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A Whisper

on the


Copyright 2018 Leigh Barker

Published by Leigh Barker at Smashwords

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ISBN: 9781370592654

A Whisper

on the


Bitesize Coffee Break Stories


Leigh Barker



The Mark of Cain

Coming Forth


The Milan

About the Author

Free Library

Other Books by Leigh Barker


Eleanor stood at the sink and looked out at the wind swirling the dry frost and withered leaves in urgent eddies at the foot of the steps leading to the small overgrown garden.

She frowned for a moment as she tried to place the day. It was Tuesday again. Strange how often it was Tuesday these days, but she supposed it was because she loved Sunday, so it stayed away.

She lifted the plastic milk bottle and sighed. Enough for a cup of tea or a bowl of Weetabix. She would like tea, but looked down at Rosie’s expectant face staring up at her. Rosie loved her Weetabix, both because it was her breakfast and because it meant she was still wanted. She was fourteen and that was old for a cocker spaniel. She was failing and knew instinctively that soon she would be left behind by her pack to fend for herself. It was the way.

“I’ll put the fire on for an hour when we get back,” Eleanor said, and patted Rosie’s head.

How long had they been together? She reached for the box of cereal and put it on the countertop. Eight years. She stopped and shook her head. Eight years since she’d found the poor bedraggled thing all skin and bone and shivering at her door. She’d been abandoned when her puppy-bearing days were over, thrown out like a holed sock. It had taken a long time for Rosie to trust her, but now they were friends. Everyone needs a friend.

She took out the last two Weetabix, put one in her bowl and one in an identical bowl for Rosie, and shared the last inch of milk between them.

“We’ll have the fire and the heating on all the time when Steven comes home.”

She put one of the bowls on the floor and pointed at it so Rosie would know it was for her, then sat on the stool at the counter and mixed her cereal with the milk. She ate slowly, chewing each mouthful thirty-two times, as her mother had insisted, and looked out of the window at the dark clouds rolling over each other.

It was her fault. Steven would’ve been back by now if she’d been able to raise enough money for his business plans. But because she hadn’t, it was taking a lot longer for him to make his way in the city. He hadn’t met Rosie, she’d arrived a long time after he’d set off to make his fortune. So he would be rich and free to ask for her hand.

She washed the bowls and placed them in the plastic drainer, carefully this time because she didn’t want to lose another to one of her silly old-woman moments.

Her purse was where she’d left it, since there was no one to move anything, and she clicked it open, looked in and moved the coins with her finger. “Enough for milk, Rosie. For a cup of tea.” But not enough for lunch or dinner.

She pulled herself together. “Fusspot. They’ll sort themselves out. I’m too fat anyway.”

But she knew from the way her worn dress hung from her shoulders that being fat was something she no longer had to fret about. She straightened the dress and made sure the yellow flowers lined up as the designer intended.

“We’ll go and see Mother; then we’ll go to the shops.” She stroked the dog’s head as it sat at her feet. “You like visiting Mother, don’t you, girl?”

Four feet pattered behind her on the floorboards in the hall as she stood in front of the mirrored wardrobe and chose the coat she would wear. It was an easy choice, as there were only two hanging from the rail: one for summer and one for winter. She folded the dark blue woollen coat and draped it over the upright chair next to the wardrobe and looked for her gloves. Though no one ever moved anything, things often moved themselves. She could find only one glove. She searched the four drawers, each one sticking and jamming no matter how carefully she pushed it closed.

She stood up slowly and held out her one white lace glove. She always wore her lace gloves when she visited her mother. It was expected. She would have to put one hand in her pocket. Her mother would say it was slovenly, that coats should be fastened, gloves should be worn, and arms should be at her sides. Perhaps she wouldn’t notice.

Rosie was sitting by the door, ready to go. She wouldn’t acknowledge any other dog if they saw one, even though she was lonely too. They would share their loneliness, and perhaps it would be less.

“Such silliness, pull yourself together.” She shook herself and put on her coat, fastened it and looked at herself in the mirror.

She saw an old woman and it surprised her. She never really thought of herself as old, not until she saw that thin frail person looking back at her every morning. She looked away quickly.

They stopped at the gate that wouldn’t close, and she looked both ways along the narrow street, expecting and hoping to see Steven striding towards her in that confident way of his, all black hair, flashing eyes and big smile, but the street was deserted. Today.

Rosie was much slower this morning, her head hanging and her breath laboured and harsh. It would be the cold air.

Eleanor took the shortcut across the park, between the raised stone flowerbeds now strewn with bottles and empty beer cans. She stood for a minute and looked at the tired park that had once been alive with children’s laughter, but was now shabby and broken with rubbish swirling against any fence that would have it.

They waited a long time for the road to be clear enough for them to cross without hurry and the risk of falling, then stopped at the arched iron gate that barred the way into the churchyard. She pushed it with her gloved hand and felt the bite of the cold metal through the thin lace. It opened with a long creaking cry, and she closed her eyes for a moment in thanks. She was afraid that one day it wouldn’t give. She hadn’t thought what she would do if it failed; she couldn’t think beyond that moment.

The churchyard was lovingly cared for, though she had never seen its carer and wondered if it was simply the work of the Lord, but it seemed a little too…trivial for Him.

She looked at each of the headstones as she passed. She knew them all, but it gave Rosie time to keep up. It seemed much colder today, and walking was hard. She was chilled to the bone by the time she stopped at a headstone that had a vase of yellow daffodils in front of it. They were plastic, but that was acceptable in winter. At least they were bright when most of the other headstones had only frozen stalks.

“Hello, Mother,” she said softly, and moved her gloveless hand nervously in her pocket.

She brushed dried leaves from the base of the headstone and touched the engraved name. Marjorie Rigby. She used to know how long it had been, but she’d forgotten, and her brain was too cold to calculate it from the date on the stone. It didn’t matter, she was with God, and in Heaven time has no meaning.

“No, Steven hasn’t come back yet.” She forced a fleeting smile. “Yes, I know that’s what you think, but he told me he’d come back for me, and he will.”

She arranged the plastic flowers against the icy wind. “You would say that, wouldn’t you, Mother? You always said I would never meet a man. None would look at me twice. But you were wrong.” She shook her head. “But let’s not go over that again.” She put her hand on the top of the stone. “It’s my birthday tomorrow. But you know that.”

A sudden spiteful wind shook her coat and she flinched. “He will come back.” Her lips tightened. “You shouldn’t say that, Mother, and it won’t alter what will be. You don’t want to know, but it’s because of you that he has been away so long.”

She stepped back to give herself some distance from her mother and read the inscription on the headstone. It said she was loved. A voice whispered in her mind and she shushed it. It also said she was greatly missed by her daughter. And by her son.

But that wasn’t true. She’d abandoned her son years before she was married, before Eleanor. Who had paid the price for her guilt every day. And then Steven had suffered because of it. She relived the shock on his face when they were told Marjorie had left the house to a son Eleanor had never seen and who didn’t know she existed.

She shouldn’t be angry with her. She’d done what she thought was best, as she always had. But Steven had left for the city the next day, angry and disappointed that he wouldn’t have the money he needed, but certain he would be successful anyway. And then he’d come back for her.

The wind moaned around the headstones, and a single snowflake flicked past. She said a prayer for her mother, and for Steven, turned and walked slowly along the gravel path with Rosie at her heel.

Father Mackenzie moved out of the shadows of the church doorway and watched her walking slowly along the gravel path, her head bent against the icy wind. A sense of guilt and shame washed over him. He was a priest and it was his duty to reach out to lost people, to save them. But some no one can save. He stepped back into his church and busied himself with the Lord’s work. But the nagging sorrow remained, holding his day in its gnarled fingers.

With the door closed against the winter, she turned on the fire as promised, and Rosie curled up in front of it. As Eleanor leaned back into the high-backed chair, she realised she’d forgotten the milk. She sighed a long tired sigh. No tea today.

Rosie was very quiet, not even the sound of her gentle snoring to show she was warm and happy.

The door rattled, and for a moment Eleanor opened her eyes, expecting to see Steven home at last. But it was just the postman, and she lay back against the chair and closed her eyes again.

For the last time.

The Mark of Cain

Evan looked up and saw the Salt House off their starboard bow, then returned to hauling the last of the oysters into the boat. That he could see the coast so clearly meant they were returning early, but it would be a short visit.

The wind hummed in the rigging as he and the skipper poured the last buckets of oysters into the wagon and set it rolling up the beach for market.

“Two hours, Evan,” the skipper said, as he trudged through the shingle. “Don’t be late.”

“Have I ever been late for anything, Sam?”

The skipper chuckled. “First time for everything.”

“Six o’clock,” Evan said, waving. “Unless I fall asleep in front of the fire.”

He walked quickly up the hill through the village and dropped his boots at the door of a small cottage. “It’s just me, Mom,” he called.

She was usually in the kitchen, but it was deserted. He called her again, anxiously.

“I’m in here, Evan,” she said. “And I’ve got a lovely surprise.”

“I like surprises,” he said and pushed open the sitting room door. And stopped.

Tom was standing with his back to the log fire as if he’d never left.

“I’m the surprise,” he said. “Back for a visit.”

Evan forced a smile for his mother’s sake. “Five years without a word and now you just turn up. Do you want something?”

“Do I have to want something to visit my mother and brother and see how they fare?”

“Your sudden concern is touching, but after years without a word, it makes me wonder.”

“That was always your trouble, you think too much.” Tom’s smile had been replaced by a familiar scowl. He saw his mother’s worried look and put the smile back. “Let’s not bicker. How are you? What are you doing?”

Evan went along with it. “I’m well and working for Sam Evans.”

“Sam? Dredging oysters?”

Evan saw the sour expression skip across his face.

“It’s what honest people do on the Gower.”

“But you always wanted to be a proper sailor. Watching the ships and saying that was your future. You gave that up to work on an oyster boat?”

Evan looked at his mother sitting in the big old chair, her eyes shining with happiness he hadn’t seen in years. “I decided to stay.” He was going to add one of us had to, but didn’t. Tom heard it anyway.

“It was a good thing.”

Evan felt a kick of anger. “Why is staying here while you gallivant around Swansea a good thing?”

“I’m not in Swansea any more. I’ve been promoted to London.” He puffed out his chest.

“One city’s like another.”

“Spoken by somebody who’s never seen London.” Tom stepped closer. “But no matter. It was a good thing it was me went away and not you.”

“Why’s that?”

“If you’d run off to join the navy, then you’d be dead.”

“How do you get to that?”

“You haven’t heard?” Tom raised a hand. “No, of course not. Not down here. There was a big naval battle.”

Evan felt his heart quicken. “Where? Who won?”

“We won. But Lord Nelson was killed.”

“Lord Nelson is dead?”

“Three months ago. Along with a few hundred fools who manned his ships.”

“If he won, then those fools saved us from speaking French.”

Tom shrugged. “Somebody had to do it.”


“Meaning neither of us are in the navy, so Mother has her two sons still alive.”

“One who’s been missing for five years.”

“I’ve been busy.”

“Doing what?”

Tom looked away quickly, then turned to his mother. “Is it time to eat?”

She got up slowly and walked unsteadily to the kitchen door. “We have fish. Will that be right for you?”

“You know I hate fish,” Tom said, then forced a smile again. “But that’s London fish. I remember the fish here is good.”

“What do you really want?” Evan said after the door closed. “And don’t say you’re visiting. I know you too well.”

“You were just a kid when I left.”

“Well, that kid grew up. I had to. With Dad gone—”

“And that’s why I got out of here. The sea kills everybody sooner or later.”

“With Dad gone,” Evan continued, “one of us had to find a way to put food on the table.”

“Oyster dredging?” Tom shook his head. “That’s no way to live.”

“It’s my way. Now.”

“It’ll kill you just like all the others.”

Evan was silent for a moment. “Then you’ll have to come home to look after Mom, won’t you?”

“In London there’s good food, music. And women.” He shook his head. “And you think I’d give that up to come back to this place?”

“Then I’d better not die. Like the fools.” Evan turned and headed for the door.

“Where are you going? What about your fish?”

Evan ignored him, went out and closed the door quietly.

Sam was already on the beach and raised the lantern so Evan could see him.

“Didn’t fall asleep, then?” Sam said as Evan waded out and climbed aboard.

“Tom’s back.”

“That’ll be why you’re all bristling and angry. Nothing changed, then?”

“No, he’s just the same as he was before. Selfish. Arrogant. Full of his own importance. He’s in London now, he says. Big promotion. You ask me—”

“Are we going with the lads or staying here to rant?”

Evan looked out to sea at the three boats with their sails already billowing in the stiff wind. “Might as well go with them.”

Tom pulled his coat tight and crouched behind the rocks. “You see them?” he shouted against the roaring wind.

“Aye, coming in just as you said.” The speaker pointed west. “Should I fetch the others?”

“No, let’s see where they come ashore.” Tom stood again and stepped closer to the cliff edge, where he could see the four boats approaching the point. They looked like they were heading for the beach, so his job was going to be easy. Then he saw a half dozen boats rowing out to meet them.

The cold wind streamed his eyes and he wiped his sleeve across his face as he watched the boats come around into Overton Mere, where burly men were waiting to offload the brandy kegs and carry them up the rocks beyond the point, one under each arm as if they weighed nothing.

He bent and patted the man on his shoulder. “Fetch them.”

He made his way down from the cliffs and headed for the inn. Even on horseback, it was going to take Roberts the rest of the night to reach the city and return with the revenue men. So it would be morning when they’d visit Culver Hole and see what surprises it might have. And he knew it would be more than pigeons.

He still had his first glass of ale in front of him when Evan and the other late night sailors arrived, noisy and excited by their adventure. He got up from his corner table and joined them at the bar. Uninvited.

One by one they made their excuses and either left the inn or joined friends. Away from the man who knew everything about everything.

The pigeon brought word of the revenue men riding towards the coast shortly after dawn. Nobody made a fuss. They’d seen this many times.

The villagers watched the four customs men ride down past the church to the shore, where they dismounted and made their way carefully over the rocky mere past the Salt House and around the point. It was clear they knew where they were going.

Tom was sitting on the low wall outside his mother’s cottage as the revenue men returned and rode slowly up the hill. They stopped and the man he’d sent to Swansea spoke without looking at him.

“There’s nothing there.”

Tom pointed up the hill as if giving directions. “How can there be nothing? We saw the kegs being taken to the hole.”

“Nothing but pigeon shit,” the man said, and rode up the hill after the thwarted customs men.

Tom fought the temptation to go and check for himself and hung around the village until his brother returned at dusk.

They sat together in silence at the big scrubbed wood table and ate the sea bass their mother had prepared.

“Something bothering you?” Evan said.

“Nothing much. I’ve been reliving old times today.”

“That was nice for you. I’ve been working.”

“Then you’ll need an ale. I’m buying.”

Evan finished his dinner slowly, collected the plates and took them to the kitchen to wash them.

Tom sat at the table, brooding. This would look bad for him. They would think him incompetent or, worse, in league with the smugglers. Either way, his promotion was gone.

The brothers didn’t speak as they walked down the steep hill to the inn and took their beer to a table by the window.

“You remember those stories we heard as children about the smugglers?” Tom said at last.

Evan shrugged.

“I walked up to the Salt House today and was thinking.”

Evan was silent.

“They say John Lucas had a tunnel dug under the point between the Salt House and Culver Hole. You remember that?”

“Of course, everybody has heard those daft stories.”

“So you don’t believe them?” Tom said, lifting his glass and putting it down again untouched.

“Lots of people have searched for a tunnel, both at the house and in the hole. Never found anything except rock.”

Tom nodded slowly without taking his eyes off him. “No tunnel?”

“No tunnel.” Evan watched him steadily for several seconds. “Why the sudden interest in tunnels and smugglers?”

Tom sat up and forced a smile. “The revenue men got me thinking, I suppose. Forget it.”

Evan waved a hand. “Forgotten.” He put down his glass and pushed it closer to Tom. “You’re buying, remember?”

Tom drained his beer, crossed to the bar and returned a few minutes later with a refill for Evan.

“You haven’t got one.”

Tom remained standing. “I thought I’d go back home for a minute just to make sure Mom’s not struggling.”

“Struggling? With what?”

Tom turned to go. “Clearing up and things. She’s not a young woman.”

“You just noticed?” Evan said, and watched his brother leave. Something was wrong.

He took a sip of his beer and waited for a few minutes, then got up and followed.

He saw the flickering lamplight on the church window and stepped through the gate and into the shadow of the high stone wall surrounding the churchyard.

There was no sign of Tom at first, but then he saw him standing on a fallen gravestone and looking through the high window. He stepped down and moved silently back towards the gate.

“Are you thinking of offering a prayer for your sins?” Evan said, and stepped out onto the path.

Tom jumped guiltily. “I was just seeing who was in the church. You never know these days.”

“And who was?”

Tom was silent for several seconds. “You know who.”

“I do. Sam, Edmund and a few strong boys.” He gave Tom a moment to respond, but got nothing. “Strong arms to move the kegs into the altar and out of sight.” He stepped closer to his brother. “But it’s too late for that now, isn’t it?”

“I don’t understand what y—”

“There’s nobody here but us, so you can stop pretending. This new job you have in the city. It’s with the revenue, isn’t it?”

Tom took a little step back and looked around quickly.

“And now what?” Ewan said. “Are you going to inform on them? On your friends?”

“They’re not my friends, never were.”

“That was your fault.” Evan put his hand on his brother’s arm. “If you do this, if you inform on them, they will be thrown in prison for years.”

Tom shrugged. “It’s the law.”

“What do you think will happen to their families?”

“They should’ve thought of that.”

“You’re an arrogant fool, Tom.” Evan let go of his arm. “You always were. And to feed your arrogance you’re going to put a dozen men in prison and let their children starve.”

Tom pushed past him. “I have no choice. I am an officer of the court. It is my duty.”

Evan had to stop him. He snatched up a small stone cross and hit him once. He’d intended to knock him out. To stop him long enough for the men to dispose of the evidence. But long years on the heavy boats had given him strength that belied his slight stature.

Tom was dead; he knew it the moment he hit him. He dropped the cross and knelt beside his brother. “You would have sent all these families to hell,” he said quietly.

He had to do something.

He would take his brother’s body out past the point and let the sea wash it onto the rocks; it would be an accident. But the weight of the grief would kill his mother.

He looked around desperately, saw a freshly dug grave near the wall and dragged his brother to it and lowered him in. He covered his body with just enough soil to ensure it wouldn’t be discovered when the grave’s true occupant was laid to rest.

The moon lit the grave and the realization of what he’d done settled on him like the weight of the ocean. He was transfixed by the blackness of the grave edged in ghostly blue moonlight.

Tom should be guided to heaven. The Lord’s Prayer would ease his way, but he couldn’t think and his ears roared with pain and guilt.

From nowhere old words filled his mind.

And now you are cursed from the ground, which has opened its mouth to receive your brother’s blood from your hand.

He turned to get away, saw the cross on the path and snatched it up and pushed it into the earth in front of an old headstone. And ran.

Many years would pass before the cross was discovered. Worn and lost in time it was placed beside the church entrance as a casual curiosity. Where it would keep its terrible secret for eternity.

The mark of Cain.

Coming Forth

Teens and Toilets

It was cold, but it always was in the tin box they called a retail unit. Except in the summer, then it was sweltering. It being autumn, it was neither, so that was that theory shot down.

Phil Prosser was sitting at a plastic table, reading the paper. Which was tough with the old storeman mumbling and sniffing in his wire cage in the corner. “Wilf,” he said, without looking up. No response. “Hey, aging store person.”

“What?” Wilf said, putting his finger on the list he was checking against the TVs and electronics stacked on the metal shelves.

“You’re making noise. I’m reading.”

“Don’t tell everybody, they’ll think you’re bragging.” Wilf went back to his list and carried on mumbling.

Steve let his chair drop back onto four legs, leaned on the table and chuckled.

Phil glanced over the top of his paper. “Go and do things.”

“What things?”

“You’re the apprentice. Do apprentice things.”

Steve leaned his chair back onto two legs again.

Doc and the Swede were sitting at a table near the stained counter that was fondly known as the kitchen. They were eating a sausage sandwich. One each, as that seemed appropriate.

The door from the sales counter opened and they looked up casually. Val smiled at them and ushered her teenage daughter into the workshop, with Maureen the bookkeeper right behind them. In case she missed anything.

“Mornin’,” Phil said, putting down his newspaper. “That’s not your Brittany, is it, Val?”

“It is,” Val said. “Grown a bit, hasn’t she?”

“Certainly has. Mornin’, Brittany.”

She threw him a quick smile in case he was somebody, and ignored Steve, who was looking her over appreciatively.

Phil leaned across the table. “You know, Steve, these days they lock you up for even thinking about sex with a minor.”

Steve gave him a puzzled look. “That right? I didn’t know that.” He frowned with the effort of thinking. “That’s a bit hard on the Welsh, isn’t it?”

Phil closed his eyes for a moment, then returned to his paper in the hope of finding sanity.

“She’s off school today, so I had to bring her in,” Val said.

“No, you didn’t,” Brittany said. “I could’ve stayed at home.”

“Yes, dear. Like last time.”

“I explained about that.”

Michael Finley came out of his office, holding a clipboard, and stood next to the service counter, below the big sign that said Forth TV Engineering – the home of bright sparks. That was Mr. Forth’s idea. He thought it was clever. Nobody argued.

“Okay, troops, gather round.”

Nobody moved.

“Err… can I have your attention, lads?”

Doc wiped his hands on his blue overalls. “You think Mickey Finn wants something?”

Phil put down his paper. “Could be, unless he’s just lonely.” He got up slowly and strolled over to lean on the counter.

The rest of the lads followed in their own time and the boss unclipped the papers from his board and handed them out.

“Where you going today, then, Swede?” Phil said.

“Argyle Street, with you. Becoming a home from home, this one.”

“Dog eat the cable again?”

Brittany walked slowly around the group. “You don’t look Swedish. Swedish people have blond hair. Are you Swedish?”

The Swede shook his head. “Nah.”

“Then why they call you the Swede?”

“They didn’t.” He pointed at Phil. “Not until that dozy bugger started it.”

“He dyes his hair,” Phil said, turning to Brittany.

Brittany leaned to her left for a better look. “Do you? Why do you do that, then? Blond hair is much better than that.” She pointed at the Swede’s muddy brown hair.

“I don’t dye my hair. Don’t listen to that daft sod. He’ll be telling you I’m a gay alien next.”

Brittany leaned on the counter. “Why would aliens be gay?”

The Swede shrugged. “How would I know? Maybe alien women are really ugly.”

Brittany continued to lean on the counter, but slid away a little and looked hard at Phil. “He’s not Swedish.”

“He’s a mole,” Phil said.

“He’s too big.”

“No,” Doc said, “he means he’s an undercover agent for the invasion.”

“Who by?”

“The Swedes,” Phil said.

“Why would they invade us? Sweden is much nicer.”

“Have you ever been there?” Phil said.

“No,” Brittany said, squinting at him. “Have you?”

“Been to Ikea. Does that count?”

“So why is Sweden invading Britain, then?” Brittany said, frowning now.

“Fed up with all that blondness. They hunger for a bit of rough,” Phil said.

“Coming to the right place, then,” Maureen said, her face screwed up like she’d sucked a lemon.

“How do you know they’re going to invade?” Brittany said.

“Okay, if they weren’t going to invade, why’d they send a spy?” He pointed at the Swede. “It’s obvious.”

Brittany looked at the Swede again. “He’s not Swedish.”

“That’s what I keep saying,” the Swede said, and shook his head.

“They’re not going to send spies who are all blond and wearing lederhosen, are they?” Phil said.

“That’s the Germans,” Doc said, looking up from his job list.

“Bloody hell, are they coming as well?” Steve said, and put down the two toolboxes he was holding, ready for the off.

“Nah,” Phil said. “They tried it once and didn’t like the weather.”

“Gentlemen. And ladies and…” Mickey looked Brittany over as if he’d only just noticed her. “Who is this child?”

“I’m not a child,” Brittany said, standing up from the counter. “I’m fourteen.”

“That’s my Brittany,” Val said.

“Come on then, lads,” Mickey said, forgetting about her, “time’s, err… get your skates on.”

“Wilco, Mickey,” Phil said. “Steve, get the skates out.”

Steve frowned. “Haven’t got skates. Got a skateboard.”

“Fall off it and hit your head a lot, do you?”

Jessie and Mrs. T both looked up from frying stuff as Phil and Steve banged in through the door of the greasy spoon café. An old tramp sitting by the window with his free cup of tea eyed them for a second, then looked down at the huge dog sitting by his leg.

“What will it be this mornin’, Phil?” Mrs. T said.

Phil checked out the menu board.

“Shouldn’t we be over at Lansdowne Road?” Steve said. “She’s waiting in for us. Her telly on the blink.”

“Okay, say we do… y’know, go straight there. And then I haven’t had my breakfast… and then I get all dizzy from lack of food… and then I fall off the ladder.”

Steve frowned. “But you never go up the ladder. You say that’s my job. Come to think of it, you never—”

“I was speaking meteorologically, wasn’t I?” He checked the menu board again. “I’ll have a cup of tea and a bacon toast, please, Mrs. T.”

“You want bacon with that?”

“Okay, yeah. You talked me into it.”

“What about your young friend?”

Steve sighed once and looked up at the board. “You got any bacon?”

“Hang on, dear.” She turned to Jessie, who was frying bacon. “We got any bacon, Jessie?”

“What’s that? No, I’m not baking,” Jessie said. “Cakes are this afternoon. It’s just bacon this morning.”

“I’ll have a sausage sandwich and a mug of tea,” Steve said.

The door rattled open again to let in a lady of a certain age, who was as wide as she was tall.

“You mind if I push in front?” she said. “I’ve got to catch the bus.”

“No, Maud, you go ahead,” Phil said, waving her towards the counter and leaning back to make room.

“I’ll have the full breakfast, Mrs. T. Oh, can I have another egg instead of the fried bread? It gives me terrible wind.”

“My George used to get wind something terrible. He doesn’t now though.”

“Oh, how’d they cure it, then, Mrs. T?”

“What? Oh, he died.”

Maud took the rolled-up paper out of Steve’s overalls pocket. “Don’t mind do you, dear? It’s me horoscope, you see. Don’t do nothing without me horoscope.” She unrolled the newspaper and spread it on the table Phil was now sitting at.

“How’s your horror scope, then, Maud?”

“What?” Maud looked up from the paper, then caught up. “Oh, it says I’m going to get laid—” She patted her huge chest.

Steve’s jaw was hanging open and his eyes had a wild look of terror.

“Oh, ’scuse me.” She burped loudly. “That’s better. Me horoscope says I’m going to get laid off.”

“Oh, that’s bad news,” Phil said.

“Not really, I haven’t got a job.” She rolled up the newspaper and handed it back to Steve before stepping back to the counter and giving Mrs. T some money. She closed the door behind her on her way out.

“She forgot her breakfast,” Steve said.

“No, she didn’t,” Mrs. T said. “She’s got to catch a bus. Didn’t you hear her?”

The door had barely closed when Doc came in.

“Where’s the Swede?” Phil said.

“Oh, he’s over at Argyle Street, doin’ that job. No point us both turning up and blocking all the parkin’, is there?” He looked around. “Hey, Joe Snow the Rain Dodger’s in.” He crossed to Joe’s table. “Hiya, Joe. How’s the beggin’ today?”

“Bugger off.”

“Hey, I like dogs. Your dog don’t bite, does he?”

Joe looked up slowly from his tea. “No, he bloody doesn’t.”

Doc bent down to pet the dog and jumped back quickly as it tried to bite his hand off. “Bloody hell! I thought you said your dog doesn’t bite.”

Joe looked down at the dog then back at Doc. “That’s Bill’s dog.”

Doc backed off and sat at Phil’s table, then looked around slowly. “Our Martin’s goin’ into the window cleanin’ business.”

“That’ll be nice. You’ll miss him at home.”

“No, I bloody won’t. Lazy little sod.” He looked around again. Nobody had moved. “He needs some ladders though. D’ya know where I might get some, cheap?”

Phil shook his head. “Don’t really, not off the top of my head. I know where there’s a bucket though.”

“Oh, right,” Doc said, “he’ll need one of them… but you sure about the ladders? The little shit will be spendin’ our pensions.”

“Right, I can see you’re in a fix, and… seeing as how there’s a full set of ladders on my van… I think I can help you out.”

“Cool,” Doc said, brightening. “But won’t they notice?”

“Notice what?”

“That your ladders have gone.”

“Jesus, has somebody nicked the ladders?” Phil rapped the table in front of his apprentice. “C’mon, Steve, some toerag has swiped the ladders. Mickey Finn’ll do his nut.”

Mickey Finn leaned his elbows on the service counter and put his head in his hands. “Mr. Forth’ll go ballistic. That’s the third lot of ladders we’ve lost this year. What are people doing with them?”

“Climbing them?” Phil said, and shrugged.

“Well, there’s no more. We’re waiting for a delivery.” Mickey put his head back in his hands. “God knows what I’m going to tell Mr. Forth.”

“You could tell him we’re taking steps…”

Phil headed for the door.

“Where you going?” Mickey said.

“Haven’t got no ladders. Can’t work, then. Going to the pub.” He glanced back. “Still get paid though, right?”


“Ta, Mickey. C’mon, apprentice, pub lessons to be learnt.”


Ben heard the sound of horses and turned to look back up the hill. A coach pulled by a team of two fine black stallions was approaching fast and taking up most of the road. For a moment he thought about standing his ground and forcing the driver to stop, but only for a moment. One look at the grizzled old man driving the team told him he’d probably just roll right over him. He turned to step off the road, but the coach clipped him and threw him into the muddy ditch and thundered on past.

He started to get up and glared after the coach. If he sprinted, he could catch it at the bend and…what? Jump on it? One whisper from death in a day was enough. He saw the girl leaning out of the coach and forgot all about his anger.

The coach careered round the sharp bend in front of the church, and he saw her clearly framed in the window and let his breath out in a low whistle. She was the most breathtaking girl he’d ever seen, and he’d been to the city so knew what was out there. He could’ve walked from one end of Swansea to the other for a year and not seen anyone like her. She was staring back at him in alarm, her mouth forming a perfect O and her pale blonde hair flowing like wind-blown mist.

Then she was gone.

Pete climbed down from the low wall where he’d jumped as soon as he’d heard the coach.

“You’ll get to know that sound,” he said, looking at the bend in the road.

“What sound?” Ben said, without really caring.

“The coach. Gareth drives it like that all the time. You get out of the way or you get…” He shrugged and pointed at Ben sitting in the mud.

“Who was that?” Ben asked, getting up and trying to brush the mud off his breeches.

“I told you, it’s Gareth. He’s a bit mad.”

“No, not him. The girl.”

Pete blinked twice then shook his head. “Put her from your mind. There goes nothing but trouble.”

Ben turned and glared at him.

“That,” Pete said, pointing down the hill. “That is Katherine Lucas.” He stopped, as if that ought to be enough, but clearly it wasn’t. “That’s the daughter of John Lucas.” Still nothing. “The pirate.”

Ben frowned at him, then looked again at the empty road. “Her father’s a pirate?”


“Not now? That’s good.” Ben started walking down the hill towards the shore.

“Where you going?” Pete pointed up the road. “We were going to the tavern!”

Ben waved as he strode quickly away.

Finding the home of John Lucas wasn’t difficult; the first person he asked pointed out Salte House on the rocks below Port Eynon Point. He stopped at the dunes and looked across the beach. The house was a stone-built fortress right on the rugged foreshore, with stout walls all around it and stretching up to the cliffs. It would’ve taken a small army to breach those walls, and be impenetrable for the king’s preventatives in search of smuggled contraband.

Ben saw the black coach approaching the house, much more slowly now it was on the narrow, uneven drive. And he could see the girl silhouetted in the coach window.

He started to run. He hadn’t intended to, it just happened all on its own. Over the dunes and across the narrow strip of stony beach, then over the sharp rocks up to the house. He jumped up onto the crushed stone drive and leant over to catch his breath.

“You’re the madman who tried to crash my coach.”

He looked up sharply and saw her. She was even more lovely now he could see all of her. “Yes. No. It wasn’t me!”

She frowned and her pale blue eyes wrinkled. “It was you. I saw you.” She looked him up and down with the hint of a smile. “You’re rather a mess.”

Ben looked down at his oversized breeches and frayed and badly stitched open jacket and tried to brush off some of the mud. “It was you.”

Her frown deepened. “It was me doing what?”

He looked up and saw her eyes and smiling face, small and elfin.

“Have you been drinking?” she asked, and stepped away from him.

“No, I have not.” He smiled and his hazel eyes flashed a hint of mischief. “Though I think I might be dreaming.”

She sighed heavily and turned to leave the imbecile to his dreaming.

“You’re Kate,” he said. With a hint of desperation.

She turned back. “No, I’m Katherine.” She tilted her head a little and looked at him steadily, seeing him for the first time. Her age, or perhaps a little older, nineteen perhaps, it was hard to tell under all that mud and sun browning. Not bad looking, for a peasant. Strong, square chin and long ink-black hair. A good face, with lots of laughter lines even at his young age. And his eyes…they…

She looked away, suddenly aware of how warm it had become, for December.

“Do you walk?” he asked.

She watched him for several seconds, then took two long steps to demonstrate her walking prowess.

“I mean,” he said, with a slow shake of his head and a wide infectious smile, “do you walk on the beach?”

She continued to watch him for a moment, suspicion playing around her eyes. “I walk sometimes.”

“Then I’ll walk sometimes too.” He stepped a tiny bit closer. “Would sometimes be tomorrow morning?”

She shrugged and he forced himself not to look at her body.

“Then I will walk on the beach at ten o’clock tomorrow.” He turned, stopped and looked back. “If you are walking too, then we’ll be walking on the beach together.”

She watched him go. And stayed on the road in the stiff easterly winter wind until she felt cool enough to go into the house.

He sat on the dunes and waited, checking his father’s old watch every few minutes. If she wasn’t there in another ten minutes…he sighed. He’d wait, he knew it. He’d waited almost—he checked his watch again—forty minutes. Was any girl worth it? No, not any girl. But Kate was. He smiled.

“This doesn’t look like walking.”

He turned slowly and looked up at her standing on the dunes behind him, her black cape billowing and her pale hair streaming in the wind. “It’s resting. The walking was exhausting.”

“You’ve been sitting there for an hour,” she said, with a slow shake of her head.

“You were watching me?”

She felt her cheeks redden and walked away, then stopped and looked back. “You said you would walk? Are you incapacitated by drink, again?”

“I wasn’t drunk!” He jumped to his feet and strode after her. She was an infuriating person.

“You will have nothing more to do with this peasant,” John Lucas said, and returned to his ledger, as if that was an end to it.

“I will see whomever I want to see!”

He looked up slowly, his face lined by his hard life on the seas. “This discussion is ended. Go to your room.”

“Have you been spying on me?” She stood with her hands on her hips, her eyes blazing with anger.

“It appears that someone needs to keep an eye on you.” He shook his head. “You’ve been seeing this peasant secretly, and you were seen kissing this…unemployed rogue.” He looked out of the window at the grey stone walls surrounding his fortress. “How do you imagine that looks?”

“It looks like what it is!” She was almost shouting, her body shaking with anger. “Love!” And there it was. Her mouth fell open and she took a little step back.

He looked back and raised his eyebrows. “Love, you say?” He clicked his teeth. “You are a child, what can you possibly know about love?”

“More than you, Father.” She turned and strode to the thick wooden door.

“You will go to your Aunt Jane’s.” He picked up his quill and moved his ledger closer.

She froze, then turned slowly. “You can’t do that.”

“London will do you good,” he said, and made a careful entry. “Rid you of this nonsense.” He looked up. “I have a ship leaving on Monday. You will be on it.” He looked away. The subject was closed.

She slammed the door behind her and stood in the dark hallway, tears filling her eyes. She could defy him. But of course she couldn’t. Four days. Four days and she would be exiled to London. And Ben would be three hundred miles away. He would forget about her.

“Kate’s being sent to London,” Ben said, staring into his beer.

Pete nodded. “You said.”

Ben looked up slowly and shook his head in disbelief. “Why would her father do that?”

“Because,” Pete said, “he’s John Lucas, and he owns this village, and every village between here and…” He shrugged.

“What makes him think he’s so powerful?” Ben took a long drink.

“Because he’s got a dozen hard men working for him. Because he runs the smuggling on the whole peninsula. Because he was a cut-throat pirate. Because he and Robert Skurlege and George Eynon own everything you can see in two days’ hard ride.” He shrugged.

“I’ll steal her away.”

“Ah!” Pete said, and put his mug down heavily. “You try that and you’ll be floating with the fishes.” He shook his head. “It’s over, Ben.” He shrugged again.

Ben drank more beer and looked around at the empty tavern. Then he had an idea. It just popped into his head and he looked up sharply. “I’ll go to London.”

Pete took a long breath and sighed. “And how are you going to pay for the trip? I don’t know about a big town like Carmarthen, but here your wages for crewing that wreck of a fishing boat wouldn’t get you to Swansea.”

Ben licked his lips and looked around again, as if the answer might be right there. And it was. “You!”

Pete waved his hands. “I don’t have that much money.”

“No. I mean you did have. You were rich in the summer. How did you do that? I’ll do it, and then I’ll go to London.”

Pete raised his hands. “No, Ben, that’s not going to work.”

“Why? What did you do that I can’t do if I want to do it to do…” He shook his head, but the beer was doing its job.

Pete closed his eyes and tried to think of a way out, but there wasn’t one. He could lie. He could tell his friend that his old uncle left him money. He could plead with him not to pursue it. But the boy was lost. Kate was everything to him. And anyway, he’d not lie to his friend. He took a long breath and told him.

Ben sat with his mouth open, staring at him with wide eyes, then he blinked slowly and blew out his breath. “Wrecking?”

Pete waved him silent. “For God’s sake! Keep your voice down.” He looked around the tavern. It was still empty, but at eleven in the morning on a workday, it would be.

Ben looked around too, then leaned over the scrubbed wood table. “Where? When?”

Pete took a long drink of beer to give him strength. “Here, on Rhossili.” He looked around again. “Spanish.”

Ben licked his lips. “That was you? The ship with tons of silver coin?” He shook his head in amazement.

“Yes, well, no. Well, not just me. It was…” He caught himself. “Local men who do this kind of thing.”

Ben nodded. “But seamen died.”

“Yes, they did. It’s the government’s fault.”

Ben looked puzzled. “How can it be the government’s fault?”

“They passed a law that says if there’s even one soul left on a ship, then it isn’t salvage.” He shrugged. “So there’s never anybody left.”

Ben thought about it, then shook his head. “No, I couldn’t do that. Not kill people for money.”

“Don’t have to now,” Pete said quietly. “Mr Lu—the local leader has men on the ships who make sure everybody gets into the longboats before the ship founders.”

Ben’s eyes lit up. “Can we do it? You and me?” He looked around. “Do you know men on ships?” He began to hope.

Pete brushed dust off his new coat. “I could do.”

“Then that’s what we’ll do.”

“Wait a minute!”

“No, no minutes to waste.” Ben stood up, then sat down quickly and pulled a face. He pushed his beer away and stood up slowly. “Come on!”

James Teale walked with them off Swansea dock as if he hadn’t a care in the world, and stopped outside a tavern that was overflowing with drunken sailors spending their wages and women helping them.

“I needs the money, you see, or I’d not countenance the deed.”

Ben had no idea what the man was saying, but got the feeling he was saying yes. “Then you’ll do it?” he asked.

“Aye, but not for the pittance I gets from Lucas. I wants a third of whatever you gets ashore.”

Ben leaned closer to Pete. “Will we get enough to pay for my trip?”

“What’s she carrying?” Pete asked.

“Rum, silk, and tea,” Teale said.

Pete nodded at Ben. “Even a third will get you to London and keep you fed for a year.”

“Nobody dies!” Ben said.

Teale shook his head. “I’m first mate on the King Charles. Nobody drowns with me running things.”

“Then we’ll do it,” Ben said, and tried to hide his shaking voice. His future now had a glimmer of hope in the dark despair.

Teale spat on his hand and put it out. “Shake on it.”

There was no going back now.

Sunday was the longest day Ben had ever known. He checked his old watch constantly, but it didn’t seem to be moving. He wanted to go to the tavern to pass the time, and to silence the voice in his head telling him to run away from the daft plan. Kate was going to London, forever. This was his chance, his only chance to follow her. The thought of being without her forever made his head spin. So he waited.

He sat at his tiny window in the tiny room he rented from the mad old woman, and waited. At ten o’clock Pete arrived. He waved him down to the dark yard and they walked slowly to the beach without speaking. There was nothing to say; they both knew what they were about to do. They bowed their heads against the icy wind that howled around them, and made their way along the rocks between the Lucas fortress and the rising tide.

It took them over an hour to collect enough driftwood to build the fire that was to be the beacon. Then they found a fissure in the razor-sharp rocks and huddled down to wait for midnight. And the King Charles.

Eventually Pete patted Ben on the shoulder and they climbed back up into the growing storm. Pete pulled a tight roll of hay from beneath his tunic, pushed it under the driftwood pile and handed a brown bottle to Ben. He pulled the cork and sniffed it.


“Not for drinking,” Pete shouted as he crouched and pulled out his flint and steel. “Pour it on the hay and I’ll light it, but be quick or it’ll be gone in this wind.”

A moment later blue flames jumped up around the wood, turned orange and red, and became a beacon. They stepped away from it and stared into the storm.

As the King Charles passed Oxwich Point and turned south, James Teale stepped out onto the pitching deck and studied the coast ahead. He saw the beacon, nodded and strode up to the helmsman and ordered him to stay close to the light to avoid the sandbanks. Then he waited.

The ship corkscrewed and ploughed into the wild sea and the helmsman fought to keep her bow pointing at the beacon. Teale held onto the rail above the main deck and waited. Five more minutes and he would give the order to abandon ship. Almost there. Wait. He turned and took a breath. The ship struck the rocks and he pitched backwards over the rail onto the deck below.

Driven by a huge wave, the ship rose high above the rocks like a stricken beast rearing from an awful death; then the sea drove it down to smash itself to pieces with a near-human scream of agony.

Ben saw the ship founder on the Point. Saw the sails still full as the masts crashed down onto her, smashing her decks and spilling her cargo into the raging sea.

He couldn’t breathe. The wind tore his breath away and the horror of what he was doing gripped his heart like Satan’s fist. Nobody would drown. That’s what the first mate had said. They’d be in the longboats.

Pete hit him on the shoulder and they ran and staggered to the pounding surf. Casks of brandy were already rolling ashore, some smashing to splinters on the rocks, but others rolling intact within reach.

They pulled them away from the waves before they could be reclaimed by the storm. And with every one saved, Ben’s hopes for a new life in London rose. He found he was grinning as he pulled a chest onto the shore. Perhaps this would keep him long enough to marry his love and build a new life. Or this cask. Or this roll of lace.

Just ten feet from the cliffs he saw two more casks floating together, as if waiting for him. This was the last of it. When this was done, they would be rich.

He slid off the shore and waded into the furious sea, fighting to keep his balance on the slippery rocks. Something popped up in front of the barrels and he reached forward and pulled it towards him. It was a roll of black fabric. He would salvage that first, throw it to the shore and then grab the casks.

The fabric spread in the surf, black and billowing. His heart slammed in his chest and he prayed it was just the lightning cracking above his head that made it look like a cape. He pulled the bundle closer and rolled it over. Kate’s blonde hair flowed into the white surf and her sightless eyes stared up at him, pleading to know why.

He cried out and jumped back, then scrambled forward to reach her again. A wave crashed into his chest and staggered him. He caught his balance and turned. But she was gone. He called her name and raised his hands to Heaven, but his cries were whipped away by the howling wind.

He desperately searched the waves. Then lowered his arms and walked forward into the boiling surf.

Legend has it that every year at the exact moment of the winter solstice, a tortured soul returns to Port Eynon Point to cry out to his love across the unforgiving sea. But though he is doomed to call her name for a thousand years, she will never answer.

The Milan

(A True Story)

At 5:31 p.m. on a cold January day in 1888, the 1,049-ton schooner-rigged steamship the Milan, bound for Bristol from Alexandria with a cargo of 500 tons of cottonseed, ran aground on the rocks of Slade’s Foot, Overton, in thick fog.

The official inquiry found that the captain, Frederick Lowery, was to blame for mistaking the northern point of Lundy Island for Hartland Point. They decided that his error of navigation did not justify finding him in default. They might have acted differently had they been privy to the report sealed tight by the Foreign Office to prevent an international incident.

The following narrative draws on that report, released almost a hundred and thirty years later, and long after the fall of the Ottoman Empire and the passing of the Earl of Cromer, Evelyn Baring. The two main players in the calamity.

5:15 p.m., January 13, 1888

Youssef Elmasry looked up from securing the hatch cover protecting the delicate cargo of cottonseed and tapped the arm of the man tying off the ropes. He started to speak, but the man raised his hand quickly and squinted angrily at him.

“English.” The man looked around urgently. “Again I must tell you? These people cannot know who we are.”

Youssef stood up straight and puffed out his chest. “I am proud I am Egyptian. We gave these infidels all that they h—”

“Shut up!” The man pulled him back down.

Youssef returned the hard look. “Are you so ashamed of our homeland, Omar?”

“No, of course I am not.” Omar looked around again. “But what would you have me do? Roll out my prayer mat and pray to the Prophet? Sallallahu Alayhi Wa Sallam.” He closed his eyes for a moment then gripped Youssef’s sleeve. “We are almost there. This is the waterway that leads to their southern port of Bristol. Soon we will be done and we shall return home.”

Youssef grinned. “We will be heroes and Mustafa will welcome us into his home with arms open wide.”

“Silence,” Omar said, and sighed heavily. “You talk of this here, on the ship of the infidel?”

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