Kate Woodward is telling tales again


Short story

Ta Dah! The Ultimate Guide to Being a Magician’s Assistant

Chapter 7: Leave the Arguments Backstage

Although it can be entertaining, and have comedic value, to have the audience take your side against the magician, remember that any on-stage tension must be an act. Even if you are partners off-stage, with all the inevitable irritations that that brings, leave those things backstage. This is especially the case when the act to be performed includes fire-eating, knife-throwing or the classic sawing-a-person-in-half routine.

An Illustration:

A notable example is provided by the case of Magic Circle member, Joe Derbyshire, alias the Great Stupendo, and his assistant and partner, Ms Ava Kopowski. An argument had begun before the performance, of all things, about football. Audience members later testified that the couple had come on stage, ‘daggers drawn.’

The performance started well but deteriorated quickly. The couple were said to be sniping at each other throughout. One woman, interviewed later, said that she had heard Mr Derbyshire say that Ms Kopowski looked like a warthog in spangles. Ms Kopowksi retaliated by threatening to boil Mr Derbyshire’s bunny.

In court, the Judge heard that the sawing-in-half routine, had not been rehearsed recently and was not intended to form part of that evening’s performance, but the linked rings had been set about with bolt-croppers, and the doves had been plucked and drawn. With the audience already demanding a refund, Mr Derbyshire wheeled his apparatus on stage and, using bodily force, placed his assistant inside it.

The audience, used to the spectacular theatrics of master illusionists, assumed that the blood and screams were part of the act, and roared Mr Derbyshire’s efforts on. Fortunately for Ms Koposwki, the theatre’s sharp-eyed sound and lighting man, noticed her increasing pallor and raised the alarm.  The amputation of her leg was completed later that evening under more hygienic conditions. At the time of writing, Mr Derbyshire remains under the care of the mental health services.


As an assistant, you are part of a team. There are extreme dangers in some illusions and trust is essential. Never go on stage in the heat of an argument. A baying audience can be a powerful influence, but remember that you are there to help manipulate them, not the other way around.

The Sixth Egg

The sixth egg lurked in the fridge for weeks. When there was nothing else left to eat – when the cupboards were bare and the pantry picked clean – she cooked it. Its contents fell into the simmering water – foul, green, musty, crinkled like a walnut. In the pan, shreds fell from it until only a nugget remained at its core. She drained the pan and allowed the contents to cool.

It weighed only a quarter of an ounce, but gold was trading high that year.

The Peculiar Case of Rochelle Gayle or Oops!

Rochelle painted her nails with two coats of Flaming Rose, whisked away a stray hair on her big toe with a razor, powdered her chin and discovered a whisker. Grabbing tweezers, she took hold of it and tugged. The hair kept coming. One inch, then two. Twisting it around her forefinger she pulled again. Her foot lifted from the floor and her big toe disappeared inside her foot. With three feet of hair wrapped around her hand she was half gone but she didn’t stop pulling until all that remained of her was a long, long, dark-brown hair.

This Time Next Week



Tuesday: Post Office, then Boardman’s for a large white loaf and four slices of ox-tongue. Pay for the papers, one quarter pound of boiled sweets – nothing liquorice. Then the chippy: two small fish, two peas, one large chips. Home by 12.15, kettle on, bread buttered.

‘How’s your fish?’

‘It’s all batter; half of it’s empty. Look!’ Derek pushes his knife under the batter and shows me the absence of cod.

‘Do you want to swop?’ I say. ‘This one’s alright.’

‘No, it’ll do. Besides, you’ve eaten more than I have. Any more tea in that pot?’

He falls asleep in the chair after dinner. His mouth drops open and his false set clicks against his palate as he breathes in and out. He has had that cardigan for seventeen years and the blasted thing still hasn’t worn out.

I wash up slowly, taking longer in the kitchen than I need to, staring out from the window at the flaking whitewash on the backyard walls. The flakes make patterns, sometimes I can see faces. It might be just the light but, sometimes, I can see a Japanese woman, with high-piled hair and odd, flat features.

The crossword, the word search and then a short look through the paper. More asylum seekers, some arguments over energy prices and the world’s tallest dog. Free quotes for a stair-lift and impossibly glamorous living in a new retirement village. The clicking stops as Derek wakes up. ‘Must have needed it. Shall we have a brew? No, you sit down. I’ll make it.’

‘There’s a bit of that cake, if you fancy it: the lemon one.’

There’s the banging of cupboard doors before he shouts from the kitchen, ‘Where the ruddy hell ‘ave you hidden it?’

I shoo him out of the way. Cut two slick slices of cake and rinse the knife at the sink. ‘Hello,’ I whisper. ‘Hello my little Tokyo friend.’

There’s a quiz show. Sausage and egg for tea. Then I phone our Carole and remind her about Paul’s birthday. I don’t say anything to Carole about the tests he’s been going for. Later I fall asleep during Holby, wake up and complain about the gas fire. I sit on the side of the bed and rub Atrixo into my hands, read three pages, turn out the light and listen to the heating pipes contracting.

Wednesday: Upstairs: bedroom, back bedroom. Bleach down the loo. Empty the Hoover bag, dust down the stairs. Butchers: four small cutlets – daylight bloody robbery – and half a pound of lamb’s liver. New potatoes – Cheshire earlies – should be lovely. Call and pick up Derek’s prescription.

The sun comes out. I walk rather than getting the bus. It’s only three or four stops anyway, and I don’t know why I don’t always do it. I get talking to Hilda who’s out with that stupid dog of hers. Have to listen for twenty minutes about Australia and her Kenneth and how she’s going again next year, and how travel broadens the mind. Broadens the arse more like. How many seats on the plane did they make her pay for?

Tongue with a little mustard. A tomato on the side, sliced with pepper and a splash – just a splash, mind – of vinegar. Scrub the spuds for later. I decide to sort that drawer full of photographs and to write some names on the backs while I can still remember who’s who. Derek gets cross because he’s trying to read the paper and I keep making him lose his place. ‘Where was this Derek? Was it Bridlington or Scarborough?’

I peg out a few bits later – they might dry, you never know – and look for my Japanese lady, but the light or the angle is wrong. I can see a dog. A large curling flake casts its own round shadow.

Cutlets, boiled potatoes and peas, with a small glass of wine: the left-overs from Sunday. Well, I can’t tell the difference and it’s a shame to throw it down the sink. Nowt on the telly.

Thursday: Put the towels on a hot wash. Catch the ten-past-ten and meet Margaret for a latte and a toasted teacake. Remember the good old days when we could order a coffee and not have to give it some fancy foreign name. Have a quick look round the shops. Almost buy Derek a new cardigan: I stand in the queue at the cash desk until I feel like swearing and walk out of the shop, leaving the cardigan hanging on a rack of superhero pyjamas.

Walk past the travel agents on the way to the bus station. Go inside and get pounced on by a skinny girl in stupid shoes with false eyelashes – the girl that is, not the shoes. Get a brochure of coach trips in Yorkshire, when what I really wanted was the one for tours to the Far East. Leave the brochure on the bus in case it gives Derek ideas.

Run out of toilet roll. Put a box of tissues in the bathroom. Leave Derek to fathom it for himself. He starts talking about newspaper and the outside loo we had when we first got wed, and I fall asleep because it saves having to listen.

Friday: Big shop. Derek drives me in the Civic, drops me by the door and then drives to the far, quiet end of the car park, where “no bugger’s going to scratch my paintwork with a trolley”. Load up on loo roll, tea, Jaffa cakes, Shredded Wheat, spuds and tin foil. Try and work out if the three for two is worth it. A bunch of lilies with fat green pods, and then a quick wander around the magazines for a Woman’s Own and a Real Travel magazine. Pay using Derek’s bank card – mine doesn’t work for some reason and tuck the holiday mag firmly inside the Woman’s Own. Call Derek on the mobile and get him to drive 100 yards to pick me up because the trolley’s got a wonky wheel.

Cheating bought quiche and a bag of salad; cream horns for afters – lovely!

Call Paul about his test results. Curse the NHS and then admit that it’s marvellous really and we shouldn’t complain. Send my love to Matty and Lottie. Ask when they are coming for tea.

Iron the towels and put them away. Hide the holiday mag at the back of the airing cupboard until Derek’s gone down to the club – he borrows a twenty out of my purse, but it’s worth it for the peace and quiet. Watch three episodes of Escape to the Country back to back. The Sky box keeps recording them – I’m sure I never set that up.

Wake up with Derek breathing beer in my face and turn over. He follows me as I move across the mattress and I end up teetering on the edge half the night.

Saturday: Bring two mugs of tea back to bed. Leave Derek asleep and then get cross because he’s let his tea get cold. The boiler sounds funny. Wonder which costs more: a new boiler or a trip to Mount Fuji? Breakfast before getting dressed: shredded wheat with warm milk, half a slice of toast, two cod-liver oils, because I can’t remember if I’ve had one or not. Water the houseplants with a too small, but very pretty, novelty watering can which drips all over the windowsills. Mop up the drips with the corner of my dressing gown. Switch off the boiler. Switch it on again – sounds fine. Read small ads in the paper for tours on the Panoramic Express.

Call on Lily. Tell her that her chest sounds better although it doesn’t. Fetch her a glass of water, two mint imperials and some tissues. Lily says her brasses need polishing; I say they’ll do. Freshen up the water in the flowers I brought last week. Ask about Stephen. Ask about the twins. Ask if there’s anything else she wants. She mentions the brasses. Next week, I say, hoping she’ll forget.

Home, then a quick run round with the Hoover. The sun’s showing the dust on everything. Take a pile of newspapers out to the recycling bin. Nice in the yard: suntrap. Nose around the pots, see if anything’s showing yet. Something that looks like an eggshell on the black, winter soil. It’s a large flake of whitewash. Go back indoors, put my old coat on, and get the outhouse key. Attack the wall with a stiff yard brush, sweeping the flaking whitewash furiously, big flakes falling to the floor, tiny ones floating in the air like cherry blossom and settling in my hair and all over my glasses. Try and brush up. Yell at Derek to come and make himself useful and hold the shovel.

‘That’s pretty bad dandruff you’ve got there,’ he says.

‘Bugger off.’

‘I thought you wanted me to help.’

‘I do. Hold the ruddy shovel, will you.’

‘You’ll have to paint it all now. It looks a right mess. It’s all patchy.’

‘Yeah, well.’

‘Anyroad, I thought you’d be starting the tea. It’s gone five.’

‘You know where the kitchen is as well as I do.’

He’s making a hash of things when I get back inside, everything out of the cupboards. I tell him to leave it, which is what he wanted anyway.

Start watching a film and remember I’ve seen it after about twenty minutes. Suggest turning over but Derek says that I’m wrong, I haven’t seen it – but I have, I remember the bit with the boat and the chap with the mask.

Sunday: Proper breakfast: bacon, tomatoes, mushrooms, fried egg, fried bread, toast and marmalade; Sunday paper with the colour magazine. Listen as Derek tells me all the scores from yesterday’s matches. Have absolutely no idea what he’s talking about.

Phone Carole. Check what time we’re expected. Ask if we can bring anything. Spend time on the phone talking about stuff that we could talk about for free later on. Consider asking Derek to drive me to the DIY place for some whitewash. Decide that I’ll end up painting if I do. Look at the damage I’ve done: big brush marks on the wall, bricks flaking, and tiny white specs like snow on the black soil. I can’t find my Japanese lady. “Sorry” I whisper, “so sorry”.

Make Derek a nice coffee and give him a Mr Kipling Battenberg. When he say’s “Oh, that’s grand” ask him if he fancies a little holiday.

‘What for?’ he says. ‘We’re alright as we are, aren’t we?’

‘I just fancied a bit of a change,’

He looks at me as if I am ill. ‘What’s up? There’s nothing up is there?’

‘No. It’s just, well, we’re not getting any younger, and you know, I’ve never been abroad.’

‘Ah, well, it’s not all it’s cracked up to be. Dangerous in some places; downright smelly in others and it’s too ruddy hot. No. We’re better off over here. We’ll do Great Yarmouth again, I think; September, when the schools have gone back. Grand, Great Yarmouth.’

I walk out. Pick up the car keys even though I rarely drive these days, put on my coat and tell Misery Arse I’m just popping out for half an hour. Don’t tell him I’m taking the car. Drive to the DIY place. Buy whitewash, and a multipack of economy jumbo sponges.

Derek’s in a tizz when I get back. Drop the car keys in his hand and ignore him. Put the whitewash in the outhouse. Brush my hair, stick a bit of powder on my nose and tell Derek that if the clock’s right, it’s about time we were setting off for Carole’s.

Eat too much. Don’t speak to Derek. I’m not sure if he notices. Mark everyone’s height on the doorframe. Look through four catalogues of kitchen units and compare four identical kitchens all staged for the photographs in rooms bigger than anybody’s real houses. Say that I like at least two of them best.

Monday: Strip the bed, and bundle everything into the machine. Dust and hoover downstairs. Spotting with rain, fold the wet sheets and hang them on the airer. Library books returned and swapped. Pick two thrillers for Derek, at least one of which I know he’s read before – serves him right, miserable git – and a tour guide to Japan that is small enough to slip into my handbag. Pick up two meat and potato pies for dinner.
When Derek’s having a nap, go back into the yard. Redraw the Japanese lady, in pencil, onto the red brick wall. Clouds have blown over, peg out the sheets. Get the whitewash and do one coat, carefully working around my pencil marks, sheets whipping about my earholes.

Derek says, ‘You’ve missed a bit.’

‘Yeah,’ I say ‘I’ll sort it out. It’s going to need a second coat anyway.’

‘You all right?’ He asks.

‘Fine,’ I say.

Salad for tea – Derek’s not happy, but he can stuff off: I’ve opened a big tin of red salmon and that doesn’t come cheap. Besides, how does he think I can whitewash the yard and have a hot meal on the table at six o’clock?

Margaret phones. Lily’s been taken into hospital. Fallen, apparently, trying to get the Brasso down off the top shelf, balanced on a chair. Just bruised they think, but they’re keeping her in. It’s marvellous, really, the NHS, and the ambulance men, ever so good they were with her. Ever so good.

Derek says he’s still hungry. I pass him a banana from the fruit bowl and he gets up grumbling and goes into the kitchen. ‘If this is all about that daft holiday idea, you can pack in sulking now,’ he says. ‘There’s nothing wrong with Great Yarmouth. There’s loads of folks would love to have a holiday there.’

Go to bed early. Don’t bother with the Atrixo. I rub my hands together and listen to how rough they are.

Tuesday: Post Office, then Boardman’s for a large white loaf and four slices of ox-tongue. Pay for the papers, one quarter pound of boiled sweets – nothing liquorice. Then the chippy: two small fish, two peas, one large chips. Home by 12.10, kettle on, bread buttered.

A Love Story, Manc Style

OK, this chap says, go and take a photo, come back and write about it. So I did.
If you don’t like bad language, stop right now, thank you.


Sometime between midnight and 4:00 a.m., Simon formed a significant new relationship. He would be hard-pressed to be more specific about the time, but he’d looked at his watch just before twelve in the ‘Spoons and his arrest record showed that the officers of Greater Manchester Police detained him at 0400 hours. In the intervening period, he fell in love with a traffic bollard.
What surprised Simon most was not the adoration he had for an item of plastic street furniture, but rather the fact that the bollard appeared to be male. He was not good at reading upside-down, upside-down and drunk was pushing things too far. But, fighting for focus, he could see the bollard’s name printed across its base. ‘Hello Peter,’ he said, ‘pleased to meet you.’
Peter was delightful. He glowed. He was warm and cosy and shone like the sun. Peter had a lovely white arrow, beautifully set-off by a pretty, sky-blue background that pointed, helpfully, to the left. Peter – oh, dear – had crude, black vinyl letters defacing his lovely round belly. And Peter, poor Peter, was fastened – nay, bolted – to a crumbling pedestrian refuge.
It was too much. Simon imagined passers-by, buffeting Peter with swinging bags. He imagined cars, veering of course, mounting the pavement. He imagined late-night drunks – oh, the indignity of it – leaning on Peter. ‘Darling,’ he said, ‘let me take you away from all this.’
He loosened the first two bolts easily. The third – cross threaded – was cursed, kicked and jumped on. It gave, finally, when Simon attacked it with a window box he had borrowed from the Midland Hotel. Peter rocked on his plinth, but bolt four was holding firm. Bolt four wasn’t giving way. Bolt four was hanging, for grim death, onto the love of Simon’s life. Bolt four was a bastard. Bolt four was an effing twatting, effing bastard, effing twatting c__!
And that was what Simon was shouting, when he was disturbed by a young woman, dressed like his beloved, in yellow and blue. It wasn’t his arrest that bothered Simon, it was the parting. He wept in the police van, and carried on weeping until, with the dawn, he began to sober up. And then, he couldn’t believe how stupid he’d been. What a complete and utter tit! He recalled the events of the night with horror. What had he been thinking?
He walked out of the nick into a thin drizzle. He needed a good breakfast: bacon, eggs, toast, lots of toast, and tea, gallons of it. Then he needed an angle grinder, a power supply, and a can of WD40. Poor Peter was not going to spend another night on those vicious streets. Not if Simon could help it.

Dan’s Desperate


The car has been running on fumes for ten miles. If he can make it to the top of the hill, he can coast down into town. He’ll bum a tenner off Nev, stick a couple of gallons in the tank and kiss goodbye to this shit hole forever.
As plans go, leaving home in a stolen, twenty-year-old Peugeot with a fifteen-year-old girl stuffed in the boot isn’t his best. It has possibilities though, which is more than can be said about his job, flipping crud-burgers, at Banner’s. He’s been there all summer and asked for one lousy half day off, just a half day, and Banner—the bastard—had offered him the sack. Okay, maybe that isn’t quite the whole story, but right now, with an empty tank and another two miles of hill to climb, Dan’s got other stuff to be worrying about.
The way he sees it, he’s got two choices: leave her in the boot and set off walking, or let the little bitch out and get her to push. The trouble with plan B is that he can’t see her sticking to her side of the bargain.
She’s real pretty, but she’s a dirty little tart and he half hates her for that. She’s screwed Jordan—according to Jordan; she’d gone out back with Simmy at that party, and everyone knows about her and that student teacher. And Dan? Well, he reckons it’s his turn.
He can hear her kicking her feet against the back of the seats. She’s not screaming but she’s not happy. Jumped in quick enough when he said he’d get her out of school and promised a few days on their own at his mate’s cottage. So what if the cottage is a skanky caravan in the corner of a boggy field? It’s not gonna bother him is it? He’s got weed, he’s got cider and, out there, however loud she screams, and Simmy says she’s a screamer, no one’s gonna notice.
He’s almost at the top, almost ready to push this stinking shit heap into neutral, almost home free and the fumes give out. It doesn’t matter how hard he pumps the gas, he’s slowing down and there’s still two hundred yards to go and it might as well be two hundred miles. And the stupid little bitch is shouting now and, fuck me, isn’t there always an old git, at the bus stop, craning his nosey old fuckin’ beak in, just where it’s not wanted. Fuck. Fuck. FUCK!
‘Shut up,’ he snarls through clenched teeth, ‘shut the fuck up.’ But she keeps on kicking and the next thing, the old bloke, all bent forward, is knocking on the nearside window and mouthing something he can’t make out. Dan manages to hiss another warning towards the rear of the car, before leaning across and winding the window down a couple of inches. The daft old git asks the bleedin’ obvious. ‘Problem with the motor, is it, Son?’
‘Nah, I think it’s just out of petrol.’
‘Won’t be that, Son. I heard knocking. From round the back end. You must have something loose.’
He’s walking round the back, trying to crouch, trying to get them fuckin’ ancient bones down low enough to look under the car.
Dan’s desperate. ‘Just a push, Mate, that’s all I need, just a little shove, if I can get to the top of the hill, I can easy coast into town.’
The old fella’s not having it. ‘Not with my back, Son. But, if you want to push, I’ll get in and steer.’
He’s walked round, got his hand on the door handle and yes, Dan knows it’s the most brainless thing he’s ever done, but the little bitch has gone quiet and they really do need to get up this fuckin’ hill. He switches places with the old git and starts shoving and after a bit of shit over whether the handbrake’s still on, he’s finally getting, yard by yard to the top of the bastard, bloody hill.
And it’s there, at the summit, when he should be ready to ride this crazy wave back into town that Dan decides it would be an even bigger laugh to leave the old git with a bootful of trouble.
He pauses and then gives the Peugeot one hell of a shove before turning and walking back the way he’d just come.

To mark the wettest January since records began . . .

An Improving Outlook.

For the third time in a week – no, correct that – the third time in six days, the forecast had been substantially inaccurate. The prediction had been for a freshening, north-easterly breeze, bringing a “much welcome dry interlude”; that was the phrase that had registered. Miss Priestley surveyed the sodden land that surrounded her chocolate-box cottage. If she strayed from the pretty winding path, into her “idyllic” garden she would be lucky to emerge with her boots. She watched a parade of fat brown slugs, relishing the conditions; each individual one of the seven she could currently see, mocking her as they munched.

Miss Priestley had been retired since April. Five months, three weeks and two days. One hundred and seventy-six days, on nineteen of which the forecast had been largely incorrect. According to her notebook, those inaccurate forecasts were the output of five different meteorologists, with one man being responsible for eleven incidents – two of which were in the last six days. After a light lunch of soup and crisp-breads, Miss Priestley settled herself at her desk in front of the sitting room window, with its “panoramic view of rolling pastureland” and switched on her computer.

The meteorologist with the poorest record was a man of thirty-seven years, an Oxbridge graduate, interested in football, coarse fishing and good food. Miss Priestley could have found out much more, but the key piece of information came to light very early in her searches – Mr Nicholas Adderley lived in Peterborough. It was the work of a satisfying couple of hours to discover and to graph the relevant data. The picture was clear; on the eleven occasions that the forecast for her particular part of Yorkshire was wrong, the forecast for Cambridgeshire had been close to perfect on nine of them. The remaining two predictions were for heavy rainfall, which had, instead, turned out to be only moderate.

It was good to be working again. Not as many hours as she had put in before her retirement of course; an hour before her breakfast, then another couple of hours after she had finished with the Telegraph. If the afternoon was dry, she would take a walk after lunch; a brisk two miles to the top of Handley Wood and then back to a pot of strong tea, followed by another two hours at her desk before supper. She had always been a creature of habit; routines were critical to her, and although she had told herself many times throughout her life that she could introduce a little variety in her approach, she was truly happiest bound by her own strictly imposed order.

On her afternoon walks she would reflect on this aspect of her nature, and wonder why she had bought the cottage. What was it in the agent’s blurb that had seduced her? Why had she not baulked at the bulging walls and the clearly sloping roofline? She could, she thought, get the path to the door re-laid straight from the gate, eliminating the pointless curves, but then the gate itself would have to be moved; otherwise the angle at which the path met the porch would be out by as much as five degrees. She would speak to Ronald, who would, no doubt, know the best way to approach the problem.

It was Ronald who had suggested Yorkshire. He had sent a cheery e-mail to her before Christmas, dressing up the truth about the loneliness of his retirement in the knowledge that she was fast approaching her own. Ronald had an elderly father, frail and suffering with Parkinson’s disease and Ronald had moved to his childhood home out of a sense of duty, and also because he simply did not know what else to do. Whatever it was he had expected in returning home, the reality had fallen very short. His father, who had coped well enough whilst Ronald was in London, suddenly, now he was in the same house became clinging and needy. Ronald felt isolated, his old friends long gone, his ex-colleagues still in the city. He had been pleasantly surprised when Miss Priestley replied that she was coming up the Dales to view some possible properties; she said that “his e-mail had rekindled some happy memories of her youth, and, well, why ever not?”

They had taken to dining together on Friday evenings. One week at a small hotel near to Miss Priestley’s cottage and the following week closer to Ronald’s home where they were working their way through a list of recommended inns. For both of them, it was their sole evening out in the week, and although they made the pretence of remaining very casual about the meetings, for each of them it was an increasingly important and eagerly anticipated event. It would not be fair to say that this was a fledgling romance – neither of them were looking for that, it was simply a meeting of like minds. During the decades they had worked together, they had always had a cordial relationship, and it would be a pity to lose that as a result of retirement. Dining together was a new development, and a pleasant one at that, although Ronald was still trying to guess whether Miss Priestley would be offended if he took the liberty of using her Christian name.

On an early October Friday, Miss Priestley, quite unlike herself, arrived ten minutes late, just at the point where Ronald was starting to become to get seriously concerned. She looked flushed and excited, her hair not quite restrained by the tortoiseshell combs she always wore. Her dress on Fridays was usually impeccable, but on this particular evening her blouse looked creased and was barely tucked into her skirt. Placing a small stack of notebooks on the table she sat opposite Ronald and unable to contain herself any longer, before any “Hello” or “Good evening”, burst out, ‘Ronald, you simply must see my numbers. It’s so exciting.’
‘My dear Miss Priestley, do sit down for a moment and catch your breath. Let me get you a drink. Then you can tell me all about your interesting news.’
When he returned from the bar with a gin and tonic for them both, Miss Priestley had smoothed her hair, and secured the blouse back into her skirt. She looked less like an Elizabeth now, much more a Miss Priestley. He passed her the drink which she placed un-tasted on the table, and sat down by her side. The notebooks were now open, displaying columns of figures, lists of dates, observations, percentages and names.

It didn’t take Ronald long to hone in on the facts in front of him. True, the sample size was small, but he knew the results would still be significant. He had forty years’ experience of working with data like this in the Statistics Service and a year’s retirement hadn’t dulled his senses. Pushing the notebooks away from him, he leant back on the Chesterfield, picked up his glass and raised it in salute to the remarkable woman at his side.
‘Well old girl, I’ve got to hand it to you, this is very interesting indeed.’
‘Thank you, Ronald. Actually I’ve enjoyed doing it and I don’t mind saying it has quite perked me up. It’s been fun to get back to what I know.’
They were sitting by the huge stone fireplace, before going through to the dining room. The menus that Ronald had collected as he arrived were still closed – dinner could wait, this was far more exciting. In the firelight Miss Priestley looked younger, softer somehow. She was a tall woman – long angles and jutting bones, and he remembered her as the gawky new graduate who had joined his department, how she had jarred on everyone’s nerves with her rigid attitudes and her insistence on precision. But it was these qualities that Ronald admired. Even so, it took him a number of years to begin to feel relaxed around her. Miss Priestley was flicking through her pages of data.
‘This is particularly striking; let me find it for you.’
‘Miss Priestley,’ Ronald began, ‘do you have any idea, of the power of this information?’
‘The power?’
‘The effect it would have if we were to go public.’
But Ronald missed the inflexion on the “We?” and began to explain the potential effects of the information if it was sent, by some method, to the press.
‘There would be uproar, industry – construction in particular, agriculture, most definitely, tourism of course. I think the whole Bureau may have to be re-modelled. Those people we all rely on would be exposed as charlatans, biased beyond our fears, self-serving’ – he broke off, this would be the right time, he could sense it – ‘Elizabeth? Would you mind awfully, if I called you Elizabeth, after all we have been friends for many years now.’

He had misjudged it and everything about her said it. Her spine had straightened, the slight smile had gone; the knees were drawn together and twisted away from him. In her hands, those large capable hands, the black covered notebook she held was closed and moved with its companions away from Ronald. Miss Priestley wasn’t an insensitive woman; she saw Ronald’s optimism drain out of him and she hadn’t the cruelty in her to demand he keep to the name he had used for so many years – but it wouldn’t matter anyway. She would not have the problem for much longer and a little delicacy of touch was a small sacrifice if it would buy her some time.
‘Ronald, I think I’d like to do a little more work – particularly on Scotland – the Highlands and Islands in particular. There wasn’t quite enough sample data and I would hate for us to cause the scandal and our figures to be proved less than perfect.’
‘But of course,’ he raised his glass to her again, ‘Elizabeth, my dear, you are a marvel.’
‘Thank you Ronald. Shall we decide what to order?’

It was the last time that they dined together, and although the rest of the evening was not unpleasant, Miss Priestley could not put out of her mind what Ronald had suggested they should do with her data. Where his mind had seen chaos, inquiries and ruined careers, hers had seen something completely different. So what if there was an indisputable bias in the Weather Bureau? If their forecasters were, almost without exception, statistically more accurate when predicting the weather close to their home town, then that simply meant one could get a more reliable forecast by exploiting that knowledge.

She had picked four forecasters who had high levels of accuracy and by drawing overlapping circles around their homes she had found that the place in Britain likely to get the most accurate meteorological predictions was a small town in Wiltshire. There was an estate agent in the town and she telephoned and arranged viewings of three neat, square built houses. By the following Friday, her own house in Yorkshire was on the market. She left a message for Ronald at the Handley Arms Hotel where they were due to meet. It seemed harsh, even to her as she wrote the note, but quite simply, she could not face being called Elizabeth again; even if it was by her oldest and dearest friend.

Jack and Vera, and Rose.

Jack and Vera, and Rose

I went to see our Rose yesterday, you know, as I always do on a Friday afternoon. I think she’s getting worse; she seemed a bit more confused than normal, and then all of a sudden, she’d jumped back years, straight back to 1960. I’ve not heard her talk about anything from back then for ages. It’s a good job our Jack decided to stay home yesterday – the only thing Rose got right was the one thing she’s not supposed to mention.
When I got back Jack was as happy as Larry – well, he always is when he’s spent all afternoon in the garage, tinkering. He was stood at the sink, up to his elbows in Swarfega, looking out at the afternoon, and he says,
‘Vee, love, it looks like it’s going to be nice tomorrow, shall we have a little run out?’
Now, I’ve not been married to him for fifty years without working out what “a little run out” means. He’s after a new motor. There’s nothing wrong with the Civic, if you ask me. It’s only three or four years old, at the most, but once he gets an idea in his head, it’s only a matter of time. I knew what it’d be – park up at some beauty spot, tea and sandwiches, and then he’ll suggest stopping off somewhere, “seeing as we’re in the vicinity” and I’ll spend the rest of the afternoon bored out of my tree while Jack talks cam shafts with some slimy salesman. Thank heavens for the Daily Mail – they’ve got a really good puzzle page.
So this morning, after breakfast, and a quick hoover round, I knock us up a bit of dinner. I’d a bit of that nice ham on the bone, so I made sandwiches and I put plenty of hot mustard on some of them for Jack. I made a flask of tea, and I’d got some of those Mr Kipling slices on a bogof from Asda. At those prices it’s not worth baking your own, not with the gas and all. Jack’s supposed to be watching his cholesterol, so I’ll take the other box for Rose on Friday. Jack gets his driving gloves out, takes it all very serious, he checks the oil, and water and fiddles with the tyres even. I keep telling him you don’t need to do all that with these modern motors, but he doesn’t listen. Well, not to me anyway.
He was spot on about the weather though, just like he said, chilly first thing and then glorious. Made you feel glad to be out and about. He drove right up onto the moors and we even got out and had a walk out to those windmill things that they’ve put up; I thought they’d be bigger somehow. There was a chap up there, with one of those ugly dogs, and him and Jack got talking about gearing and rotor shafts. I talked to the dog, but if I’m honest, it wasn’t much for conversation, so I wandered back to the Civic, let myself in and poured some tea. It was quite nice in there; I got the Mail out and cracked on with the Sudoku. I balanced my tea on the dashboard but it fogged the window up so I wiped myself a little port-hole. I should have known better, Jack was all cross, when he saw my finger-marks on his windscreen. He didn’t say anything though, just went at it quietly with his special cloth, tutting to himself.
I’ve got to confess, I got proper mad myself. Just who did he think he was? He was acting as though I was a child, and the more I thought about it, the madder I got. After all’s said and done it it’s half mine, the Civic is. But even though he must have sensed the pressure building, he started on at me…
‘Vera, I do wish you wouldn’t …, Vera, I should have thought… Vera this, Vera that…’
And I thought, I know just what’ll shut him up, and so I opened my big gob.
‘Jack, I’m not Vera, I’m Rose. I’ve been Rose for the last seventy years. You married me, Rose, not Vera. Our Vera got cold feet…she didn’t want to get wed, but it was too late, so I said I’d ‘ave you to save you from being jilted.’
And do you know what? He never said anything. He just looked at me for a moment and then got out of the car, and started wandering off. I watched him for bit, he’d gone right back to that fella with the dog, and I thought, did I Imagine that? But he turned back and climbed back into the driver’s seat. Didn’t say anything, just started the engine, and never glanced at me. We set off down the road, and I’m sat there and I just didn’t know what to do.
We’d gone a mile or two, that’s all, when he pulls over at the side of the road.
‘You’re joking, right?’
‘No Jack, I weren’t joking, but I didn’t mean to say it, I don’t know why I did. I’m sorry, Jack, if I’ve upset you…’
‘”Upset me! Up-bloody-set me”. You tell me, out of blue, that you’re not you, that you’re your sister. What did you think?’
We’re sitting in this lay-by, and all these cars and lorries are thundering past, and all I can think is that no-one knows. No-one knows about our little drama, and I want to turn the clock back, to un-say what I said, and we’ll drive off and go and look at a new car and I’ll be Vee, and he’ll be Jack, and it’ll be Jack and Vee, like it’s always been.
He’s gone quiet, and I look at him, and I think he might be going to cry.
‘Why, Vee? Why?’
And right there, in the Civic, in that lay-by, surrounded by rubbish, I tell him. Finally, tell him the truth. How no-one could tell Rose and me apart, even our Mum had trouble, especially if she’d been drinking, which most of the time she had. I don’t blame her, widowed at her age, with twin girls, can’t have been easy, and Rose and me, well we didn’t make it easy for her either. Kept mucking about, the pair of us did. We shared clothes, friends, even jobs, I’d go in one day, Vera the next. And then Jack came along, smart as anything, a college lad, with prospects, and good looking too. We both liked him. But he started seeing Vera properly, and next thing Vera’s flashing an engagement ring, and they’ve sorted a flat and the banns have been read. But right before the wedding, the day before, our Vera gets proper strange, moping about and quiet like; not like her at all. And then she says she can’t go through with it, and will I go round to Jack and tell him, and I say “no, I can’t” and besides the church is booked, Mum’s spent a fortune on the cake and the dress is the nicest one I’ve ever seen. And I say,
‘If you won’t have the lad, I will!’
And our Vera, says,
‘You’re on’
That was it really, I became Vera, and Vera became me. Nobody knew. I think Mum might have thought something odd was going on, but she never said anything. I don’t suppose she could.
It was very quiet in the car. I wanted Jack to say something, anything. Finally he did.
‘Have we got any of them sandwiches, or has a man got to starve around here?’
I’m so relieved that’s he’s talking, I start fussing, pour him some tea, pass it to him, offer him the Mr Kipling’s, anything really to get back to normality. I can’t think beyond the picnic, daren’t, just in case. He swallows the last of his cake, opens the window and flicks the dregs of his tea on to the verge. Then, he gets out of the car again, and wanders away up the lay-by, out of sight. But he’s back again in a couple of minutes, and I realise with relief that he’s just snuck off for a piddle.
‘So, why’ve you told me?’ He asks when he gets back in.
‘I don’t know really, I guess it was on my mind, our Rose was rambling a bit when I saw her yesterday. I don’t think that medication’s helping at all. But she kept calling me Rose and I thought it’s going to all come out, sooner or later.’
He seemed happy enough with that, started the engine again, and we set off into the traffic. He didn’t say anything much else, until we pulled into the car dealership. He parked the Civic next to a row of shiny Toyotas. He asked me if I was going to get out and have a look round with him. I must have looked less than keen, because he leant across and said quite deliberately,
‘…because if you’re not into motors, I know a cracking lass who is, well, used to be anyhow. Looks a lot like you as well. I might just see if she fancies a run out, sometime.’

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