Happy Times

Greg knew it was old-fashioned, but he liked it.  It reminded him of when he was a kid.  He and his mum and even his sulky older brother George would eagerly await his dad’s arrival home from work the Friday after they’d returned from holiday.  It was always a special occasion.  They’d get a Chinese takeaway and load the holiday photo slides into the projector.  They’d project the photos from the holiday on the wall and the room would fill with their excited chatter as they all regaled each other with anecdotes as to what the circumstances of the photos were and any other funny stories that they remembered.  It was light-hearted banter with plenty of laughs.  Even George would laugh and join in.  The total opposite of the monosyllabic grunts he’d make the rest of the time.  It was a cosy, joyful bubble of a world for that night.  The biggest laughs often coming when the slide was loaded upside down and Greg would swiftly twist himself upside down on the sofa only to be tickled by his dad until flopping down onto the floor. Happy times.

Greg made sure that he kept that tradition alive much to Amy’s chagrin.  She couldn’t see the point in having some corny old projector when they could hook up the laptop to the 42” plasma TV and view the photos in high definition. But he’d done it all through their relationship; even their wedding photos were on slides and she’d endured it up to a point.   They had to put up with poor quality pictures shone onto a patchy wall in their living room.  It wasn’t so much as a special occasion, it was a chore.  Even the Chinese food was unwanted.  Greg was the only one who liked it.  His twin son and daughter had never enjoyed it and so they’d all be forced to choose one of the “English specials” from the menu because Greg would flatly refuse to walk the further 100 yards to the curry house.  Greg’s enthusiasm failed to rub off on Amy and subsequently their kids.  It was an effort to get through the slide session and his moronic commentary to placate their dad.

This occasion was different.  It was the first since the divorce.  Everyone bar Greg sat in silence.  Even the curry, for which Greg had gone the extra yards to bring, was left untouched.  A palpable atmosphere hung in the room of the flat in which until 4 months ago Greg had called home.  The lights were off throughout.  Only the whir of the projector provided a soundtrack to Greg’s commentary as the sole source of light projected photos from their past on the wall.

“Great Yarmouth 2008:  Do you remember?  Burning hot summer we had.  You kids turned 6 just before we left for the holiday.  The car was loaded up with toys.  You always got boys and girls versions of everything.  When did that stop?  You get your own stuff now don’t you?  You get what you want now.”

The next photo showed Amy and the kids lined up and posing awkwardly in front of a static caravan.  Everyone is squinting into the sun while Greg takes the photo.  His shadow stretches out from the bottom of the frame, elongated by the sun’s angle.  His elbows are high up on his frame holding the camera.  Sun seeps through the gaps between his arched elbows and his head.  The shadow looks like a giant eye on a man’s body.

Greg leaned forward being careful to use his left arm to raise his beer can and have a drink.  Amy was snuggled under his right arm and he didn’t want to spoil the moment.

“Brilliant holiday that was.  One of the best.  Great caravan park with a kids club and everything.  Beach was only 200 yards away.  We’d spend all day every day on there.  I don’t think any of us wanted to come home after.”

Greg pressed the button on the control.  The next slide shone fuzzily.  It is Greg, buried up to his neck in sand on the beach.  The kids are either side of him.  They are all smiling.

Greg laughed.  “What a wally, eh?”  He extended his right arm around the back of Amy and nudged the boy curled up on the sofa next to his mum.  The boy ignores him; doesn’t move.  “Fancy doing that to your old dad, eh?”  Nothing, but silence.  “Gruesome twosome I used to call you.  Your mum didn’t like it, but you didn’t mind.  You knew I was just kidding.  It was her and her spoilsport ways.”  Greg’s face turned from a smile to a look of disgust as he gazed down at Amy.  “Always spoiling the fun you was.  Couldn’t just have a laugh could you? No.”  He shrugged Amy off him and stood.  He walked to the wall, picking up a prawn cracker on the way.  He cast a large shadow over the centre of the picture.  His head, protruding from the sand on Great Yarmouth beach, projected onto his shirtless back.  The twins still shone brightly on the wall.  Greg studied them seriously.

“Look at your faces.  Unbridled joy.  So innocent.  Just fun isn’t it?  That’s all.  The sort of unblemished enjoyment of doing something so silly.  Enjoy it while you can kids, it doesn’t last.  Once you get the weight of the world on you, you don’t have fun.  You just exist in an endless cycle of work.”  Greg crunches noisily on a prawn cracker.  He spits crumbs as he talks. “ If you’re lucky, you get family.  Like us.  And you experience that fun again when you have kids.  If you’re lucky you won’t get divorced.  You won’t get a restraining order for trying to put your family back together.  To stop everything from falling apart.”

He stood hands on hips staring intently at the picture; His own beaming grin from yesteryear shining brightly on his glistening wet back.

He turned from the wall and looked back into the room, hands still on hips, like a craftsman surveying his work.  Amy had remained on the sofa as though limply trying to still snuggle up to the space where Greg was sat.  Her hair matted with slowly congealing blood.  Her dressing gown shredded and bloody.  The kids were both coiled in the foetal position, save for the boy; his arm was outstretched in self-defence, punctured and bloody from the wound he caught trying to protect himself from the knife.  The girl had slumped further onto the floor.  She was limp and ragged.  Her eyes remained open with a look of fear.  They had lost their shine, but the light from the projector still flickered on them.  In the dim light seemingly black streaks of blood splatters had touched almost everything in the room.  Greg himself is covered, but none of the blood is his own and in the light of the projector it remains a vibrant deep crimson.

Greg’s eyes filled with tears.  He picked up the knife from the table on which the projector sat.  He studied it in the light from the projector: blood and torn flesh on the blade.  He turned and sat back on the sofa.  He pulled Amy back under his arm and cuddles her still warm body gently.   Hands shaking he fumbled for and retrieved the control for the projector.  The next slide appears.  The photo shows all of them together, but it is projected upside down.

Greg laughed.

A siren wailed in the distance.

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Accident

Charlotte Clarke looked again at the clock on the mantel piece as she crossed living room, drink in hand.  It must have been the one hundredth time she had looked at the clock and, as before, the time had only moved on a few minutes.  She placed the highball glass of gin and a splash of tonic down on the coaster next to her husband.  It was only the rattling of the ice in the glass that caused him to notice, he was so far gone.

He picked up the glass and guided it unsteadily to his mouth.  Charlotte had been fixing his drinks all night and she had been fixing them good and strong.  He noticed at first and she offered to replace it, knowing that he wouldn’t want her to.  It’s not that Philip was an alcoholic, but he did like a drink and when Charlotte offered to make him a G&T she knew he would not say no.

That was several drinks ago and although Philip was still alert and reasonably coherent, he swayed when he went to the toilet, his head now looked too heavy for his neck and he slumped in the armchair more than before.  Charlotte had had two glasses of red wine; more to combat the nerves than to enjoy a drink with her husband.  She glanced at the clock again: almost nine.  He should be here soon.

At 9:02 Todd came through the front door and into the lounge looking distressed.

“Dad, Mum, there’s been an accident.  I think someone is hurt.” Todd didn’t take his eyes off his mother.  They both turned to Philip.

Philip was already getting unsteadily to his feet.  Todd had only passed his test months before and Philip had reluctantly allowed him to drive his car.

“What?  Where? How?  Are you ok?”  Philip’s words slurred a little, but the shock had seemed to rouse him from his stupor.

“On the Old Mere Road…I…I crashed your car, dad.  I’m sorry!”  Charlotte exchanged glances with her son once more.

“Don’t worry about that son.  Are you ok?  Who’s hurt?”, asked Philip.

“I think I hit someone.  We need to help them.”

Philip swiftly took command of the situation.  “Charlotte, stay here and call the police and ambulance.  We are going out there to see what we can do.”

“Perhaps I should come with you.”

“No, call the police and stay in case Laura wakes up”.

“I am awake!  What’s going on?”

Their 5 year old daughter stood halfway down the stairs that led into the living room rubbing her eyes.

Philip looked up at Laura while Charlotte and Todd looked for meaning in each other’s faces.  They’re eyes darted nervously.  Philip looked at his wife.

“Hell, we’ll all go, but Laura, you have to stay in the back of the car with your mother, OK?”

“OK”

Charlotte was thankful that no one had seen her sigh with relief when those words passed Philip’s lips.

They left the house, not noticing the bike Todd had leaned against the garage wall, and made their way to the car.  Instinctively, Philip got into the driver’s seat and studiously followed Todd’s directions to the scene of the crash.  Laura soon fell asleep in the back of the car, safe in the knowledge that were anything to happen, she would not miss it.  They journeyed in silence.  Charlotte smelled the stench of booze emitting from Philip and she smiled and looked out of the side window to avoid him seeing it.

Over the brow of a hill, by a humpback stone bridge Todd opened his mouth to tell his father to stop, but he had already seen the car and was slowing down.  Deep grooves were fresh in the mud where the car had left the road and the trail led to a large old tree.  The car was mangled up against it, nose first.  The airbag had deployed and billowed like a used parachute in the open doorway of the driver’s side.

Philip got out of the car open mouthed and he walked towards the steaming mass of metal.  Charlotte and Todd followed behind.  Charlotte allowed herself to give Todd a congratulatory hug.  Todd smiled.  Philip turned to them and their smiles dropped immediately.

“What did you do?” asked Philip, but he expected no response.  This was not the time for questions.  Todd had moved to the back of the car and was rummaging on the boot, presumably to get a blanket for the victim.

Philip turned back to the crash and thought to himself that if Todd had hit anyone with the car, they were surely dead and the blanket would only serve as a shroud until the ambulance arrived with a body bag.  He trudged closer, looking to the front of the wreck for a sign of a body.  Instead, he noticed, at the base of the tree, a shining object.  He couldn’t make out what it was, but even in this mess of wreckage, it looked out of place.  He moved closer and shouted over his shoulder for Charlotte to call the police and an ambulance.  Charlotte lifted the phone from her pocket, raised it and switched it off just as Philip reached the base of the tree and picked the object up.  It was a crash helmet.

“What the hell is-“.  Philip did not finish the question.  As he had turned back toward his wife and son, Todd had moved in and struck his father with an almighty blow to the head.  The crowbar made an audible clang.  Philip stumbled forward onto his knees with a loud gasp.  Todd moved in with the crowbar raised.

“Wait! Wait.” Charlotte reached her arm out to Todd and he paused at the top of his swing.  “The impacts have to be consistent with the crash”.  Charlotte moved over to Philip’s prostrate body and rolled him onto his back.  She squatted beside him.  He now smelled of alcohol and blood and he wheezed and gurgled for breath.  After removing the tape measure from her pocket and measuring the distance that she had memorised from his neck to his chest; a distance that equalled that between his neck and the airbag’s most significant point of impact were he to have been driving the car; she instructed Todd to strike.  Philip wheezed and gurgled no more.

Todd lifted his father into position in the car and then went to fetch the log that he had earmarked for the final touch.  He brought the log to the front of the car and smashed it through the already cracked windscreen and into his father’s face.  He picked up the crowbar and held hands with his mother, holding the crash helmet as they made their way back to the car.  Laura was still asleep and they drove back to the house in silence except for Charlotte checking that her son was ok and, apart from a sore neck and a bruise that he could feel, but not yet see on his chest, he was.

Upon returning to the house, Todd carried Laura to bed and tucked her in and then he went to bed himself after a kiss and a hug from his mother.  Charlotte finished her glass of wine.  Her hands were shaking; must be the adrenaline.  She went to bed.  Todd had had his big moment.  Charlotte’s was yet to come.

The police arrived an hour or so later.  They regretted to inform Charlotte Clarke that her husband Philip Clarke had been killed in a car accident.  Charlotte questioned the reliability of the information; her husband had been drinking at home that night and would have had no reason to have gone out in his car.  It couldn’t be him.

Denial:  The police had encountered that reaction before.  It was natural.  They comforted her and re-enforced the information until she understood the facts.  She sobbed.  An officer would stay with her until a doctor could come and give her a sedative.

Upstairs, Todd intercepted Laura making her way to the top of the stairs to see what was going on.  She heard muffled voices and what sounded like crying.  Todd told her it was the television and that she should go back to sleep.  Laura complied.  Todd returned to his room too, knowing he had only postponed the inevitable questioning that would come from Laura.  Her arrival on the stairs when Todd came home had not been anticipated.  Hopefully, mother would know what to do.

The following morning Charlotte broke the terrible news that the children’s father had gone out for a drive last night and had an accident.  Todd was shocked for Laura’s sake and he also supported his mother when convincing Laura that she had dreamt going out in the car with mummy, daddy and Todd.  It would be better for Laura that way.

Over time Laura’s nightmares went away and she eventually, with coaching from her mother and brother, learned to hate her father for being so reckless as to drink and drive.  Even more so when it came to light during the police investigation that Philip had most likely been on the way to his lover’s house at the time.

The insurance money afforded the Clarke family a much more luxurious lifestyle.  It turned out that Philip had been much more valuable dead than alive.  They became a closer family unit.  Todd and his mother often exchanged furtive glances, but never spoke of the events of that night.

The years passed until Charlotte, now old and grey was the matriarch of a family that had never moved on.  Todd, now in his 30’s had not yet found a girlfriend, let alone a wife and remained in the family home.  Laura too would not stray far from the home comforts and had few friends.

On Todd’s 35th birthday, Todd had chosen to spend the evening in with his mother while Laura was out running an errand.  Following some champagne and some rather strong cocktails that Todd had made, Laura burst into the room looking distressed.

“Mum, Todd, there’s been an accident!”

Charlotte turned to her son and saw him grinning.

The back wheel of the bike, where Laura had left it on one side in the garden, ticked as it spun gradually to a standstill.

Foresaken

“What time is it?” Ellie Kirkwood had been unable to keep track of time since her abduction.

Every Sunday at exactly 07:30am, Ellie would leave her first floor flat in Temple House and complete a 5 mile run.  The route was simple enough, taking her out of the cul-de-sac of large Victorian houses, all of which were now converted to flats, and across the main road and onto the canal towpath.  Exactly 2.5 miles along the towpath was a bridge where Ellie would cross and run back along the other side.

Sunday 25th July was no different.  The alarm awoke her at 07:07am and she briskly got out of bed and into her jogging gear, being sure to pick up her ipod from its position by the window where it was on charge and filling her water bottle. Although Ellie lived alone, she was conscious of the fact that at 07:20am on a Sunday, most people would still be tucked up in bed.  So she was especially quiet when exiting her flat onto the first floor landing.  She did not want to disturb Mr. Hardy upstairs, who she knew worked nights at the city’s landfill site; nor did she want to wake the elderly Mrs, Carvalho whose door she would have to creep past in the hallway downstairs to leave the building.  They were the only people living in Temple House; although there was a basement flat available, it had not had a tenant since Ellie had moved in 6 months ago.

Ellie had considered making sufficient noise to wake Mr. Hardy, as he never seemed to bother being as conscientious when he would return from his shift at dawn.  But, she didn’t want any confrontation with him or run the risk of waking Mrs Carvalho, especially because she had been so nice to her.

She would have mentioned the noise to Mr. Hardy was she ever to see him, but it was unlikely that their paths would cross.  He gave her the creeps.  There was no real reason for it, but Ellie did wonder if her first impression of Mr. Hardy had given her cause to be wary of him.  When Ellie had first moved in she had encountered Mr. Hardy on the stairs, as he returned from working in his workshop in the garden and she was leaving for work.  She had extended her hand and said hello, only to be greeted with a grunt and no eye contact as Mr. Hardy brushed quite forcefully past her.  Rather taken aback, Ellie had always listened at her door for footsteps on the stairs before leaving her flat so she would not bump into him again.  Her tactic had worked so far.

Something about Mr. Hardy was intimidating: he was a hulking, imposing man, unkempt with dark hair, greying at the sides and thinning on top and a growth of stubble that seemed to spread from beneath his dark eyes and across his wide face and double chin, meeting perfectly with the dark tufts of hair protruding from his t-shirt and, once fluorescent, now dirty, overalls.  He walked with a stoop, but still looked well over 6 feet tall.  Ellie guessed that he was in his late forties, but apart from seeing him on the stairs that one time; she had only viewed him from afar either going to or coming from his workshop.

Mrs Carvalho, who Ellie still could not call Rosa, despite Mrs Carvalho’s constant requests, was quite the opposite.  She was small and frail in stature, with grey hair swept back from her dark, weathered face into a tight bun.  Ellie suspected that Mrs Carvalho owned the house, as she had interviewed Ellie, discussed the tenancy details and agreed the rent.  The rent was also paid in cash only to Mrs Carvalho who claimed she was just managing the property for the landlord who lives abroad.  Ellie assumed it was a tax scam, but to get a flat in such a nice area of the city for such a small price, it was worth turning a blind eye to a little old lady making some cash in hand.  Mrs Carvalho was originally from Portugal, although she moved to England in the 1960’s she still talked with a flamboyant Portuguese accent and dressed like she belonged on a postcard from the Greek islands; always in black.  Mrs Carvalho had greeted Ellie on her first day with a warm roasted vegetable pie and had gone on to provide Ellie with many more homemade snacks and meals.  Ellie had felt a connection with Mrs Carvalho straight away, as though she was the grandmother she had never had and perhaps that was why Ellie could not become familiar enough with her to call her Rosa.

Mrs Carvalho was vivacious in character and would gesticulate wildly to accompany and punctuate her pigeon English phrases.  Ellie suspected that Mrs Carvalho laid the accent on a bit thick to keep herself interesting and eccentric, but as she was the only person Ellie would consider a friend, it was of no consequence.  Mrs Carvalho did not think too highly of Mr. Hardy either.  “He is fat.  He is rude.  He smells!” she would break into a chortle as she finished and wave one hand in front of her face while the other held her nose.

Ellie would stop in for tea at Mrs Carvalho’s at least twice a week.  Ellie wasn’t sure how it started or how it became such a regular thing, but it was a welcome distraction from her work and her non-existent social life.

Ellie had been a solitary person for much of her life; abandoned as a baby (she was named by the nurses who gave her last name as the Kirkwood estate where she was found) but neither adopted nor able to trace her biological parents, she had moved from care home to care home until she turned 18 and found herself a job in the city.  Moving around so much, coupled with the ever-changing care home personnel and residents had made it impossible for Ellie to make friends.  The regular visits from prospective parents through her early childhood became much more sporadic as she got older and the realisation that she would reach adulthood before she would be adopted sank in slowly and formed a low sense of self esteem.

It was hot in the box.  Ellie had felt her way around in the pitch darkness as best she could; there was hardly room to move from her position bent double in the box.  It was a wooden box, she could recognise the texture, but she was unable to find where the lid to the box might be or find any source of light that might help her see where she was or to check that she was ok.  She felt ok; a little woozy at first which made her wonder if she had been hit on the head, but she could feel no bruising and she felt physically fine and untouched.  She was hungry which gave her no indication of how long she may have been in the box, as she always felt hungry following her run.  Her ipod had gone, which would have supplied a source of light at least, but she was otherwise fully clothed.  She held her breath to listen for sounds, but heard nothing.

Getting the job, albeit as a receptionist for a relatively small car and van rental company had given Ellie a boost and she had seen this as a new chapter in her life where she would put down roots, gain friends and begin to enjoy herself and feel good about herself.  That’s why she took up jogging.  She had always been a little overweight and not being able to afford a gym membership made her come up with an exercise regime that would help her lose weight and gain confidence.  She had already lost several pounds, not that anyone had noticed yet.

The great hopes for the future had taken some hits along the way.  Her work colleagues had not taken to her at all and she was largely ignored throughout her working day unless work details forced one of them to talk to her.  Her new flat, although lovely, stretched her wages to a point where she could barely afford to eat, let alone socialise in the thriving bar scene.  Which she guessed was ok, as she would have been drinking alone anyway.

Aside from Mrs Carvalho, Ellie’s only other acquaintance was Jill, a lady who ran a book stall on the market, who Ellie had encountered many times.  Jill had said that Ellie was the most fervent reader she had ever known.  Ellie’s secluded nights in consisted of a seat by the window, a good book and a glass or two of red wine.  Jill and Ellie often exchanged pleasantries and talked about which books they had liked and why.  It wasn’t much of a friendship, but it was good to talk to someone about a subject she cared so much about.

Ellie had tried screaming at first.  She had been listening intently for sounds or movement and she thought she could hear a faint sound of a car alarm, but it was too distant to be sure.  She was certain that she must not be alone; she felt that there must be someone outside the box.  She tried begging and pleading and even hurling insults, but none provoked a response.  Her position and her anxiousness had caused her to panic, which led to heavy breathing and hyperventilation which had made her extremely dizzy, almost to the point of passing out.  She cast her mind back to try to understand what had happened.

Warm sun greeted her when she left the house.  An early morning where direct sunlight offered warmth and shade seemed bitterly cold lay ahead of her.  She pressed play on her ipod and began her warm up: a brisk walk to the end of the road.  As usual, she saw no one on her run.  It was too early for dog walkers and people heading to the shop for a Sunday paper.  As a self-conscious jogger, Ellie liked to run when it was quiet.  She had attempted a run one Friday evening; to take her mind off all of the people going out for the night, but it actually made things worse.  People were queuing at the bus stop, dressed for a night out; laughing and joking; and the chip shop and the pizza place threw out wickedly delicious and equally nauseas smells.  It put Ellie off her pace and made the run and subsequent night reading unbearable.

After crossing the main road and reaching the canal towpath, Ellie had adjusted the volume on her ipod and begun her run in earnest.  The music had seemed a little lacklustre and began to fade.  Ellie realised that, although she had diligently plugged her ipod into her charger, she had failed to switch the plug on.  Ellie left the music to fade and be replaced by her breathing and the pounding of her trainers on the canal path.

Ellie hated running without music.  Music seemed to help her focus and develop a running and breathing rhythm without being conscious of it.  Without music her mind wandered from it’s usual flights of fancy to consider her pace and whether she was blowing out or sucking in air at the right intervals.  This made her pace and breathing fluctuate.

She tried to remember if she had seen anyone on the towpath.  No; there was no one.  It was so rare to see anyone that she was sure she would have noticed if anyone had been there.  She had felt that she was huffing and puffing already and that it was not going to be one of her good runs.  She smelt a whiff of pollen and floral tones and made a mental note to take her hay fever pill when she got home.  She drank from her water bottle and tried to focus on her pace and rhythm.  She found herself humming a tune in an effort to get her rhythm back.  It felt like a struggle to reach the bridge.

She had stopped at the bridge gasping and her hands rested on her knees as she tried to regain some composure.  Her head tilted back and the sun warmed her face as she made her way up the steps, drinking heavily from her water bottle.  The water tasted a little funny; she made another mental note to use filtered water from now on and to wash the bottle properly, rather than just rinsing.

The water; was she drugged?  How could she have been unless the whole flat’s water supply had been contaminated?

She felt dizzy and staggered down the steps to the other side of the canal.  Her eyes struggled to stay focused on the path ahead of her.  Her vision was reminiscent of an action movie she had seen, where it was all filmed using hand held cameras to bring the action closer.  It was disorientating.  She clung onto the wall for support before falling to the ground.

In the darkness she closed her eyes.  She could not remember seeing anything more than the towpath on which she was now fully laid upon stretching out ahead of her.  But she had heard footsteps.  Heavy footed; with a hollow sound, like oversized steel toe-capped workman’s boots.  The view of the towpath turned to blackness.  Was it a blindfold or a hood?  Her sense of feeling and touch had deserted her; something she had read was a side effect of date-r*pe drugs.

More sounds followed.  A grunt: a male grunt; from the effort of picking her up from the floor.  Steady irregular footsteps from the same boots accompanied by soft thuds; her feet knocking against the steps as she was dragged up them.  A van door sliding open, further grunts of effort and the same van door sliding shut.  There were more shuffling sounds and what sounded like a heavy piece of wood moving across the floor.  The noise came from over head and Ellie realised she had been placed straight into the box.  The lid was hammered shut.  12 nails, at least.  Ellie passed out before the hammering stopped.

She smelled sweaty.  She must have cooled and reheated, although her running gear had seemed to have smelled a little lately; no big deal when you run on your own.  The air in the box was acrid and hot.  She had found it more difficult to focus and was breathing heavily.  She wondered if the box might be air tight.

Her body ached.  Her feet were numb from the position she was in.  She sobbed weakly.  She’d cried herself dry within minutes of awaking and realising she was trapped.  She had little emotion left to offer than despair and resignation.

When her eyes had first strained at the darkness and searched the box for a source of light she had wondered not only how this happened, but why.  She thought of episodes of crime documentaries and movies, but could think of no reason why anyone would choose to abduct her.  She felt that she was inconsequential; a “plain Jane”, but one with no hope of the makeover that would set boys hearts a flutter.  Chubby with a heart-shaped face stamped with a small hook nose and two sunken eyes with dark circles beneath she looked much older than her 18 years.  She was genuinely frightened of social situations which made her demeanour and dress indistinct.  People often forgot her name within minutes of meeting her.  Ellie was pleased, rather than jealous that she had no invitations for work nights out, even the work experience girl got that and she was only there for a week.  Nothing; nothing made her think she was worth abducting.

It wasn’t beyond the realms of possibility that she had been taken at random.  It wasn’t unheard of.  But what chance would it take for her abductor to be looking for a victim at exactly the point of her run where she had stopped, feeling dizzy?  How could someone have drugged her other than within her water?  And that water bottle was sat in her house all night because she filled it herself the previous evening; unless, someone had been inside her flat during the night.  In the cop shows, murders are usually by someone the victim knows.  Ellie thought quickly about the people she knew: it was a short list.

No one spoke to her at work.  The mechanics kept away from reception and she kept away from the garage.  Her boss, Mr Wilcox, barely spoke to her other than to check that everything was going ok and, other than that, there were only the customers.  None of which were regular or particularly memorable.  Aside from work and the book stall, Ellie only ever spent time at home.  Her thoughts turned to Mr Hardy.

Following her first encounter with Mr. Hardy, Ellie had always been curious about him.  She often noticed the light on in his workshop late at night at weekends whilst she sat reading.  Mrs Carvalho said that he made chicken coops, but Ellie had never seen Mr. Hardy take anything to or from the workshop.  Mr. Hardy was as much of an enigma to Mrs Carvalho; she did not know his first name; all his correspondence came addressed to Mr Hardy and she knew nothing much of where he had come from.

“Hardy is his name; that is all I know.  He pays his rent on time.  He works the night shift at the dump.  Always he work the night shift.  And he pay extra to use the workshop for his chicken houses.  I never go in there.  I care not for chicken’s houses.  Oh! And he shops at Morrisons…I see the bags!”

Mrs Carvalho would laugh and pat Ellie on the arm when she said something that she knew was amusing and caught Ellie off-guard, like the time she called the postman “a sexy boy”.  Her laughter would fill the room.

Mr Hardy wore workman’s boots.  Mr Hardy had a van.  Mr Hardy had a workshop where he could make and store a box without anyone knowing.  Ellie tried to be calm, “Mr Hardy?  Is that you Mr Hardy?”  Silence; apart from that same distant car alarm.  “Please Mr Hardy, I can’t breathe in here!” Silence. “Mr Hardy?”  Her voice wavered and she whimpered quietly.  She found she was wheezing slightly.  She mustered up all of her strength and screamed “MR HAAARRRDDDYYY!!”

Seagulls squawked as they raced across the huge landfill site full of waste, drowning out any sound that Ellie may have forced through the walls of her box and the many feet of rubbish that it was buried under.  Their regular, high-pitched hoots resembled a car alarm from afar.

Mrs Carvalho looked at her kitchen clock; 11:15am.  She stirred the loose tea in the pot and replaced the tea cosy.  She set aside the strainer and the cups and saucers for two alongside a plate of biscuits.  The front door slammed and she listened to heavy footsteps make their way along the hallway.  They shuffled to a stop at her flat door.  She instinctively pulls the top of her cardigan together in a white-knuckled clench with her right hand as her left hand helps her steady herself by gripping the top of a chair.  Holding her breath she heard a key slide into her front door and felt the draft as the door opened and then closed quietly.  Her eyes fixed on the kitchen door as it pushed gently open.  Mr. Hardy stood in the doorway with a fiendish look in his eye and a smirk on his lips.  In a swift movement he reaches forward and grabs Mrs Carvalho by the forearm, pulling her towards him.  He kisses her roughly and she responds in kind with small moans of pleasure.

With the tea stewed, Mrs Carvalho poured each of them a cup as they both sat at the table:  A picture of domestic bliss.

“When you gonna clear the flat?  I have put the “for rent” notice up.” asked Mrs Carvalho, between sips of tea.

Mr Hardy reached across to take a biscuit from and dunked it in his tea.

“I’m going to start right now.  It took a long time to sell the last tenant’s stuff, especially the bits I had to break up to sell as scrap.  Perhaps we should wait a while before we get a new tenant in.” He wolfs down his biscuit in two swift bites.

“Don’t be silly.  All she has is books.  Is books!”

They smiled and sipped their tea.  Mr Hardy reached for another biscuit to dunk.

THE END

My Best Man Speech: the script

I recently had the honour of being my brother Rob’s wedding to Henrietta…despite my nerves and having to follow Rob’s very good, but also very emotional, speech, it went down well.  Of course I stole some jokes when writing, but I did come up with a few of my own too.

Here it is in full (try and imagine where the laughs came):

Good afternoon everyone,

It’s good to know that after many years of sibling rivalry, my brother has at last realised who the best man is!

Firstly, I’d like to congratulate Rob on a truly great speech.

I always knew it would be difficult to follow one of your speeches and I was right…I couldn’t follow a word of it!

You can probably tell that I’m a bit nervous giving this speech.

I feel slightly better knowing that I’m not the only person in the room feeling apprehensive – but then she has just married my brother!

It is a real honour to be here, in such a prominent role, celebrating this special day between my brother and “now” sister-in-law.

I know I speak for us all when I say that you both look fantastic.

It is truly a pleasure to formally welcome Henrietta into our family.

So, Henrietta, welcome to my family…and by the way, you’re welcome to them!  I joke of course and I only say to formally welcome you because you have been a cherished part of our family pretty much since we met and this occasion is the icing on the cake.

When Rob asked me to be his best man, I first thought it was because he had no friends – experiencing the stag do and now looking around the room, I can see that’s clearly not true.

I must admit, I did take it as a fairly casual thing at first, but as I thought more about it, it became a much bigger deal for me.

I began to understand the emotions and the importance of the day for Rob and Henrietta and hoping that I would not let either of them down and that was a bit overwhelming.

I realised that, out of everyone Rob could have chosen to be his best man, he chose me and that is pretty special, so thank you Rob.

I know that you have both put in huge amounts of effort organising this whole event to enable us to share and celebrate this very special moment with you…

…so on behalf of everyone here, I thank you for that too!

[Initiate a round of applause]…it actually says here “initiate round of applause”, so I’m glad that worked.

In preparation for this speech, I did a bit of digging for anecdotes about Rob and 2 words kept cropping up…but I couldn’t possibly say them here…no, the 2 words were actually Pony Club:

The Pony Club started back in Rob’s Newark council days and was all about going to Southwell races, having a few bets, a lot of laughs and, of course, a lot of drinks.

After one race meet, the Pony Club were in a Pub in Southwell that had a giant Jenga game and one of the games was to play it blindfolded.

When it came to Rob’s turn, the others blindfolded him then proceeded to pack away the Jenga game leaving Rob grasping at thin air.

40 minutes he kept going! I think everyone else had moved onto another pub by the time he took his blindfold off.

But you have to admire his dedication…

Rob showed his dedication in a more productive way when he worked extremely hard to become a qualified accountant and I greatly admired him for that.

He was so dedicated to becoming the perfect accountant that he also became boring, nerdy and a bad dresser.

Of course, he already had a head start on some of those!

But, back to the Pony Club: Simon Curtis told me about a game they used to play called the Kit Kat challenge.

He said “It’s a bit gross, unhygienic and gets very messy – can you imagine what it is?”

Turns out its passing a Kit Kat finger from person to person using only your mouth – and not what I thought which was how many Kit Kat fingers you could shove up your…eh…ahem.

Anyway, the only thing I learned from the Kit Kat challenge is that I have a particularly disturbing imagination.

Which may be a family trait because during one of mine and Rob’s many nights out in Newark we’d had several drinks and were talking and setting the world to rights – I forget exactly about what.

But, I said to him “You know what? You can’t polish a turd”

And he replied “Ah, but you can roll it in glitter”

I mean, I love the guy, but I wouldn’t go to a craft fair with him.

I’m not sure if Rob helped out with the centre pieces, but you might want to be wary, just in case!

Rob’s stag do was hopefully a weekend he’ll remember forever:

I’ll remember that it took me half an hour to convince Rob that he’d read the event listing wrong and it was Dirt Buggies, not Dirty Buggers…

And that it took me another half an hour to convince him to put some clothes on!

One of my main concerns on the stag do was whether Rob would actually last the night and, if he did, that it wouldn’t be spent chundering in the toilets.  He’s got a bit of a reputation for this after a few drinks:

On another Pony Club do he missed all 3 courses of a meal while he made a long distance call on the porcelain telephone.

I, too, have experienced this disappearing act: most notably in a strip club where the only explicit and graphic content that Rob got to see that night was of his own stomach.

You may have seen some of the photos from the stag do: we all dressed up as Miami Vice, but to be honest in some of the pubs we were the best dressed people in there.

In fact, in one pub, I thought they were having an idiots and whores theme party – but it turns out that’s just Yates’s on a Saturday night.

My main abiding memory of that night is standing in an 80’s themed club watching Rob’s blond Don Johnson wig slowly moving around the rotating dance floor with Rob busting out his best moves beneath it.

He was grinning from ear to ear, so I trusted he was having a great time.

And that smile was only surpassed when he entered the kebab shop and his whole face lit up like it was Christmas morning!

Fair play and much kudos to Henrietta for taking Rob on: there’s the extremely cheesy music for a start:

I think he tried to keep it hidden at first, but Henrietta finally twigged when his first 3 valentine’s cards read: “You’ll never stop me from loving you”, “I’m never gonna give you up” and “I should be so lucky, lucky…lucky”.

With taste like that, it’s a bit of a surprise that Rob has been a hit on hospital radio – but, then it is sort of a captive audience!

Apparently Rob’s DJ style and music selections have had a massive impact on the coma ward – they have never been so busy!

Seriously though, Rob is an award winning DJ which we’re all really proud of and I’m sure his audiences appreciate Rob’s enthusiasm for music, no matter how dubious his taste might be.

When Rob told me he was seeing someone called Henry, I bet I’m not the only person in this room that though “I knew it!” But it was, of course, the lovely Henrietta.

So I lost that bet with my dad!

Actually, the fact that Rob is now married means I lost my other bet with him too!

How about double or quits he’s spewing before the night is out?!

Speaking of dad: I hope you both don’t mind, but I took a peak at some of your presents:

I know dad has got you a miniature set of aftershaves and perfumes called Ample.

Try to ignore where he’s scratched the “S” off the label.

As for later, I think Rob may be planning something special for the wedding dance.

I heard he phoned his local gym and asked them if they could teach him how to do the splits.

They said “how flexible are you?”

And Rob said “I can’t make Tuesdays”.

This wedding is the highlight of a very big year for both of them:

Rob is actually going to be 40 later this year.

And Henrietta has only just turned 30.

Let’s face it; had all this happened when Rob was 21, he’d have been signing a very different register today.

Seriously though Rob: I looked up to you when we were kids and I still look up to you now.

You’re one of my best friends and you are a good, kind-hearted man: I’m very lucky to have you as my big brother.

And, knowing you as I do, Henrietta clearly makes you very happy and I trust that you will make Henrietta just as happy too.

All of your joys will now be magnified by 2 because you will share them together.

And all of your trials and tribulations will be halved because you will solve them together.

So, if everyone will please stand.

Please raise your glasses to: THE BRIDE & GROOM!!

Film Review: Project Nim

What would happen if you allowed some people to play god?  If you think anything about it would work out well, you’re wrong.

Project Nim is the heartbreaking and yet infuriating story of Nim Chimpsky, a chimpanzee taken from his mother at only 2 weeks old and raised as a human child.  All in the name of a scientific experiment to supposedly discover if apes could develop linguistic skills, through the use of sign language, to communicate fully with humans.

Sound a bit bizarre? Surreal? Like a first draft of the recent Rise of the Planet of the Apes movie?  This actually happened and this is a documentary about it.

Herbert S. Terrace is the catalyst for this saddening story.  He somehow got the funding to conduct this experiment on behalf of Columbia University and he recruited a raft of people who would be part of Nim’s life until the experiment ceased.

Told using talking heads, home movie footage and photos with minimal reconstructions, the documentary follows Nim’s life from the point his mother is drugged so he can be taken away in the early 1970’s through to his death, some 26 years later.

It’s the sort of story that makes you question mankind’s own abilities to be humane and what humane actually means.  This abhorrent and callous experiment as told by those involved with seemingly clear conscience almost defies belief were it not for the myriad of real footage and testimony in this film.

The film has a sense of objectivity about it, in that the talking heads seem to be naturally telling their tales and the footage is shown as matter of fact rather than with a particular slant or style.  To be fair to those giving testimony, the genuinely seem to be telling it like it was, as uncomfortable as that may be.

The film shies away from sensationalism – it could have easily become judgemental and gone for the shock factor.  After all it is a sensational story.  But, then perhaps those involved would not have been so keen to recall their time with Nim.

Despite the fact Nim does not, obviously, get his say, as the film develops, so does the viewers’ perception of Nim’s character.  I, personally, got a real sense of the confusion he must have felt at all that conflicts between what he was conditioned to do and what his natural instincts were.  He was essentially, as the title suggests a project: not a pet, not a companion, certainly not a human, but unfortunately barely an ape either.

A couple of people do come out with some credit, or at least redemption: a guy who worked at an animal experimentation lab who went on to rescue as many apes as he could when the lab closed and Bob, the guy who seems to be one of the driving forces behind this film being made who seemed to truly believe Nim was his companion: the scene where he is reunited with Nim will test even the steeliest resolve.

Herbert – the guy who started it all – and his cronies don’t come across very well, other than to admire them for their honesty at least.  There is an implied undercurrent of seediness about him and his cohorts with much made of hippy values and pot smoking and sexual freedom…none of which should a child be subjected to (if Nim were to be raised as such), but for some reason because Nim is an ape and this is an experiment, it’s ok.

It’s hardly surprising that the wheels come off the experiment more than once although bizarrely it is heartbreaking to see the project end.  In spite of everything, this experiment was all that Nim knew and removing him from it does feel sad because what will then become of Nim?  This, for me, draws massive parallels with how a child in an unsafe family environment might feel when taken out of that environment: it’s all they know and understand, so what will become of them?

The film works on many levels and had a real impact on me – I think this will stay with me for a long time and whilst not something I would call entertainment, I do feel the subject matter, more than the film, has an important place in history.

My Rating: 4/5

Film Review: Snowtown

This film is based on the true story of the infamous Snowtown “Bodies in Barrels” murders in Southern Australia during the 1990’s.

Daniel Henshall’s mesmerizing performance as John Bunting; the vigilante/serial killer and ring leader of the 4 people eventually convicted is what holds this film together.  Although Henshall seems to have little film acting experience (according to imdb) and certainly hasn’t had to carry a film before, he is absolutely electrifying and this should certainly propel him onto great things and more prominent roles.  I wouldn’t be surprised if he follows Joel Edgerton into mainstream American cinema.

I can’t recall the “Bodies in Barrels” murders making many headlines over here, unlike the “Backpacker Murders” which were around the same time and I remember distinctly.  But the “Bodies in Barrels” murders are equally horrific and Bunting is recognised as one of Australia’s most prolific and brutal serial killers.

“Bodies in Barrels” comes from one of the storage methods that Bunting and his accomplices used: the bodies were placed in large barrels and covered with hydrochloric acid which, rather than dissolve the victims as they had hoped, actually mummified them.

Bunting was clearly the controlling leader of this small band of murderers.  He had already coerced Robert Joe Wagner into becoming his accomplice and that relationship is already established when this film commences.  Instead the film focuses on Bunting’s relationship and coercion of Jamie Vlassakis into their group.  The fourth member convicted, Mark Haydon, is a peripheral figure in the film which is most likely due to the fact that he was convicted of helping to move the bodies rather than taking part in the murders.

Jamie lives in abject poverty with his mum and 3 brothers.  Jamie and his 2 younger brothers are being abused by a family friend/neighbour and when this comes to light Bunting and Wagner turn up to harass the neighbour until he moves.  From this point on Bunting develops his relationship with the family and begins to focus on Jamie whom he can control and convince to be a part of his vigilante movement.

Lucas Pittaway also gives a strong performance as Jamie – there is one scene in particular where Jamie waits in one room while a murder takes place in the bathroom; the camera lingers on Jamie while we hear what is going on in the bathroom – he is a picture of confusion, fear and despair.

I found the direction of the film from Justin Kurzel to be a little disjointed.  It looks as though real poverty stricken locations are used that give it authenticity and also a documentary sense, especially as most camera shots have a hand held feel.  The film is also gritty and brutally violent, both implied and explicit which makes it quite a disturbing piece to watch.

However, my main concern with the direction, and this is where I feel it becomes disjointed, is the lingering shots of locations and close ups of insignificant objects that seems to have become a standard cliché used in many low budget and indie films.  So much so that it feels like a gimmick and, to me, means the film loses any opportunity it had to have a unique style.

Given Henshall’s outstanding performance where he treads a fine balance between jovial and frighteningly psychotic – reminding me much of Paddy Considine in A Room for Romeo Brass – I do feel he was deserving of a more complete vision for the film as a whole.

Aside from Henshall, the film’s main strength is that it is not a police procedural or a standard serial killer slasher: instead, the focus seems to be more on family and the roles within it.  Because as Bunting charms his way into the family he begins to assume the father’s role, not dissimilarly, uncomfortably, to the family friend/neighbour at the beginning of the film.

It’s not an easy film to watch, the subject matter ensures that, but for Henshall’s performance alone it is compelling viewing.

My Rating: 3.5/5

Film Review: Safe House

Director: Daniel Espinosa

Stars: Denzel Washington, Ryan Reynolds

This is an explosive action/thriller that keeps you hooked from beginning to end.

Denzel Washington rarely puts a foot wrong with his film choices and here, also as Exec Producer, he turns in another superb performance.

He’s Tobin Frost: a famously rogue ex-CIA agent who now sells secrets to the highest bidder and spends the rest of his time evading capture.  He’s renowned for his record in the CIA as master interrogator with his uncanny ability to get inside people’s heads.  He’s been there, done it and got the cynicism to prove it.  This time Frost has the mother load: a file so full of secrets that could blow almost every secret service corruption and double-crossing across the globe wide open.  It’s valuable enough to sell for a high price and it’s valuable enough to be killed for to prevent it getting out.

Ryan Reynolds is Matt Weston, a guy at the other end of the espionage career spectrum: younger, eager and innocent. He’s on duty at the eponymous safe house in Cape Town, South Africa.  He spends his evening with his girlfriend and his long lonely days in the safe house dreaming of his chance to get a “proper” post elsewhere.

Following Frost’s surrender to the US consulate in Cape Town in an effort to evade being killed, he’s take to Weston’s safe house and he soon finds himself neck deep in CIA action.  Apparently the guys that want that file out of circulation don’t give up so easily and there’s no doubt that there is a mole in the CIA to contend with too.

It all makes for a great chase movie.  There are times when some astonishing leaps of logic and detection are made, but in an action film such as this you have to let it slide.  It’s pretty much a rollercoaster of a movie with terse interactions between the main protagonists punctuated with adrenalin fuelled actions sequences.  It almost makes for a buddy movie too, but with a little more than the usual “these 2 guys hate each other, but have to work together” theme.  They have no reason to hate each other; they’re doing their chosen respective jobs.  Instead, cleverly, the scriptwriter David Guggenheim (with his first major movie script) uses the fact that Washington’s character too started out as a safe house operative and clearly sees much of himself in Reynolds idealistic young man.  Washington is such a good actor: at times he subtly eyes Reynolds with the look of a man looking at himself at a younger age and contemplating the choices he made to get him here…all in a look, a nuance weighted enough to make an impact without turning into scenery chewing overacting.

Reynolds too shows his chops as a leading man and for that too we must give credit to the scriptwriter and the director: the script calls for his character to react and largely be out of his depth in a way that makes the audience wonder just what he might decide to do next, whereas a hardened action man movie would clearly map out where the film is going.  The director, Daniel Espanosa, also does not make much of Reynolds’ movie star looks.  No lingering shots or needless shirtless scenes, instead Reynolds is bloody, dirty and sweaty for much of the film and in a state of near collapse and panic.

The action, by and large, is shot to give a sense of realism and I believe these stunts really did take place, as opposed to green screen or CGI, and Reynolds appears to be involved almost throughout, especially in some internal car shots that reminded me a little of McQueen in Bullitt.  There are also some fantastic moments where the action suddenly and very loudly kicks off which not only grabs your attention but echoes the feelings of the two men in that they don’t seem to be able to rest for a second.

The crux of the movie is the relationship between the two, but the file plot and the CIA mole, although a little clumsily handled, are conduits that drive the men together and keep them in each other’s company.  Washington and Reynolds bounce of each other in their scenes, of which I would have loved to have seen more, as both characters get under the skin of the other whether intentionally or not: clearly Washington as Frost wants to get inside Reynolds’ Weston’s head in order to manipulate him and his own escape, but he doesn’t count on Weston getting under his own skin by being so reminiscent of him in his younger days.  In terms of getting the most emotional connection from short scenes, this is an acting master class that could be seen as a metaphor for their own Hollywood career trajectories: Washington has done it all and Reynolds is eager to prove he has what it takes to be more than a Hollywood hunk.  From this, and other interesting career choices such as Buried, Reynolds clearly does have what it takes to be closer to Washington in terms of acting esteem than the Matthew McConaughey end of the spectrum.

In the wrong hands it could have turned into just another 16 Blocks (not a bad movie, but hardly one that grips you) and instead this gives you a great 1 hr 55 minutess of intense thrills and spills.