The Most Incredible Thing that Happened to Mr and Mrs McBale

Mr McBale watched from his farmhouse window the violent thunderstorm raging outside.  Rain lashing and wind rattling the window pane.  The storm was right overhead.  Terrific bursts of lightning flashed across the sky.  It was not a night to be out on the coast of Ayrshire.  In the room a warm fire crackled, and the sound of Mrs McBale, busy in the kitchen, comforted him, as he thought of his crop of barley being battered by the storm.

A loud knock at the door interrupted his worrying, and brought Mrs McBale from her kitchen.

At the door, standing about 6ft tall, under torrential rain, was a smiling young man, 16 or 17 years old, seemingly unaware of the dreadful weather conditions.  With tousled hair the colour of straw and bright blue eyes, his face had an innocent radiance, as if born yesterday.  His clothes, curiously familiar to Mr and Mrs McBale, were dirty and torn and several sizes too wide for his slight frame. His feet were bare.  All three parties stood staring in silence, until Mrs McBale stepped forward, held out her hand, and invited the young man in.

Sitting by the fire wearing an equally large clean set of Mr McBale’s clothes, with a generous mug of hot chocolate, the boy seemed most contented.
“What brings you out on a night like this?” asked Mrs McBale.
“I don’t really know.” he said in a bright soft voice.  “I just found myself in the middle of the field.”
“Where do you live?”  She continued.  The boy looked up to nowhere in particular.
“I don’t know if I live anywhere.” He said without any trace of anxiety or concern.  As if appearing in the middle of a field, in the middle of the night, was the most normal thing in the world.
Mr and Mrs McBale looked at one another and shrugged.  “Well, it’s late.  Said Mrs McBale.  We’d better make a bed for you.  Maybe the morning will bring your memory with it!”



The following day was clear and bright.  Mr McBale filled his lungs with the fresh cool Scottish air.  The barley was in surprisingly good shape despite the efforts of the storm.  ‘A few more days and a bit of sunshine….’ he thought, but stopped suddenly, noticing that the scarecrow usually standing in the middle of the field, was no longer there.

He made his way through the crop, expecting to find the scarecrow lying broken, but instead found burnt barley stems around a patch of bare ground.  A lightning strike.  There were footprints in the muddy soil leading to a line of trampled barley going straight to the farmhouse.  Then he remembered where he had seen the boys tattered clothes before.  He looked back and forth between the space at his feet, where once a scarecrow stood, and the spare bedroom window of the farmhouse where a young man lie sleeping.  His mouth fell open.  “It can’t be!” He said.  “Can it?”



Travels with a Bus Pass

As a serial bus passenger, I do find it is often better to travel than to arrive. Bus stations rarely proclaim a sense of arrival. Most are constructed of corroding concrete in a neo-Stalinist architectural style. They occupy backwaters which lost out after planners’ budgets had been blown on railway forecourts and shopping malls. Judging by their cafés and toilets, they also lurk beyond the radar of environmental health officers. When re-branded as Transport Interchanges, their new amenities typically comprise a deserted taxi rank and a sign to the railway station.
If I wish to continue my onward journey, information is minimal. Occasionally I might find a network map, but it is so topologically unrelated to the real world that it offers scant help in selecting a route. Stances display service numbers that are incomprehensible to anyone but the most loyal commuter. Timetables, and even digital display monitors, contend for the Booker fiction prize.
When a plausible looking bus finally arrives, my enquiry to the driver elicits a reply in an accent as unfathomable as a doctor’s handwriting. I scan my bus pass, guiltily aware that I can better afford to pay the fare than most of my fellow travellers.
Ah, but then the adventure begins! The frisson starts with the knowledge that I am possibly on completely the wrong bus and will end up stranded in an anonymous suburb bereft of shops, food and cash machines.
The bus pulls clear of the station and immediately I am forbidden territory, where car drivers are no longer permitted to venture. I sweep through unfamiliar streets with hidden architectural gems. I veer away from the gallerias and tinted-glass office blocks and head through unfashionable, but low-rent, districts where small businesses nurture their green shoots.
The bus picks up speed, largely unconcerned by the possibility that passengers might wish to board or alight. It penetrates inner suburbs where halal butchers vie with discount shops and nail salons. I race straight ahead through traffic lights where other vehicles are forced to turn right; eye level with windows, I peer directly into the goings-on of shops, offices and sitting rooms.
Then once more I emerge onto the open road before turning into a peripheral housing estate. Slowing for speed kerbs and veering round chicanes, the bus describes tortuous semi-circles through interminable avenues of cookie-cutter housing. Then, just at the point of maximum disorientation, when I finally accept that I am definitely on the wrong bus, I emerge unexpectedly onto a main road and accelerate confidently into the countryside.
I finally see my destination named on a reassuring roadsign. My composure restored, I can now enjoy the view from my elevated seat – down side roads, across hedges, into gardens – and survey secrets that lie hid from the motorist’s gaze.

Brian (A short story written to the theme of ‘A Stranger’s Secret’)

If you had met Brian, you wouldn’t have thought him a stranger in a strange land. He had a knack of fitting effortlessly into his host culture. He was the easiest of guys to get on with. Relaxed, friendly, helpful – what the French call sympa.
He was a great colleague to have. He arrived in the office of Demitech one hot, sunny morning in May 2005 along with a handful of other new recruits. He was an optimistic guy, arriving just as the company was going through a purple patch, and he instantly settled in. No fanfares, no bravura, unassumingly self-confident, always willing to look for work rather than waiting to be asked.
The men liked him. He was knowledgeable about the art and science of football without being partisan, techie without being nerdy, and fit without being fanatical. Nor did he take advantage of his attractiveness to the opposite sex, and was always chivalrous in defence of women’s talents without being patronising.
For his part, Brian couldn’t understand why social skills were such a big deal. He puzzled as to why some people found them so difficult or why trainers placed so much emphasis on them. They seemed easy enough to master if you indulged in a little people-watching or read the right novels.
He had arrived from Eastham plc with glowing references. Eastham had got into a mess and had had to lay off several dozen staff – on a last in first out basis, to keep the unions happy. Brian’s testimonial was fulsome in his ability as a versatile problem-solver, always willing to go beyond the requirements of the job. Under a different industrial relations policy, he was the last employee that they would have shed. Eastham’s loss was Demitech’s gain, and Brian’s line manager soon learned to turn to him if there were tricky logistical or contractual issues to solve, or if IT systems were snagging.
More than one of Brian’s female colleagues had tried to seduce him, but he deftly and empathetically resisted feminine wiles. He had occasionally referred to a certain Wendy, but at first it wasn’t clear whether she was a relative, flatmate or partner. He had been spotted in town with her and had once introduced her to a colleague in the street, though it was only by name and without any reference to a relationship. Word had gradually filtered round that Wendy was actually a girlfriend, possibly even wife, hence Brian’s immunity to flirtation.
Wendy, for her part, worked for a public relations company. She had joined following Brian’s move to Demitech and had similarly established herself as an invaluable member of staff. Her natural aptitude for the job and the seemingly effortless way in which she excelled across the board initially caused a degree of resentment, but this was quickly dispelled by her sunny and outgoing disposition. She wasn’t averse to exploiting weaknesses in men’s defences but, equally, wasn’t flagrantly manipulative. Women trusted her; they admired her facility with men, yet without feeling competitive or envious.
Brian and Wendy were not averse to asking favours of colleagues. But they always made it clear that a favour would be returned when most needed, and their social capital was generally considered to be in good credit.
For example, one day when Demitech were working flat out to deliver on a major contract, the IT systems – sensing their masters’ urgency – slowed to a crawl. Where the IT boffins had spent several fruitless hours, Brian tracked down a flaw in a subprogram and had returned the servers to full speed. The contract was delivered in the nick of time.
On another occasion, Brian spotted a misinterpretation of a clause in a client’s brief that was unwittingly resulting in hours of irrelevant work and would doubtless have led to disputes and delayed payments. The project leader was unable to explain how he had mis-read the original.
Down the road, Wendy’s computer had somehow been infected by an email worm that was sending out random messages via her address book, potentially compromising company confidentiality. She couldn’t explain it – she hadn’t visited any unusual websites and her antivirus software was up-to-date. Her antennae recommended that she played the helpless female card. She pleaded with IT manager Josh to sort the problem, even though he was at the end of his tether with an inexplicable line fault. Succumbing to her charms, and against his better judgement, Josh spent most of the afternoon tracing and removing the offending malware. Wendy showered him with compliments and promised a timely return of the favour.
Unfortunately, any company that loses time – especially to the gremlins and trolls of IT systems, let alone the capricious gods of contract management – will suffer in the merciless world of high pressure business. It was not long before Brian and Wendy found themselves, despite their charisma and competence, at risk of lay-off. Precious hours had been lost in small but incremental ways. Whilst no deadlines had actually been missed, incoming tenders had been neglected and new contracts had not been won. Staff were tired from the relentless demands of unpaid overtime. Bosses at both companies had warned of impending cutbacks.
Once in a while – just enough to maintain their social networks but not so frequently as to raise suspicions – Brian and Wendy would resort to Hartley’s Bar. It was after they had both been summoned to an urgent staff meeting to report on company difficulties that they decided a relaxing post-work drink was in order. Sipping cocktails, they were soon joined by other strangers.
Carrie and Frank – to give them their adoptive names – came across and winked at them, knowingly. You wouldn’t have been so instantly enamoured with Carrie and Frank as you were with Wendy and Brian. Despite abundant talent, they hadn’t made any real attempt to master the social mores of Homo sapiens, and both could appear aloof and supercilious. Of course, they were annoyingly smart, and they paid the kind of meticulous detail to their outward appearance that you would expect from a species with such highly evolved powers of mimicry.
There were other strangers that frequented Hartley’s. It was a trendy and cosmopolitan little enclave where they could mingle inconspicuously and it lay close to the financial hub of London. This little time-obsessed corner of the planet suited their mischief well, and strangers regularly gravitated towards it.
“How’s tricks?”, asked Frank as he sank into a chair, betraying a subtle mastery of local linguistic nuance, conscious of his double meaning.
“Terrific”, replied Brian, “Demitech is a fun place to be. A few smarties but mostly dupes. Amazingly clunky IT systems and software. The machine codes are child’s play. I can be in and out in nanoseconds. How is it for you?”
“Brilliant,” boasted Frank as he sipped a well chilled Muscadet. “Had the whole company running round like headless chickens after a product recall”.
Whilst Brian specialised in tinkering with IT systems and email attachments, Frank was more of a hardware person. He could subtly slip in a defect, and then wait for the ensuing mayhem a few weeks down the line. Mostly he just messed with small things like toys and kitchen appliances, though once he’d managed to ground an entire aircraft fleet.
All four continued to share notes on their respective activities. Their companies hadn’t actually defaulted on any critical contract deadlines, but order books were starting to look pretty bleak. “What fun!”, they all agreed, as they arranged to re-convene in a week’s time.
The urgent meeting held by the management of Demitech proved not to have been a false alarm. Staff had been warned that, due to unforeseen delays and lost business, the company was facing cash flow problems and there would need to be layoffs. Inevitably, they would be on a last in first out basis.
When they next met at Hartley’s, Brian was flourishing a redundancy notice but, of course, had been promised stellar references.
Carrie was in garrulous mood, full of tales about how it had taken her firm’s IT officers best part of a week to clean a Trojan horse which had inexplicably found its way past the very latest release of antivirus software. But it was clear that Brian was fidgety, his hyperactive and exceedingly powerful brain concentrating on something else altogether.
When Carrie eventually paused for breath, he said, “Hey, guys. You know, we’ve come to this place to have a bit of a lark, but we’re being pretty small scale. A provincial factory here, a solicitor’s office there. It’s entertaining seeing these primitives getting stressed out, and it sure beats having to do a real job back home. But it’s getting a bit predictable.”
“So what do you have in mind”, inquired Frank, sounding impressed at the evident entrepreneurship of his seemingly languid companion.
“Well, we’ve been making these folk lose the odd hour here and there, sometimes a day, occasionally a week. But what if we were to think really big? What if we were to set the whole country, the whole continent, the whole world back a year? Even a decade?”
The strangers’ eyes almost came out on organo-silicate stalks, and they struggled to maintain their façade. “Pray tell”, said Frank.
“Look”, continued Brian. “These western countries aren’t actually producing much. They’re running on what they call ‘services’. Mostly finance. Even the finance sector’s run out of really solid products. They’re turning to things that don’t actually square with reality. Things that only exist as long as people believe in them – options, futures, derivatives, even Ponzi schemes. Like the Emperor’s New Clothes.”
Frank had heard the fable of the emperor’s clothes, but he still couldn’t get the drift of Brian’s argument. “Okay”, he said “but these financial services are still functioning pretty well. Are you suggesting we muck up the global information network? It sounds like hard work. Earth’s got plenty of its own tricksters working on that at present, without much success.”
“No, look,” said Brian. “These finance schemes seem simple enough to us, but they’re too complicated for the human brain. The guys who can understand the math don’t understand the markets. And the guys who run the markets can’t do the math. It’s difficult stuff for humans. People have got the Nobel Prize in Economics for it.”
The others were still puzzled. Brian was usually the laid-back one, the one who enjoyed tinkering at the small-scale, just for the fun of getting humans get stressed. It was other strangers, Frank and Carrie in particular, who were more seriously megalomaniac and malicious. “Okay, so we mess up the IT and HR systems of an investment company”, said Frank. “Big deal. And hard work.”
“No, don’t you see”, continued Brian, excitedly. “If we can rumble these markets, we can undermine faith in the whole monetary system. The human economy is based on confidence. Puncture the balloon and all the growth of the past decade will vanish. They’ll lose time by shedloads. It’ll take them another ten years of frantic tail-chasing even to get back to where they are now, if they ever do.”
A massive smile started to suffuse across Frank’s face. Wendy and Carrie stared in open-eyed admiration. “A whole decade? The whole world?”, gasped Carrie. “When do we start?”
That evening, Brian began to write his most ambitious job application yet. He understood that leading employers preferred a handwritten letter to the impersonal output of a laser printer, and so quickly learned to mimic favoured graphological styles. His application would be supported by spectacular references and a perfectly faked Master’s in Mathematical Economics from a leading university. He was in skittish mood as he began his application letter. The opening statements were:
            Name:                                  Brain
Home Address:                    The planet you call Kepler-62f
Occupation:                        Time Thief
He showed it to Wendy. She smirked, but reminded him that Americans didn’t share the same sense of humour as Brits. A Brit would probably treat it as a double bluff and find it witty and enterprising. Yanks would probably take it literally.
So he crumpled it up, threw it in the bin, and began a more conventional letter of application:
                “Dear Mr Madoff…”

Mr Mulgrew’s Headache

Mr Mulgrew’s Headache
“Good morning Mr Mulgrew, yes, I suppose I am late again, and this time I know, yes I am very late but I can explain.  You see, first thing this morning I was walking across a meadow.  It was so quiet and so still I could hear the grass growing treeeeeep treeeeeeeep treeeeeeep.  I couldn’t help glorying in the peace and the countryside until my happiness was destroyed by the explosion of my alarm clock cloungclaung cloungclang.  Then, Mr Mulgrew, I realised the sensation in my feet was not the grass of the meadow, but the cat.
I jumped out of bed and into the shower then got dressed really quickly because I thought I heard someone tapping on the window truttrattruttrattruttrat but it wasn’t anybody Mr Mulgrew, it was rain, maybe even hail.  So I had to change out of my sandles and into my new leather shoes.  I rushed to the bus stop but my heels were going clicityclackclicityclack on the bricks but I was in such a hurry to get to the bus stop that I didn’t see the doggy doodoo on the sidewalk. I slipped and I landed really hard on my beheuchy Mr Mulgrew and my red coat I usually wear was covered in it.  It smelt rank.  Really rank Mr Mulgrew.  You wouldn’t want me here bringing that smell with me.  So I had to dash home again and change into this clean, cream coat: but I missed the bus.
cream jacket
Yes, I know I am even later than usual but I even missed the bus I usually get that makes me just a few minutes late and had to get the one after that made me so very late today.  You can see it wasn’t really my fault Mr Mulgrew.  It was the raining and the  cat and the dog.  So tomorrow, if there is no raining cats and dogs, I promise I will not be nearly so late.  Sorry, what was that Mr Mulgrew? Oh, yes, I might even be on time: yes, I willl close the door on my way out.”

The Music Lesson

No-one ever says that they regretted learning to play the piano. Even so, few admit to having enjoyed piano lessons, unless they were exceptionally gifted.
I was certainly no child prodigy. In fact, all our family was spectacularly lacking in any glimmer of musical talent. However, we had somehow acquired a piano – a rather inferior upright, but a serviceable instrument nonetheless. It was rumoured that my parents inherited it from great-uncle Freddie because they were the only relatives with a sufficiently large sitting room.

As a young child, my favourite trick was to hammer out God Save the Queen or Chopsticks as forcefully as possible, at times when I know it would cause maximum annoyance. Usually, it was when my mother was engrossed in a novel, or my father had just settled in front of the television after a long day, or my older sister was trying to concentrate on her homework. The more they shouted at me to stop, the more percussively I would attack the keys, running off as soon as I heard footsteps stamping down the hall.
I remember one hot sunny afternoon when I was eight. I had promised Jamie Watts that I would go round to his house after school for some cricket practice. When my mother came to collect me, instead of heading straight home, she announced that I was being taken to a piano lesson.
Even today, I can remember the churning sensation in my stomach. I had heard tales from wretched classmates about stentorian teachers making them learn scales, shouting at them for the slightest mistake, and making them practice every night. My teacher, Miss Thomas, exceeded my worst imaginings in every respect. I somehow struggled through a year of lessons, progressing perhaps half way to Grade One. Eventually, I pleaded with my mother to stop the torment, to which she agreed on condition that I would never again use the piano in mischief. It was a deal that was immediately struck.
That was over fifty years ago. As I have got older, hardly a week has gone by when I haven’t regretted giving up the piano. If only I had persisted, how I might have enjoyed leading sing-songs or just making music for my own pleasure.
I am not one to dwell on missed opportunities. Retirement is a time to embark on fresh ventures, not to laze around doing nothing. The piano has stood in our study, forlornly, ever since my mother’s death. To my surprise, the tuner was able to breathe new life into it. There is a card in the newsagent’s window which reads ‘Rosie Betts, piano teacher – adult learners a speciality’. I am eagerly awaiting her first visit.


For Janice

My dear friend lay, pale and drawn. Her poor little arms and legs looked so thin and fragile yet her abdomen was swollen. The shadows under her eyes spoke of pain-filled restless nights and still she turned now this way, now that, in an effort to find ease. I sat down and held her hand. “ I’m scared, I don’t want to die, there is so much I still need to do. What about my family, how will they cope?”I felt her fear and anxiety and wished in that moment I could spare her this ordeal. Of the many journeys we had taken together this one she had to take alone. I would, of course, be there for her and her family, help in whatever way I could, feeling helpless and frustrated and knowing that, whatever any of us did, it would not be enough. In came other visitors and immediately the smile was on her face and the play began; the one where everybody is trying to be cheerful and hopeful and talk about everything and anything as long as it is not this awful reality. As I sat and watched them my mind went back to better days, happier days when –
We rented a cottage on a small Island off the West Coast of Scotland. It was a beautifully restored former school house in a picturesque tiny fishing village. The window to the front offered an uninterrupted view of the ocean. The weather that summer was unusually good and we enjoyed day after day of warm, sunny weather. My friend and I along with a mutual friend, away from all the cares and responsibilities of our usual lives, reverted to being girls again . We dined al fresco on the patio under the shade of a brightly coloured parasol. Fresh, crisp, aromatic bread, creamy butter, favourite cheeses and meat, all tasted so much the better for the beauty of the day, the scenery, and the company. We walked along beaches picking up interesting shapes of shells and colours of stone. We found a piece of driftwood that resembled a fish and wrote our names on it using a piece of limestone we had found and asked a passer-by to take a picture of us by the plaque. I have it in my possession now, a captured precious memory. We walked forest paths, walked beside little streams and waded in shallow pools , and talked and talked and laughed, a lot of laugher.
Another time at a church social we became “The Spice Girls-Forty Years On”. We each dressed up as one of the Spice Girls, bearing in mind at this point we were all in our fifties and, for the act, we each sported either a walking stick or a zimmer. We had made up a silly dance to one of their hits and we brought down the house. I was Baby Spice complete with a blond wig made from strands of cream yarn, and cuddled a teddy bear, and my friend was Sporty Spice dressed in baggy street trousers and backward baseball cap. People cried with laughter and still talk of it.
So many good memories of wonderful times shared by the very best of friends. But now she lies, a non-smoker, dying of stage 4 lung cancer with secondaries in her bones, getting ready to undergo her first radiation treatment, followed by chemotherapy. “We can’t cure you. This is only palliative treatment” the doctors told her, and left, leaving her to the smashed pieces of her life. “ I will fight it all I can,” she said. I will fight by your side with my prayers, my presence, all the love, compassion and empathy I possess, dear friend. I wish her to live long, for all the dreams she has that are yet unfulfilled, for her devastated family and the grandchildren yet unborn, for all the future laughter and tears of our friendship, but not if it means selfishly prolonging her suffering. There are times in life when the greatest testimony to love is to let go.