A Longer War 72

That was a profoundly different experience to our earlier trip, and not just because the only real comrade I had with me on the second visit was Ernie. There was far more ceremony for starters, the two mayors seemingly trying to outdo each other in matters of sash and chain, and we were almost marched down the main street behind a brass band apparently made up of firemen. I didn’t think there were actually that many people in the village.

A Longer War 70

He was blushing again, but there was a grin behind the lowered head and shuffling hands.

“Yeah, can’t really hide that one, can I? We haven’t set a date, but, well, it was sort of obvious. Pete asked Laura, and I saw the way her mum was smiling, and it just made sense to follow the boy’s example. Too many wasted years…”

He faltered, just for a few seconds, but then the smile was back, twice as bright and utterly natural this time.

A Longer War 69

We didn’t see much of Pete for a while, and before I knew it Easter and its rush of tourists was on us. The older I got, the faster the years went, like water down a plug hole. Darren was looking at his approaching exams as well, so I ended up spending far more time on my knees in a boat than sat in the office. That bit was covered by Susie and Doreen, of course, a hand-painted name-plate prominent on one desk, but in the end I couldn’t put the hours in that were needed, as my knees simply couldn’t take it.

A Longer War 68

The floods weren’t bad that winter, but as usual customer numbers collapsed for a couple of months. We kept ourselves afloat by doing that for others, with a steady succession of boats to hoist out and check for damage, fouling, caulking and the rest. Trevor and Ricky knew what they were doing with that, and it let Darren push ahead with his studies. If things went well, he would get his certificates in time for the school holiday period, just when they would be needed most.

A Longer War 67

That was a conversation-stopper if ever I heard one, and even with Susie living under my roof I had difficulty putting together everything Pete was saying. It was the pronouns, really. There was his lad, with a lecturer called John, and all Pete was saying was ‘she’ and ‘her’.

“Pete, mate. Look. I’m not getting this all in shape in my head. Start from scratch?”


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Just finished a conference by phone, and it was chaos. There has been a stabbing, shooting and murder-by-car at our Parliament, and many of the people I was talking to were in lockdown, literally. Everyone I know (including one member of the House of Lords) in the area is safe.

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A Longer War 66

Matthew’s voice was still strong, despite his years. Rodney had spoken, I had said a few words, but it was Matthew who delivered the message, in a parish church in West Sussex.

“Friends. Comrades. Maurice Flanagan was an officer in the pay corps. The war in which so many of us suffered and lost so much, yet won a prize beyond value, passed him by. It was not his choice, for fate and the War Office had delivered him to a desk rather than an armoured vehicle, had clad him in Number Twos rather than armour plate or battledress.

Sisters 61

I wandered back along the hallway as my wife thundered down the stairs, and beat me to the living room. As I entered, everyone seemed to be wrapped around everyone else, but all eyes turned to me. I kept the glum face on as long as I could, but Sar wrestled the test wand out of my hand.

“Yes! Two-nil!”

Hatbox and cash flow.

I don't have a lot of money, but I still value this site. Accordingly, I have spoken to Erin about transferring my scribbles to the Hatbox. I am starting in order of writing, so StD will go first. This is too vital a site to lose, so please give it some help.

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A Longer War 65

I was really at a loss without her, and when Pete left shortly afterwards to take his boy down I was almost lost. It was an education, in a sense. I had spent so long on my own after Tricia had been taken I had felt that I was comfortable in my solitude, that I didn’t need people around me. I realised just then, as the house emptied and the nearest of my friends headed south, that I had merely been numb, not comfortable. Just because you lose the feeling in a hand or other bit doesn’t mean it can’t get damaged, just that the pain doesn’t tell you if it does. That had been my life: numbed, no pain, but steadily being damaged by my isolation.

A Longer War 64

I have never liked doctors. I don’t mean that I don’t like the people who do the job, as Julian and Charles clearly demonstrated. I just don’t like the places, the smells. That stay in hospital after I had met Susie had been more than enough to be going on with for a very long time.

Dead trees

The new feature on Kindle allows an author to publish print-on-demand books. It's a bit of a faff, but I now have Cider Without Roses on sale in paperback. Remember, if buying, please do it through the BCTS link to generate some income for the site.

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A Longer War 62

I almost lost track of the year after that, for it was all rather an anti-climax following on from such events. We got some new boats in to replace some of the older cruisers, for the people who wanted them rather than traditional narrowboats always wanted all mod cons, whereas the other sort kept our little souvenir shop turning over nicely. I have heard all sorts of words applied to what we sold, the rudest being ‘tat’ and the politest ‘folk art’, but the hand-painted enamel plates and watering cans sold well.

A Longer War 61

“What brought this on, Pete?”

He was silent for just the few seconds it took me to realise how worried he really was.

“Ah, Gerald, mate, it’s how he is. Bloody stubborn, pig-headed, independent, call it what you will. I can’t tell him… Shit, mate, he thinks I’m lining him up here cause I don’t think he can cope on his own, find his own…”

Another short silence, and again I waited.

“I nearly said ‘find his own feet’, and that would… I’m not making sense, am I?”

Sisters 60

It went better than I had expected, at least as far as his embarrassment went. He actually seemed to be looking forward to it, so after an obligatory bit of teasing about how the pot had been filled, he started in on his own questions.

“I don’t know, Tone. Thing is, we’re looking at a sort of simultaneous birth thing. If we can manage it, that is”

A Longer War 60

Ashley had been right, and there was no chance of a proper knees-up for the newly engaged, so we settled for a proper night in for the New Year. Work came back to haunt us, but in the end it was a relief getting back out of the house and seeing what damage the usual winter floods had done.

We were lucky that year, no wet feet in the King’s Arms, and the first few days of the year were spent setting out priorities for maintenance and refurbishment. Susie had somehow managed to find a source of Bolinder spares and reconditioned engines in Birmingham, and then added to her not-so-little coup by negotiating an incredibly cheap contract for traditional enamel ware with an artists’ studio in Camden.

A Longer War 58

Harwich was visible from a long way off, or at least the big white reactor dome at Sizewell. There was nothing really visible of England apart from the dome for what seemed like hours, but eventually we were passing the moles or piers or whatever they are called and nosing up to the dock. There was the usual hanging about while sailors did sailor things, and then we were called down to our vehicles. Pete drove, silent that morning, and in a very short while we picked up the first motorway up past Cambridge, leading on to the A1 after a frighteningly busy dual carriageway to Huntingdon.

A Longer War 57

Nobody said much at breakfast the next day, but we were all packed and ready to go. Pete had spent some time on the phone to the ferry company, and after he had explained the reason for our change in plans they agreed to bring forward the day our tickets would be valid for. It would be an evening departure and an overnight voyage to Harwich before the last leg up through England. As we finished the bread, cheese and sliced meats, Susie reached across to take Pete’s hand.

“Pete, love, who’s going down with you to meet plane?”

A Longer War 56

The bus was quiet that morning, Ashley seeming a little lost. Pete was driving, so I made my way down to where the young man was staring out of the window. He’d said nothing over breakfast, and apart from a quiet ‘morning’ nothing at all since we got up. I slipped into the seat beside him.

“Bit quiet today, son”

He looked down at his hands. “Bit thinking to do, Mr Barker. Not much sleep last night”

Sisters 59

Annie’s face worked once more in little twitches, her breath catching.

“Diane? What….”

“Lainey’s told me it all, or I suppose what she thinks I should know, A—nnie. I didn’t want to rock your boat, and, well, Elaine, this is a bit of a surprise, isn’t it? Not quite what we agreed, not at all”

A Longer War 55

Pete was driving the bus the next morning, and I caught him giving me a sly look every so often, when he clearly thought I wouldn’t catch him at it, for he broke into a cheery smile each time I looked round quickly. I collared him before I boarded.

“What’s up, pal?”

“What do you mean?”

“You looking at me all queer, like. What’s on your mind?”



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She was already in her own posing kit, all leather pelmet and pointy boots, and as she stood before me, hands on hips, mock-glowering, I had a small moment when I saw Sam peeking out from her eyes, and I realised I could hardly remember my brother, for Sarah was just so, so right in her skin.



A Longer War 54

The next morning I had a hangover, of course, but we all did, so while Pete did something with the bus engine we pushed Maurice down the street in his chair for another look at our little garden. The café had done us a continental style breakfast which actually included a lot of sliced meats and cheeses rather than just funny bread and jam, so said hangover was ebbing, at least in my case. I could have murdered a bacon sandwich.

Sisters 58

It was an odd year, in the end. Annie was clearly settled entirely into her new life, and each time I saw her she seemed somehow shorter. I realised she was like my forearms, that tell Siân was always so quick to spot. As she caught life up after so many years of pursuit, the tension was leaving her body. Even though she was like Alice in her devotion to heels, her physical presence diminished as her personality was finally allowed out to face the world.

A Longer War 53

We ate that night in a pizzeria next door to another cheap chain hotel, just outside Lille. The restaurant offered what I was learning to call wi-fi, and Susie was able to run a real-time conversation with her mother through her computer.

“Sent her pics of lily ponds, Gerald. She’s quite chuffed!”

“Told her about pressie?”

“No, I’ll save that for back home. Make a thing of it, prodigal…daughter comes home, like”

A Longer War 52

He took his leave, Susie still trembling as she sat open-mouthed. It was Charles who broke the silence.

“What have I been telling you, my dear? You must have faith. People are in the main decent”

Ernie called back “Aye, but arseholes, pardon my French, stick in the memory longer. Pete. Where we off to now?”

“Short trips, lads, Susie. Pegasus Bridge museum and a cuppa at the café”

A Longer War 50

Susie wasn’t too late back, which suited all of us, especially as I had been forced to threaten Valerie to go home rather than sit up awaiting the prodigal daughter. I had taken myself to bed, but I couldn’t sleep till I heard the key in the lock, a clatter of heeled shoes on the doorstep and, of all things, a giggle. The next morning, there was a knock at my bedroom door and in came my girl with a tray of tea and a couple of rounds of toast and jam.

“What brought this on?”

“Nowt, really, just felt like it”

A Longer War 49

I looked across at her, till she yelped and I turned my eyes to the front as we narrowly missed a cyclist. Concentrate, Ginge. I realised how much that one question had weighed on my mind.

“Susie, think on. I suspect he might be a bit lonely, what with his lad being away and that”

“Aye, and Mam thinks he has someone in his past as well”

A Longer War 48

He was looking down at his hands as he started speaking again, and I watched his forearms ripple as sinews stood out and relaxed. He was far from relaxed himself, obviously.

“Right. You, we all know what Susie is, here and now. No, girl, let me finish. Not a good place to be, not in today’s world”

Susie snorted. “Better than it were, Pete!”

“Yes, better than it’s ever been, in a way, but we should really say not as bad. I don’t think it’s ever going to be ‘good’, not in any absolute sense”

Arwel Powell

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One of my favourite characters is a deep, loving man of fierce protectiveness and uncommon good sense. His name is Arwel Powell, and one of the best descriptions of him is as an iceberg, showing very little of the depth of his personality on the surface. He is based on a real person, a family member, and I found out today that the original for my character has just been given five months to live.

Words do fail me occasionally.

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A Longer War 47

“So, Andrew, what do you do for work?”

Valerie was smiling and clearly doing her very best for her daughter.

“I’m a draughtsman, at Harwell’s out by Layerthorpe”

Pete looked up at that. “Bit of a narrow field, us three then. All engineers of one sort or another”

“I just do the drawings, Pete”

“Yes, but there’ll be a bit of insight there. Never looked at someone else’s work and thought that something didn’t look right?”

Sisters 57

In the end, I spent two weeks off work. My bosses were very clear in their instructions, and I was told that it was being recorded as ‘gardening leave’ rather than sickness absence, to avoid the stigma such things bring. Effectively, I was suspended on full pay, but without the implied misbehaviour.

A Longer War 46

Susie was annoying for some weeks after that, as she fretted for what she clearly saw as vindication of her status. I had spent quite a while trying to straighten out the tax people for her PAYE and that, but no matter how many times she saw her name on a payslip she still didn’t seem to find my recognition ‘official’ enough. The Saturday it finally came, she went missing for an evening, returning home in the small hours in a very well-oiled state. I said nothing as she came in, just made her a cup of tea and saw her safely up the stairs.

Sisters 56

It wasn’t as quick as that, of course, but we did at least get the process started. It was going to be a long haul. They needed to do so many odd things with our bits I lost track, but that wasn’t the problem. We could sort out the fertilisation bit any time, but it was the implementation, the implanting, that needed thought. Would we have what would effectively be twins, or would we stagger it to spread the, er, labour?

See if we get a viable kid-to-be first, Elaine, then plan.

A Longer War 44

In deference to both our numbers and to the age that had made itself so evident, we eventually travelled down by train. York station was being cleaned up, but it was still draughty, and I was glad to find our seats on the shiny new train. So very different from those journeys in my youth and to be honest I realised that the destination this time was of a very different kind.

A Longer War 43

Matthew raised an eyebrow at that, and once more his tact ran true to form.

“I will assume that your status is at issue, dear lady. May I ask about your name?”

“Eh? Oh! Statutory declaration”

“So for all purposes it is your name, even for a passport?”

“Yeah, but they’d still put ‘male’ on the bloody thing!”

“I see. I rather suspect there is precedent, though. A brother officer, you know, a donkey-walloper as Gerald here would have said, followed their own star a few years ago. A travel writer, yes?”

A Longer War 42

Once more I found a new world opening to me, or rather a reminder of how things used to be. Like her choice of newspaper, Valerie was wedded to the past, or at least some aspects of it, even though it seemed we had broken her away from her convictions about her child. That meant tradition, observance of How Things Are Done Properly. It meant Sunday dinners, for one.

Sisters 55

I really, really couldn’t accept that in any meaningful way. Miserable bigot goes to stay with Magic Monks, and lo and behold she is turned back onto the fluffy paths of rainbow unicorns, kittens and righteous tolerance. No, not likely at all. There were better-documented cases of airborne pork. Ambrose had a wry smile on his face, though.

“She also predicted that you wouldn’t believe her, either of you. I can see a lot of her in you, Siân: the stubbornness for a start. Look, my cards on the table. You are not the only ones who do not believe her. I gather that neither of you share her faith—no, please. Distorted, unpleasant, confused, call it what you will, she still has faith. Still a deep belief in our Saviour, strange as her image of Him may be. Please…”

A Longer War 39

We picked up some breakfast stuff, eggs and sausage, beans and bacon, and a loaf of bread, from the big supermarket the other side of the racecourse. Susie looked amused at the quantity I was loading up.

“Ah, lass, the lads like a good fry-up of a cold morning, and bacon and breadcakes does the trick”


I indicated the items in question, and she laughed. “Bread rolls! We are going to have to bring you up to date, Gerald. Now, talk me through what you’ve got for books as we drive”


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