty.”
Carly made a retching sound and rolled her eyes.
“Gross. Can’t stand fish. It stinks.”
“How are your mates doing?”
Carly grinned.
“Breezer nearly bit some kid yesterday.”
Arthur smiled. Carly would always talk about the beach donkeys. She had been helping Matty and Dot for nearly four years now. It had started off because when her mother had a go at her, being with the donkeys calmed her down. They had still quiet faces, and soft ears, and they just stood there on the sands with their eyes half closed until they were asked to walk up and down again. She knew all their names, and which ones were the stubborn ones. Breezer was her favourite donkey. He was almost all brown, with a few white markings on his face and legs, and he was awkward. Carly had explained to Arthur before how you had to watch him if some kid screamed out or poked him, and that if you let him get in front of Miss Molly he would kick out. Miss Molly had nipped him once and like Carly, he didn’t forget. Arthur listened happily. He liked to hear Carly talk.
“You’ll have to let me have a word with him, before he gets himself into real trouble.”
Carly giggled.
“He doesn’t listen to anybody that one.”
“Like somebody else I know.” Arthur said mildly, grinning back at her.
“Shut your face granddad.”
Carly stuck her tongue out with enormous enthusiasm, sticking her chin out and wobbling her head. Arthur laughed.
“You want to watch it. If the wind changes you’ll stay like that.”
They were still laughing when Val came back in to tell them that tea was ready. Carly slumped back into the chair, turned the volume up on the television, and stared at the screen.
“Don’t want any tea. I’m going to have some chips.”
“You’ll come and eat it now, when I’ve gone to the trouble of making it.”
Carly just carried on staring at the screen. This wound her mother up, as she knew it would. Arthur hoped that there wasn’t going to be another full scale row. He would rather be somewhere else if that was on the cards. He got up and went quietly through to the kitchen. Val’s trouble had only extended to taking a plastic wrapper off a pizza and putting it in the oven. It was sitting in the middle of the table next to a green salad which had been emptied into a bowl. It looked like it was a Morrison’s one. He sat down and waited. There were four places set. He hoped that didn’t mean that his son in law Simon would be coming in for tea. Simon was one of only a few people that Arthur would admit to thoroughly disliking. Simon was always saying things that sounded to Arthur like they were meant to be funny. Arthur would try to smile, or even laugh, without really knowing why, just to be polite, and then Simon would just stare at him blankly and leave him feeling stupid. No, Arthur didn’t like Simon. Neither had Dorothy. She had given Arthur a right earful about him after Jess brought him home for the first time.
Thankfully there wasn’t going to be a row this time. Carly slunk into the chair next to him and helped herself grudgingly to half a slice of pizza. She sat there pulling the topping off and leaving it at the side of her plate. Jess sat down and helped herself to a double slice.
“So how are you doing dad?”
Arthur sawed at his pizza. It was very hard. He wondered if the brown things were anchovies because he didn’t think he liked them.
“I’m all right. Somebody left me a lasagne on my doorstep a few days back, did I tell you? Very nice it was. I had it for my tea.”
Val frowned.
“On your doorstep? What would they want to do that for? Do they think you’re starving or something? Cheek.”
“I thought it was very nice of them.”
“Who was it?”
“Lady at number 32. Margaret her name is. I talk to her sometimes if she’s mowing her lawn.”
Carly brightened up.
“A lady? Granddad!”
Val flashed a look at her.
“Shut up Carly. Don’t be so silly.”
Carly put down her knife and fork and stared into space.
Arthur went a little bit red in the face.
“Nothing to make a fuss about.”
“No, of course it isn’t,” Jess said quickly. “Eat your tea Carly.”
Arthur was about half way through his share of the pizza when he heard the front door slam. That would be Simon. He looked at the kitchen clock, wondering if he could go home yet. Not really. It was a bit too early.
Jess’s face closed off, and she swept what was left of the pizza onto a plate and put it in the microwave to heat up.
“About bloody time.”
Carly scraped her chair back and looked at Arthur.
“I can walk home with you if like.”
Jess sighed.
“You don’t have to go yet dad. Stay as long as you like.”
“No, I’d better be getting on.”
“Just as you like.”
Arthur got up and found his hat.
“Thanks for tea.”
Val was already loading plates into the dishwasher.
“That’s OK dad. See you later.”
Carly followed him out of the front door. He could just hear Jess’s voice as the door slammed behind them.
“Don’t be out too late Carly.”
“Silly cow,” Carly said under her breath, but not so quietly that Arthur didn’t hear it.
Carly looked down at the ground.
“Well, she is. She’s a total embarrassment.”
“Maybe we all are sometimes.”
Arthur walked along next to Carly, worrying quietly. Carly had started to do as she liked from the minute she could walk, and nothing had happened since to make any difference. The first time he had heard her tell her mother to bugger off she had been five years old. He had been shocked, but mostly thankful that Dorothy didn’t hear it. He decided it must be something she had heard her father say a lot, and although she didn’t know what it meant she had noticed the effect it had on her mother and wanted to try it out. It hadn’t had quite the same effect as when her father said it. Arthur had once been there, a long time ago, when that had happened. There had been a lot of noise and shouting and in the end Jess had just sat down in a heap and cried. It had all been very awkward. She had told Arthur afterwards, while they were drinking the cup of tea he made, that she would have liked nothing better than to bugger off. Carly was a toddler at the time. She had climbed onto the chair next to her mum and tried to show her a Beanie Baby to cheer her up, but it hadn’t worked. Her mother had put her back on the floor and shoved a cartoon DVD into the machine.
As time went on he had watched Jess retreat into her own small world of Maeve Binchy novels, vodka, daytime television, line dancing on Thursday nights, chocolate, and a job in a local chip shop. Most of this didn’t interest Arthur, and it was hard for him to know what to say about it. As for Carly, he had watched her grow up and investigate a very different world of her own. Now that she was sixteen this mostly centred around school, where she did as little as possible, the local bus shelter, her mobile phone, local lads, her group of friends and the beach donkeys.
He looked at her now, as she stumped along next to him, staring at the ground. She had scraped back her hair into a pony tail and her face looked pinched and unhappy. He wished there was something he could do about it.
“Where are you off to now then?”
Carly wrinkled her nose and shrugged.
“Dunno. Bus shelter probably.”
Arthur didn’t like the look of most of the teenagers who he saw hanging around the park shelters and the bus station in Filey. Once he had been walking past a group of them, when one of them had asked him very loudly where he got his hair cut. He had shouted back “mind your own business,” and for some reason they had found this very funny. It had been a little bit upsetting.
“Don’t know why you like hanging around them places so much.”
Carly kicked at a Capri Sun wrapper that was floating along on the pavement.
“Something to do isn’t it. See my mates.”
Arthur could see that. He wondered who Carly’s mates were. He remembered one called Suzanne.
“How’s Suzanne?”
“I hate her. Minger.”
Arthur had no idea what minger meant, but he understood the hate part.
“Why is that then? I thought you two were thick as thieves.”
“Not now we’re not. She’s got a boyfriend.”
“Oh dear. Anyway I thought you had a boyfriend?”
There was a long silence. Arthur decided he had better not say any more. When they got to his road end he watched her head on towards the bus shelter with her head down against the drizzle. He was glad he didn’t have to be sixteen again.

* * *

It was a very strange feeling for Peter, standing over the road after the sign writer had finished. Very strange. He stood there, with his hands in the pockets of what used to be his best suit trousers, wondering what the hell he had let himself in for. Anyway, there it was. PETE’S PLAICE. He’d decided he might as well go with the name after his friend Kieran suggested it as a joke. It had been more of a thinly disguised sneer than a joke really, but he’d gone along with it, just to show that he didn’t care. He had wanted to call it The Wrath of Cod himself, but they had decided that probably wouldn’t sell so much fish. This was it then. His future. A local chippie. It had been a bargain too, the previous owners didn’t want to have to keep it going through another winter. Not much of a challenge for somebody who’d been headteacher of a large high school before he was forty. Mind you, settling in hadn’t been easy. He’d had to do his research, and after that they’d made him work bloody hard. He’d smelt of chip fat for weeks while he helped out the previous owners so that he could learn the ropes and that was at a time when he didn’t think he’d be able to get his head round cooking his own dinner, never mind cope with cooking for dozens of other people. It had been a definite step forward, and the doctor had seemed pleased. Therapeutic work he’d called it. Peter had called work a lot of things in his time, but never therapeutic.
All of the staff had chosen to stay on but one, and he’d got somebody to replace her. The one who had been there longest was called Miriam. She’d seemed a bit startled at the interview Peter had insisted on giving her – he was more used to interviewing people applying for school posts than fish fryers – but she seemed happy enough when he had told her he would like her to stay on. A bit edgy maybe, but she was very neat and looked like being efficient enough, and that’s how it had turned out. He thought about Carly’s mother Jess. She’d be coming in for her shift later on. He had begun to wonder what she was doing there. She had more about her than the rest of them, and he recognised a sharp intelligence, which she could have put to better use. He wondered why that had never happened. So long as she did her job he supposed that was none of his business. You didn’t have to worry much about staff development if you were running a chippy.
Since he arrived he had just about managed to keep the shop, and himself, together. Sometimes it had been touch and go. Every so often, if he felt a bit shaky, he would go out the back and just sit with his eyes shut until he felt better. Eventually even Miriam had got used to him doing that, and stopped grumbling. Miriam was all right. Maybe she had asked too many questions to start with, but she was all right. She was good hearted, and the customers liked her, but it was Jess that he had begun to watch. She wasn’t exactly pretty, but she had a neat little figure, long legs and thick black hair, and a graceful way of moving when she battered fish, lowering them into the fat a lot more carefully than the others and lifting her hand away from the heat at the last moment like a dancer. She seemed sensible too, the kind of woman you could depend on. A long time ago Peter had had his heart broken by somebody who was very pretty, and anything but dependable, and so he felt safe around Val. She seemed different. He never said anything of course, just watched as she chatted to the customers and added an extra layer of newspaper to be certain the chips would stay warm if she knew that they walked slowly or had a long way to go. He liked that. Most people here weren’t as gentle as that. Sometimes Miriam could be pretty scary. You didn’t want to get in her way while she was cleaning out the deep fat fryers, and you wouldn’t want to stand on a bit of floor she’d already mopped at twenty five past seven, not if you were Peter anyway, and sometimes not even if you were a customer.
It was going all right on the whole. The one thing he hadn’t managed to convince them about was the music. For the first couple of weeks he had commandeered the ghetto blaster on the high shelf and played his Bach and Vivaldi concertos, with some Debussy or Ravel when he felt like a change. Nobody had said anything to start with, but eventually Gina and Miriam had sent Jess through to find him in the back of the shop. She had looked uncomfortable, and he had had to ask her what she wanted.
“We were wondering about the music.”
“What about it?”
“Well, we were wondering if we could have something more cheerful. We have the radio on normally. Radio Two.”
Peter had noticed that when he had been in the shop learning the ropes. It had driven him crazy. He had started to explain this, but she had interrupted him.
“It’s just we all like it. It puts time on, and the customers like it as well.”
He had given in.
His favourite job at the shop was making the batter. He enjoyed making up the soft pale liquid to exactly the right thickness so that it would spread over the fish in an even creamy coat when he dipped the fillets of cod and haddock in. It was satisfying, just a small job that he could do to perfection without anybody interfering. He learned how to swing the fish over the hot fat and drop it in close to the surface, letting his hand pull back at the last minute. Just a few pieces of fish at a time. No targets, and no performance reviews.
Filey had been a good choice for him. It was somewhere you could disappear. People got used to seeing you about, without asking questions. Plenty of people passed through Filey, and many of them didn’t stay long. You would see a face on the street for a few months, and then it would be gone. Visitors, retired folk on the estates who went on long cheerful rambles with the walking club, the elderly whose families deposited them in one of the large hotels on the front which had been turned into nursing homes, the visitors from the tin boxes filling the fields on the edge of the town, the day trippers who filled up the grassy car parks on the cliff top in summer, and the students who came out of nowhere to do the seasonal work, they would all leave sooner or later. Filey was used to strangers, whatever it’s long term residents might think of them, and they could feel comfortable there. That suited Peter.
“Your sign’s not fallen down yet then.”
He recognised the voice.
“No it hasn’t. I thought you were going home for your tea.”
“I’ve had it. I’m off down the bus shelter now.”
“Exciting times.”
Carly looked at him pityingly and grinned.
“Don’t knock it till you’ve tried it.”


The first chapter of my novel Time Jewels.

“Sorry, it won’t budge.”
“Here, let me.”
The antique dealer pushed hard at the door, kicking at the bottom where it was sticking, and it finally shuddered open. He moved forward into the dark space of the hallway, trampling over the yellowing junk mail and wrinkling his nose at the smell. Amy followed him, her face pale and anxious. She still wasn’t sure whether she wanted to do this. He turned and stared back at her.
“You said this is your aunt’s house? How the hell did it get like this? Couldn’t somebody have helped her clear it out or something?”
Amy bit her lip. He hadn’t seen the worst of it yet. Not by a long way. At least you could get through the front door and stand up in the hallway. Maybe she should have tried to clear up a bit before she contacted him. He turned and looked back at her, frowning.
“What was she? Some kind of bag lady?”
“Certainly not!”
Bag lady? Anything but. Amy thought back to the time when she used to come to the house regularly to visit her Auntie Vi. It had all been very smart, when she had been growing up. You never even had a biscuit in here without a plate to put it on. The dealer looked at her face anxiously, searching for signs of distress.
“I’m sorry. My big mouth.”
“Never mind. It is a bit of a dump. She died three and a half years ago.”
“And this is still her stuff, right?”
He whistled softly.
“Bloody hell.”
“I know.”
“It must belong to somebody. Why has it been left like this?”
Amy froze. She hadn’t been expecting him to ask the question so directly, not so soon at any rate, and she wasn’t ready for it. She was going to have to tell him, or nothing would get done. That was why she had brought him here. Wasn’t it?
“It’s my fault. It belongs to me. I just sort of couldn’t cope really.”
He shook his head firmly, already assessing the possibilities hidden in the piles of objects filling the room. This was always his favourite moment.
“Don’t worry. Houses like this can be little goldmines. I’ve seen worse.”
She held her breath and followed him down the hallway, past the carefully folded newspapers, piled up higher than her head, which were leaning in rows against the thick cream paint, clinging in rumpled layers to the side of the stairs. She was glad that he had gone that way, rather than straight into the front room.
“Dining room?”
The doubt in his voice came from the fact that it wasn’t easy to see the table. Amy followed his gaze as he looked around, it was almost as new to her as it was to him. The six chairs around the dining table were all piled with old clothes which had once been clean and folded, waiting to be ironed. Now they were grey with dust and spread out across the dark polished wood of the table, mingling with the piles of old bills and receipts, hiding its surface.
“Please don’t ask any more questions, not now. It’s all a bit much.”
He put his hand lightly on her shoulder, still scanning the room as he listened.
Amy watched him as he began to move around the chaos, lifting things gently and putting them back down. He was younger than she had expected, much younger, even if he did dress as if he was middle aged in faded cords and a linen jacket. The name on his card said Rufus Carter. He was probably not much older than she was, and far too good looking, quite tall and skinny. The shine on his dark hair was picked out in a shaft of dusty sunlight when he pulled aside the lace curtain and his eyes were alight with interest behind rimless glasses. In better times she might even have fancied him, especially if she had realised that he had already been admiring her long red hair and pale skin and taking long hard looks at her when she was distracted and wouldn’t notice that she was being stared at. Amy had always attracted attention, especially from men, and her total unconcern just made them try harder. She sat down on a chair arm and tried to pull herself together, attempting to work out for herself all over again how a home could get into a state like this. Her own flat in Scarborough was a simple, modern box, inserted into a Victorian chapel, which she kept tidy and spotless, and any history which it may once have contained had been erased, sacrificed in the name of comfort and convenience. It was exactly the opposite here. Any kind of comfort there had once been in this place had been sacrificed in the name of history. The past was everywhere, eating into the present and destroying it. Someone- her Aunt Vi presumably- had not been able to stop that happening and this was the result.
Slowly she began to see beyond the confusion and pick out the remains of what had been. It was all still here, frozen underneath a protective film of dust and guarded by barricades of random objects which had once had a home, but now lay helpless, strewn around the floor. She began to realise that nothing had been moved from the time when the room had last been decorated. Judging from the startling striped wallpaper and the wide floral border which blazed its way across one of the walls that must have been sometime in the nineteen eighties. Not that it would have looked as bad as this for a while of course. That would have taken time, years of despair maybe. If you cut a way through it, clearing and sorting, you would be able to find your way back through the years to the point when things went wrong. She was in no doubt now that something must have gone very wrong. Very wrong indeed.
The dealer picked up a trilby hat which was lying pointlessly in the middle of the floor and shook off the dust. If he hadn’t seen the dark ring of grease around the band inside it he might have thought about putting it on to try to cheer her up. She wasn’t going to be in a mood to sell anything if she carried on like this and he had seen a few potential good buys already.
“Your Aunt go in for hats did she?”
“That would have been Uncle Tin Tin’s.”
Amy nodded.
“That was my nickname for him. He used to read me the stories. He died in 1987.”
He set the hat down at a jaunty angle, topping off one of the piles of clothes. Amy stared at it sadly. 1987, and his hat was still there in the middle of the living room floor twenty six years later. Unreal.
“Were you close to her?”
She shut her eyes. This was at the heart of it. This was why she had been unable to come through that front door for three and a half years. This was why her mother had driven her crazy with every nagging phone call demanding to be allowed to get in here with her and “bottom it”, until she had been forced to leave the answering machine on and choose her own moment to ring back, usually at a time when she knew that her mother would be out. Nothing her mother said had been able to make her come to this house, her powerlessness a final proof that, at nearly thirty, Amy was no longer a child. Its existence had become a shameful secret, covered over by silence and a light dusting of fear. Until today.
“When I was growing up I was. We lived in York and coming over to Malton on the train to see her was always my biggest treat. I used to beg to stay. I had my own box of toys here, and a second hand bike that she bought me. Then I moved away to uni, lost touch, and when I moved back up North I just never got round to ringing her up. I don’t know why. I feel bad about it now.”
He shrugged, unconcerned.
“It happens. Things change, people move on.”
The truth was that Amy just hadn’t cared enough. He was right, she had changed, moved on, but Aunt Vi never had. She was always cheerful and controlled, always neat. You could never imagine her living like this, ever. She would never have asked why the visits stopped, she never complained of anything. If Amy had come to see her there would have been no recriminations, no pointed remarks, and yet she still hadn’t done it. Not once. The quiet little market town with its grey stone church, quirky shops, local characters and small narrow streets had seemed boring and claustrophobic to an older teenager who was ready to break out and find a life of her own. Her aunt and uncle had been part of the place, thanks to the butchers shop on the main street which had been in her uncle’s family for as long as anyone could remember. You couldn’t go out of the front door without being stopped by someone who wanted to talk, especially if her uncle was there. Shopping took forever. Amy had hated it. Aunt Vi had died here too. She had died in a nursing home, hidden behind a massive yew hedge and she had been well cared for. The news of her illness had been given to most of those who knew her only when it was too late for embarrassing visits and condolences. She never quite lost her pride. It must have killed her living like this.
Amy’s eyes began to burn as she held back tears.
“Aunt Vi didn’t forget. She never forgot.”
She pointed silently at a photograph on the stereogram, half hidden by a pile of James Last LP’s. The dealer picked it up, wiping the surface with his hand and a child’s face appeared out of the dust, a chubby little smiler with cropped hair, cut out sandals, a sensible navy cardigan and over large national health glasses. It was barely recognisable as the young woman standing next to him.
“You’ve definitely improved with age. I’d stick with the contacts if I were you.”
Rufus Carter was used to making light of things, skimming over the surface of life and batting aside emotion with a joke, kept afloat by his good looks and a ready smile. You could always be sure that if you tried to get him to think too deeply about anything he would flick his tail like a small silver fish and swim for the shallows. Usually customers liked this, and most people found it charming, but at other times his flippancy could be irritating beyond belief, and Amy was upset enough to tell him so now, stranger or not.
“Are you always so rude to people you hardly know?.”
He was taken aback, used to being liked and indulged.
“What have I said? Come on, lighten up a bit. Let’s have a look upstairs. And my name’s Rufus by the way, you are allowed to use it.”
“Lighten up” was one of Amy’s most hated phrases. It was always a bad sign when she heard it.
She followed him up the staircase, negotiating her way past loose rusting stair rods, and onto the landing. There were five doors leading off it and she didn’t want to go through any of them, but Rufus had the bit between his teeth now and he was enjoying himself. He tried the nearest first. Amy stopped him.
“You won’t get in there. She slept in the one at the end. And the second one is the bathroom.”
He pushed at the door, and there was a cracking sound as it burst open into the room.
“God, sorry.”
“Told you.”
An old green Lloyd Loom wicker chair, which had been holding the door closed, had disintegrated into a pile of sticks. He kicked it to one side and squeezed himself into the small space which it had left. As Amy stared past him at the piled up furniture and random belongings filling the space the first thing which came into her mind was the famous photograph which had been taken looking into the antechamber of Tutankhamen’s tomb. Only these were not wonderful things, just dross. Rufus grinned back at her over his shoulder.
“You are going to need a very big skip sunshine.”
She shivered.
“Just shut the door will you.”
He picked up a glass lampshade lying on the fading lino and turned it round in his hands.
“This is very nice, deco, shame you haven’t got the original fitting. I wonder if it’s lying around somewhere.”
Suddenly she was shouting.
“I said shut the door!”
He closed it quickly. She leaned her back against the wall and sank down it with her face hidden in her hands. He bent down in front of her, wide eyed and anxious.
“Sorry. This is all too painful for you, I should have realised, but I get carried away. There are a few things here that I like. I get over excited when I’m looking round a place like this, tunnel vision, you know?”
Amy rubbed her arm across her eyes and shook her head.
“I need to get out.”
He swore under his breath.
“OK. We can come back though? Another day?”
“If you like.”
He straightened up and held out his hand.
“Come on. There’s a decent coffee shop in town. Give you time to catch your breath. I’m buying.”
Amy was too distracted to notice him helping her up. If she had seen the look in his eyes as he put his hand in the middle of her back, guiding her gently towards the stairs, she might have wondered what was going on. It wasn’t only the English delft blue dash charger leaning against the wall in the corner of the dining room, the grubby little regency overmantle mirror hanging at the back of the bedroom whose door had just closed, and the Arts and Crafts Tudric pewter clock sitting in the dust of the hallway that he had noticed, he had also taken note of Amy’s tiny waist, untidy long red hair and gentle green eyes, and all of it was very interesting to him.
She looked at him blankly and shrugged.
He smiled.
“Good. Come on then.”

* * * * * * * *

Amy didn’t know Malton well, but Rufus clearly did. He was a regular visitor. There were the kind of shops scattered around the smaller streets where interesting things might lie hidden. It was a place that he wandered round quite often when he pulled off the A64, usually on his way somewhere else, looking for a bargain. The coffee shop he chose was new to Amy, although the town itself had changed little. It was privately run and stylish, with a good range of coffees, cakes and biscuits. Rufus ordered two double expressos and they sat down in the window looking out across the market place towards the church.
“I always come in here. There are no pictures of the food and you can’t buy chips.”
It was good coffee, and as Amy listened to Rufus talk easily about all kinds of things, without giving anything away about himself, she began to relax. She told him about her job, teaching infants in a small village school up in the hills behind the town, and he looked interested. He even managed to make her laugh when she opened a pot of UHT cream badly and spilled some on the clean white cloth, when he took another one, pushed his glasses down his nose and showed her, mock seriously, how to do it properly. He listened as she explained about the small children she taught and laughed in the right places, making sure that she was single without letting her know what he was doing and spreading the warmth of his personality over her like fairy dust. Finally he asked the question which was hanging in the air, waiting to be asked.
“So what are you going to do with all that stuff?”
Amy looked at him sharply, but she could only see honest concern in his face.
“No idea. Shut the door on it again for another few years maybe.”
“You can’t do that.”
“I think you’ll find I can.”
Rufus leaned forward earnestly. For once he was being serious.
“No, you can’t. There are some good things in there. Really good things.”
He grinned suddenly, unable to stop himself.
“I wouldn’t tell everybody that of course.”
Amy grinned back. He did have nice eyes.
“I bet you wouldn’t.”
“I mean it though, you really can’t. Beautiful things need to be looked at, admired, thought about.”
“Well it just looked like a whole heap of mess to me. Nothing beautiful about that.”
“You’d be surprised.”
There was a pause while they both sipped at their coffees and Rufus wondered whether to say what he wanted to say. In the end, as usual, he did.
“I could help you if you like. When you’re ready. You let some of the trade in there and they’d rip you off without you ever noticing, I promise you.”
“And you wouldn’t?”
“No. I wouldn’t. There are some people I’d rip off without thinking twice about it, but you’re not one of them.”
“And why is that?”
“Because you didn’t ask what anything was worth, not once. You still haven’t.”
“That’s because I thought it was all worthless.”
“No you didn’t or you wouldn’t have asked me in to have a look. Anyway for 90% of it you’d be right.”
“And the other ten per cent?
Rufus put his head on one side, stuck his index finger on his chin, and stared into space, frowning.
“Not telling.”
“Yes you are.”
“You have to guess. When we go back in.”
Suddenly things were moving just a bit too fast for Amy.
Rufus watched her face carefully.
“Yes, when. You have to. I’ll hold your hand.”
There was a silence. Finally Amy caved in.
“You mean now?”
“Well we both happen to be sitting down the road from the house and I’ve got my notebook in my pocket. Do it now. It won’t get any easier. I’ll help.”
Amy was lost. Even though she had only met the man a couple of hours earlier she trusted him. There was no point trying to work out why. She just did.
“Haven’t you got anything better to do?”
He beamed at her, knowing that he had won.
“No I haven’t. You’ll see why when we get there.”
So it was settled. They made their way back up to the house. Rufus refused to say anything else until they were back in the dining room. He settled himself in the only empty chair, long legs stretched out in front of him, and folded his arms.
“OK then. Which of the things in this room is worth at least £10,000 on a bad day in a specialist auction?”
Amy stared at him.
“Come on, I’m waiting.”
“You’re joking.”
He shook his head.
Amy glared at him and he reassured her with a quick nod.
“I mean it.”
She looked around helplessly.
“The clock?”
“£50 if the buyer thinks that dial will clean up. £10 if I admit that it won’t.”
“The table?”
“Dark brown, big, heavy. All no no’s. You’ll be lucky to find a buyer at all.”
“That picture of the waterfall?”
“Oh dear. You’re not very good at this are you?”
Rufus got out of the chair deliberately slowly and stretched himself.
“Just move around and I’ll tell you when you’re getting warm.”
“Oh come on, do I have to?”
He sighed and flapped his arm lazily towards the far corner of the room.
“You’re no fun. It’s over there leaning against the wall.”
Amy reached into the corner and picked up a white plate with thick blue dashes around the edge and a roughly painted figure of a king on a rearing horse splashed across it.
Rufus quickly put his hands underneath hers.
“Yes. For God’s sake don’t let go. Let me take it.”
Amy let him take it and watched as he turned it in his hands, completely absorbed in what he was doing and blind to the dust which was beginning to cover his hands and jacket sleeves.
“You did mean it, didn’t you? It looks a bit rough to me.”
“English, made around 1690. Probably in London or Bristol. Can’t see any damage either, but I’ll need to look at it in a better light.”
He took a blouse from the pile of clothes on the table and wiped the surface of the plate gently.
“This plate has been around for over three hundred years. I’d have thought it deserves a round of applause for that. You’re not gasping or anything. Very disappointing.”
He turned the front of the plate round to face Amy and held it out.
“Don’t you think it’s charming? Look at his face. He looks pretty fed up with himself. The horse is having a good time though.”
Amy took it and smiled.
“I suppose it is, if you like that kind of thing. Ten thousand pounds? Are you sure?”
“As eggs is eggs. What are you going to do with the cash?”
Amy laughed and laid the plate down on the table, still struggling to believe him.
“I could get to like this game. Are there any more surprises?”
Rufus pointed up the stairs.
“Follow me.”
She followed him carefully through the three bedrooms, watching as he wrote in his small black notebook with an ancient looking ink pen, knowing instinctively not to interrupt his train of thought by speaking. He worked quickly, scanning things with his eyes and checking details with a small maglite. Sometimes she picked things up when he had moved on, wondering what he saw in them. After examining a tiny leather sewing case on the dressing table in the front bedroom she began to see what Rufus had meant about good things needing to be looked at and admired. It had been made to go inside a handbag and it was embossed in colour with the festival of Britain logo and filled with a few tiny needles and a selection of simple threads in shades of brown. It was probably worth very little, but still someone had chosen it, given it as a special gift or brought it home to treasure. The fact that it was lying here unwanted, its story forgotten, was a reminder of her own fragility. Nothing lasts forever, she thought sadly. She slipped it into her pocket. It felt like stealing.
Finally Rufus turned to her.
“Well, apart from the bathroom that’s about it for up here.”
He ran his eye down his list.
“You’ve got about eight hundred pounds worth of stuff from the bedrooms which would sell easily at auction. That’s if you’re lucky of course. You can never tell.”
He held out his notebook.
“Want to have a look?”
Amy looked down the list.
“Is this how you normally do things?”
“Afraid not. Normally I tell people what I am prepared to pay, which is not the same thing at all.”
“And that’s how you make a profit.”
“Not exactly. It depends what I can sell them for.”
He leaned across and picked up a tiny ornament, a battered porcelain cat sitting on a plinth.
“One of my regular customers has a cat fetish. So I’d buy this knowing I could sell it on quickly, and maybe offer the seller a better price. That Staffordshire sheep over there is probably worth more, but it’s ugly and it would almost certainly sit around for a while. So I’d want to buy that cheap, as a kind of compensation for having to put up with it for six months if you like. It’s not an exact science and that’s what keeps it interesting. It’s all about turnover.”
Amy gave him back the notebook.
“You have a shop then?”
“My father had a shop. I have a website and a double lock up garage, and I do the rounds of the smaller fairs. Saves on overheads.”
Rufus turned the full heat of his charm towards Amy for the first time. She wilted in front of it.
“You’ll have to come along to one of them. It’s mostly at weekends.”
She heard herself saying that she would like that. He didn’t seem surprised.
“Good. We’ll have fun. You can attract the customers with your womanly charms and in return I’ll help you clear this lot. Deal?”
“Do I have a choice?”
He reached out and touched her cheek gently.
“There’s always a choice.”
If his mobile hadn’t rung Amy had a feeling that she might have kissed him, and she didn’t really go around doing that kind of thing. He looked at his watch.
“Damn, I should have been on my way, didn’t realise. Listen I’ve got to go. You have my number. Ring me. Or I’ll ring you.”
He set off down the stairs two at a time, fumbling for his phone.
“We’ll do the downstairs properly next time. Take that charger home. Carefully!”
She ran down the stairs and stood in the doorway watching as he disappeared through the gate, already out of earshot, heading towards his car and talking into his handset.
“Hi, you OK? Afraid I’m running late. I’m still about half an hour’s drive away from the school. I know I said I’d do it, but is there any chance of you picking the kids up?”

Fiction. (Extract) The Ploughboy.

Rob rattled along on the back of the cart, chewing a tiny piece of tobacco that he’d pinched from his dad, and watching the dust fly up behind the wheels. As he listened to the rhythm of the heavy hooves up in front, driving the wheels forward while Matty slapped the reins, the sound of the school bell faded into the distance. Which was just how he liked it. Right through the winter, any time a farm cart came past that school gate he’d be straight out of the yard and onto it. School was for little ‘uns. It wasn’t any use to him. No use at all. Why would he want to be sitting inside cooped up all bloody day, when there was sun on the fields and he could be out there working? He knew what he was going to do. He’d told them. As soon as they’d let him out “he were off among t’osses.” His mother had tried to tell him to do his book learning first, but she was talking daft. He’d told her so as well. He could write his own name and that. He knew what was what. He could add up change, and he knew what was in his pocket. What was the point of buggering about learning more than that? He wasn’t soft in the head, and he was big enough to give anybody who said so a good hiding. Not that many did. Rob was a strapping lad for twelve, and he was ready to work. He’d been working for long enough whenever he could. He knew that he wasn’t going to be able to stop at home, there were only so many mouths they could feed, and anyway he didn’t want to. School wasn’t bothered. Well, Miss Richmond had tried to get him interested, to be fair, but it was a lost cause. Like a lot of others Rob had made sure he did enough to pass his exam, so he could be in the fields all summer, and he counted the days every year until he knew that he had turned up often enough not to have to bother any more. Sitting in a desk with a bunch of bairns and a slate wasn’t real work for a strapping lad like him and nobody pretended it was. Any East Yorkshire lad had to work at threshing or harvest time, or whenever help was needed on the land, exam or no exam. You wouldn’t catch Rob’s dad letting him waste time at school when there was real work to be done, and he didn’t see fit to explain himself to any teacher. As he said to Miss Richmond, “Why should I? You know nowt about ‘osses.”
When they got to the far field where he knew George would be working he jumped off the back of the cart and refastened his boots. George would have been out there since first light and he would be ready for his drinkings by now. George was what Rob thought of as a good ‘un. Sometimes he would go and fetch beasts in for George before school, or go round and watch when he knew he’d be feeding up the horses. You could always rely on him to give you a bit of snap and show you a thing or two, so long as you listened and didn’t answer back. You’d get a clip round the ear if you did that, or the toe of his boot. Not that Rob was ever cheeky. Not to George. He was like an eager spaniel as he watched George work, waiting for the moment when he would be allowed to help, taking it all in. George didn’t mind. He had a bit of patience, George, he wasn’t rough like some of the men out in the fields. Some of them only knew how to answer with their fists and they would knock a young lad to the ground if he made a mistake, rather than show him how to do something. There weren’t many like that, mind you, but if you met one you didn’t forget. Rob could see George now, working about half way down the field. He was ploughing and he was making a good job. Rob and his mates used to watch from the end of the schoolyard when there was ploughing going on, looking forward to the day when they would be working the same fields. Rob could usually find something to say about it. He knew a good job when he saw it. They all did. He made his way eagerly across the field now, jumping the half frozen furrows which divided the newly ploughed land and breaking the icy puddles between them as he went. George had seen him coming. He stopped his team and straightened his back, feeling for the lump of dry bread in his pocket.
“Now lad. Tha should be in school tha knows.”
Rob did know and he didn’t care.
“Nay. I’m fed up wi’ that game. Waste o’ time.”
George just grinned and threw a piece of the bread across to him. Rob grabbed it and chewed hungrily as he kicked at a furrow.
“Ground a bit hard for this lark in’t it?”
“Just a bit. It’s thawing nicely mind.”
Bess and Bonnie, the two black shire horses who were George’s team were standing in their harness quietly chewing on their bits, breathing soft warm smoke and steaming gently in the cold air. Rob walked round, talking soft nonsense to them under his breath as he admired the sheen of their coats, and gave the harness a shake. Sometimes you might have to watch yourself when you were doing that, but not with these two. They were gentle giants who weighed a ton apiece, but they used their strength sparingly and they were well used to Rob. He had been watching them roll in the stack yard like huge puppy dogs and pinching linseed cake from the farm store shed for them since he was a small boy. Not that he would ever dare tell his dad. He never gave it to them without George’s say so either. They weren’t his horses after all and feeding was a serious business. He went up and slipped his fingers under Bonnie’s bottom lip, stroking the soft skin and the delicate hairs and enjoying the feel of her warm breath over his hand as it smoked its way out into the cold air. She waved her lips gently across his palm, searching for crumbs.
“Can I give her this?” he said, looking at George and holding up the last corner of bread.
George shook his head.
“Go on then.”
Rob grinned as Bonnie took the sliver of bread eagerly.
“You’ll not get fat on that, lass. They’re in good fettle George.”
George slapped his horse’s rump proudly.
“Aye. They are that. Sleek as you like.”
Rob looked at George eagerly, asking the same question with his eyes that he always did. George grinned and shook his head.
“Reet then. Gerron, and we’ll see how tha makes out.”
Rob picked up the plough shafts eagerly and coaxed the horses round into position to start the next furrow. George watched him tolerantly. Bess and Bonnie were easy enough to handle, not like some, and he could trust them to know their job. Rob would be right enough with them. They would pull their weight, and neither of them were that likely to kick out.
“Gee up then.”
Rob clicked the plough strings and began to make his way down the first furrow, trusting the horses to do their job and trying to watch and control his plough, desperate to keep his furrow as straight as the final one that George had done, so he wouldn’t be shown up. He wanted to show George what he could do. He wanted him to think that he was a man. George had the kind of hard muscled arms that Rob wished he had and he had seen him swing a hundredweight sack of grain up onto his back as if it weighed nothing at all. His hero watched him critically.
“You’re not making a bad job of that.”
Rob’s back straightened with pleasure as he heard the praise, and he took his mind off the job for a few seconds. As the horses turned at the end of the field he forgot to turn the plough with them and the plough handles slapped him at the back of the knees and knocked him into the ditch at the end of the field. As he got up, red faced and gasping for breath, George shouted across the field through his laughter, his voice carrying through the cold clear air.
“Frame thissen you daft bugger. You want to sidle your plough round yoursen- don’t let your ‘osses pull it round. You’re about as much use as a man made of band.”
Rob pulled the plough handles round and gave the horses the order to walk on. He was angry with himself. It wasn’t the first time he’d had hold of a plough and he should know better.