THE MAIN CHARACTER
I reclined in my chair, eyes closed, concentrating on details of the prize-winning novel I was about to write. A nervous cough from the other side of my desk shook me out of my meditation and there, in front of me, sat a man.
“Who are you?” I demanded.
“I’m your main character. You summoned me,” he said.
“Did I? What’s your name?” I asked.
“Bert Cramp, I’m your secret agent.”
“You can’t be a secret agent with a name like Bert,” I told him, “secret agents are called Clint, or Dirk, or something like that.”
“Then give me a better name,“ he replied, “You’re the author.”
I looked him up and down as he perched on the edge of his chair, fiddling with a stray thread that hung from his fair isle pullover. His crumpled grey shirt looked as though it had once been white. At least he’d got the period right – that pullover would suit a novel set in the 1960’s.
“Tell me about yourself,” I said, “I need someone under thirty. How old are you?”
“Thirty-ish,” he said but his wrinkled face and thinning hair suggested otherwise.
“Are you a family man?”
“Oh yes, happily married with three children.”
“My secret agent has to be young, handsome and fearless,” I told him. ”Have you ever been to Istanbul, or Casablanca?”
“Never been abroad. I don’t like abroad.”
“Have you ever shot anyone?”
“Certainly not! I once shot a tin duck at the fair,”
I surveyed him again; very short and rather overweight; frayed collar and no tie; shabby jacket with leather patches on the elbows; corduroy trousers without creases. His fingernails were dirty. He looked like a man who worked with his hands, perhaps for the council. I looked him straight in the eye.
“I’m sorry,” I said, “but I don’t feel you’re quite right for the role. I’m really looking for someone taller.”
“That’s up to you, I can be taller if that’s what you want. I can be whatever you make me.”
I felt I was facing an uphill struggle. I closed my eyes again, in order to think, and as I did, he seemed to change. His face grew lean and rugged. His hair became thick and wavy. In my mind, he morphed into a different creature. I opened my eyes and was immediately struck by his air of sophistication. The well-cut suit; the crisp white shirt, the expensive wristwatch, all added up to the perfect image of a dashing young man. I stared at him, speechless.
“Hi,” he said, crossing his legs and displaying a pair of polished leather brogues, “I’m Dirk Stryker, special agent.”
A few simple questions convinced me that he was the man for the job. I sat up in my chair and opened my laptop. Soon, my fingers were flying over the keys.
Two men fought on the roof of a speeding train, unaware that they were rapidly approaching a low tunnel. One was built like a gorilla. He was dark and swarthy, with an ugly scar down his left cheek. The other was short and tubby and wore a fair isle pullover. The big man reached into a pocket, pulled out a gun and aimed it at his opponent.
“Duck Bert!” I yelled. Bert dropped down flat, just as the train entered the tunnel. A thump was followed by a scream, as the gorilla was swept off the roof.
Natasha examined her own image in the full-length mirror.
Looking good! she thought, as she admired her shapely body and long elegant legs, I’ll have him eating out of my hand.
She stripped off the cotton bedclothes and replaced them with pink satin, spraying a little Chanel No. 5 on the pillow-cases. She had to hurry; he would be here soon. She’d heard a lot about this man and liked what she’d heard. She dimmed the lights and was lighting a candle beside the bed when the doorbell rang. She adjusted her silk negligée to hang more loosely and reveal a little more of her cleavage. It floated out behind her, as she moved swiftly down the stairs. She opened the front door and the smile froze on her face as she saw the figure in front of her; a short tubby middle-aged man in a shabby jacket and a fair isle pullover.
“Why are you still here, Bert?” I demanded, “I thought I’d made it clear, you are not welcome here!”
“I wanted to spend an evening with lovely Natasha,” he whined.
“Natasha is not interested in you; she’s an enemy agent and she’s waiting for Dirk. Now please go away.”
As Bert walked towards the bus-stop, turning his collar up against the rain, a black Mercedes splashed through a puddle, drenching him with muddy water. The car swung into Natasha’s drive and came to a halt. Dirk emerged and rang the doorbell but no-one answered. He turned to leave. “Call her Dirk,” I suggested, “use your mobile.”
“Are you kidding?” he replied, “A mobile in the 1960’s?”
Inside, Natasha was changing into jeans and a tee-shirt.
I watched Bert as he stood forlornly at the bus-stop, thin strands of hair plastered to his forehead and drops of water running down his face. Were they raindrops, or were they tears? They soaked his grubby collar and splashed onto my desk. A wave of guilt flooded over me and I began to reconsider my novel. I realised there are far too many stories about special agents already, so why not write about a different sort of man? Why not write about a man in a fair-isle pullover? I pulled my laptop towards me and opened the lid.
PEACE AT LAST
I died at Passchendaele. Shell hit the ground, right in front of me. Didn’t stand a chance. Blew my bloody head off. They picked up all the bits of me they could find and brought me here to Tyne Cot. British war cemetery. Nice place. Some bits of me are still missing, of course, but I don’t need them any more. They gave me a simple wooden cross at first, with just my name, rank and number on it, but now I have a proper gravestone, with the regimental badge and my dates. Since that went up, she has visited me almost every day. Very rarely misses.
She kneels on the grass and talks to me. In French sometimes, although she knows I don’t understand much of it, but usually in English. If I could speak, I’d tell her not to keep coming. She should find herself an able-bodied French-speaking man, who could satisfy her needs. Any red-blooded young male would be more than willing. But I must admit, I’d miss her visits. I love to hear her sweet voice and know she hasn’t forgotten me. All the same, I can’t rest easy.
I should have told her when I had the chance, but I couldn’t find the courage. I knew how much it would hurt her and besides, I was too scared of losing her. Her love was the only thing that kept me going, through all that hell. Now I can’t tell her, but I suppose it doesn’t matter. She doesn’t need to know my secret. Here she comes now, I recognise her footsteps. I can hear running water. She must have brought me fresh flowers again and she’s filling a vase. She walks away to throw out the old flowers. And now she’s back, arranging them nicely and placing the vase gently in front of my gravestone. I hear the rustle of her dress, as she kneels. She takes such tender care. If only I’d told her. I shouldn’t have deceived her. I wish I could make amends.
Someone else is coming. Another woman, by the sound of the steps. She says something in French. Oh my god! That voice sounds familiar. Can it really be her? The footsteps have stopped.
“Did you know my Edward?” she asks in English. And then I’m certain. It’s her. It’s Vicky!
“Yes, mademoiselle,” says Colette, “I knew him well. And you?” If my toes could curl, they’d be curling. If my cheeks could blush, they’d be scarlet.
“Edward and I were engaged,” says Vicky, “we planned to marry, as soon as the war was over.”
“I think there must be some mistake, mademoiselle. Are you sure you’ve come to the right grave?”
“Of course I’m sure. Do you think I don’t know the name of my own fiancé? Corporal Edward Carter of the Royal West Kents. May I ask why you’re putting flowers on my fiancé’s grave?”
“I am paying my respects, mademoiselle, to the man I love.” There is silence and I can imagine them glaring at each other. I haven’t forgotten how fierce Vicky can look, at times. Her eyes can put the fear of God in you. I’d rather face the Hun, than Vicky when she’s angry. I’m glad I’m safely out of sight. Then the dress rustles again, as Colette rises. “I think we need to talk, mademoiselle,” she says, in her soft feminine way. Vicky says nothing but I hear two sets of footsteps, walking away. I suppose I should be flattered. Two lovely women, at loggerheads over me. But how can I feel proud, when I can’t do a thing about it?
Next day, they’re back. The two of them, together. I hear them trotting down the path, chatting happily. No trace of anger, or jealousy. Didn’t take them long to settle their differences, then. You’d think they’d been friends for years. I hear my name. And girlish giggling. I hope I’m not the source of their amusement! They stand, one on each side of my grave and now I can listen to their conversation. “Did he really ask you to do that?” says Colette. “More than once,” says Vicky. And their laughter reaches down to me and echoes around me. “Show some respect!” I want to shout, “You’re supposed to be here to honour my memory, you know, not to amuse yourselves.” This is so frustrating. Two beautiful women, both in love with me, are inches away but I lie here helpless. I’m nothing but a collection of useless body parts. I could do with a few organ transplants. Not necessarily all my organs. But one or two of my favourites would come in handy.
“I have to go home to England tomorrow,” says Vicky, “I only came to say goodbye to Edward, but I’m so glad I met you.”
“We have such a bond, now,” says Colette, “We must keep in touch.” “It will comfort me to know you’re looking after him here,” says Vicky, And I hear the sound of a kiss, planted on someone’s cheek. Hey girls, how about me?
“Rest in peace, Edward,” says Vicky.
“Repos en paix,” says Colette.
So now that she knows the truth. And I can rest in peace at last.