Quarantime to Read. . . Counting Stars: The Puppet Dance


The Puppet Dance

A new cover for the 2020 edition. Available from Amazon.

Max stirred. He could hear the soft fluttering of someone moving in his room. Eyes heavy, he opened them a crack, peered out. The world was bleary, and white—harsh lights; he closed them again. The someone moved closer, he smelt almonds, felt a machine on his neck.

It whirred and hummed as it measured his temperature, heartbeat, fluid levels. Then another prick, sharp, in his thigh.

“Another bee,” he thought, “way too many insects. . .” He floated back to sleep.

***

Mel4 was back in her office. She sipped the bitter coffee in her hand, stared at the screen. She could see Midra leaving his underground garage, the car flanked by two others. The glass was black but she knew he was inside, accompanied by a human guard, with a bot fastened to the ceiling. The bot would be monitoring all passing traffic, anything unusual. The human guard would be armed. She switched to an inside monitor; all was as expected.

All human guards carried firearms, tiny guns that could shoot either instant tranquillisers or, more rarely, lethal bullets designed to kill. Neither guaranteed the immediate removal of danger as it depended on the aim of the marksman when the target was hit—which meant there had been calls for the rearming of bots. Mel4 hoped that would never happen. She remembered too well the mistakes of the past, the malfunctioning bots who had killed innocent bystanders, the over-diligent bots who had removed enemies they would rather have interviewed. It was still too difficult to write code that tempered absolute obedience, code that would enable bots to balance more than the physical elements of the situations they were in. Humans, though unreliable, were still considered more reliable than bots when it came to weapons. They were still able to weigh up situations and vary their decisions accordingly. There were fewer absolutes in the human mind, more variables. For ten years now, security bots had been armed only with sedatives, ones that worked fairly instantly but were never fatal.

Mel4 shook her head; she was day-dreaming, and there was no time for that today. She took another sip, then rested her cup on the desk. She would need to move that if her boss came, the roaming bot that floated around the corridors checking workers, sending instructions to her terminal. Liquids and machines were not a good mix, despite all the manufacturer’s assurances that computers were watertight. She would be careful. It had been a long week; she needed the caffeine. She read through the data that had arrived so far. The holy place was secure; the delegates were on their way. They would be met by Midra at 9am, they would nod, smile, make meaningless speeches, then Midra could return to his safe bunker and the delegates could leave, knowing their importance had been acknowledged.

Her next job would be to make a decision on the boy from the island.

***

Lena was standing in an inspection room with the nurse. He had locked the door, moved the trolley bed to under a hatch in the ceiling and smoothly climbed onto it. He was now unscrewing the clips, lowering the metal plate. Lena was watching. Did he really expect her to climb up there? To shuffle through tunnels? She fingered the borrowed barcode clipped onto her borrowed uniform. She felt her feet, pinched by the borrowed shoes. She wondered if she would need to use the toilet before she got back. Heroes in stories never used toilets, she had noticed that. Women with children did though, and the nurse had made her drink a lot, watched her swallow every drop of the sweet liquid, told her the fluids and sugar would do her good.

She glanced down at the map in her hand. She had nearly forgotten to bring it, had left it in the side pocket of her bag. He had reminded her, raised that eyebrow again, suggested it might be useful unless she had committed it to memory. His sarcasm was irritating, made her want to slap him.

The nurse finished removing the hatch and he sat on the bed, holding it, looking at her. He reached into a pocket and took out a cloth bag attached to a thin belt.

“Put the vials in here. There’s not much room up there so you would do better to wear them at your side, there isn’t enough space to have them at the back, and you’ll need to shuffle on your stomach. You don’t want to break them. Do you know how to administer them?”

Lena shook her head. She had no medical training, how would she know such a thing? He stood and crossed to a cupboard, pulled out a small tube.

“They look like this inside,” he told her, his voice full of forced patience as he explained. “Slide them out of the holding tubes and you will see two buttons.” He held it so she could see. “The first one,” he depressed it, “extends the needle”.

Lena looked at the long point as it shone in the light. It looked sharp and cruel. She swallowed.

“You insert it, a thigh or arm will do, or the neck if that’s quickest, it doesn’t really matter as long as it’s in a good centimetre.”

Lena shuddered. She didn’t much like injections, though had given them to the children when necessary, when the drones had brought them from the pharmacy after an online medical examination. This looked much the same, though was slimmer and had no instructions attached.

“Then you just press the button at the end,” the nurse was telling her, “just like a normal injection. The chemical will be pushed out, count to five, that will be long enough. Then inject the next clone. We think there are three but we have given you five, just in case”.

“In case of what?” wondered Lena. “In case there are more clones? In case I drop one? In case I decide to murder someone extra on my way out?” She kept quiet. He didn’t look like he would appreciate her thoughts.

The nurse was standing again, climbing back up onto the trolley bed. He clearly had no time left, needed to send her on her way. He passed her the screw remover, watched her add it to the cloth bag, managing to remain silent, to not tell her to hurry up, but every muscle in his face tense. He reached out a hand to help her up.

For a moment Lena stood, stared at his hand, did not move. After a pause, she took hold of it, her own small hand swallowed up in the mass of his, let him help her onto the bed. She stood next to him, peering upwards, not at all sure she was strong enough to climb up, the gap was very small, very high. Then, with no time to think, the nurse hoisted her upwards as easily as he would have lifted a child. She swung her legs into the space and peered forwards. There was a long white tunnel leading away from the entrance shaft. It was lower further on but she had room to sit here, to remain upright. Below her, the nurse was raising the hatch back into place.

“Wait, what are you doing? How will I get out?”

“Don’t panic,” he told her, his voice rough now, in a hurry. “I’m just putting in place, so no one notices. I won’t secure it. When you get back, listen. If the room is empty, stamp hard, and it will fall down. Then you can get out. Go back to the washroom. You remember the way?”

Lena nodded. Realised he couldn’t see her, said, “Yes”. Her voice sounded strange, hollow and hoarse.

He paused, lowered the tile again so he could see her.

“Good, then go there—to the same washroom. At ten o’clock I will come. I will have Max. You can both leave. There will be a car waiting, it will be ordered with a different barcode, make sure you disable the on-board camera. It will take you to the port. Someone will meet you. That’s all I know.”

He did not tell her to trust him. She had no choice. He did not tell her it would all be fine. He doubted that it would be. He looked up at this woman, saw her exhaustion, her acceptance that she had no options, her determination to find her son. In his mind he wished her well, prayed she would have the strength she needed. He nodded, fixed the tile in place, and left. He did not expect to see her again.

Lena wanted to call after him, to tell him to stay, she couldn’t do this, it was stupid to even try. Through the small grill in the ceiling, she watched the top of his head go towards the door, then he disappeared from her view. She tied the belt around her waist, hearing the vials jangle against each other. She hoped they were stronger than they looked. Then she leaned forwards into a crouch and began to half crawl, half shuffle, along the narrow vent. She held the map in her left hand. It was folded so that her current position was showing. She needed to go forward past three more vents, then turn right. She felt like a marker in a computer game, wondered if she glowed red.

Crawling was uncomfortable but not difficult. Every so often, she lifted her head and looked ahead. She could hear nothing from below, hoped her own shuffling was unheard. She crawled along the narrow space, a fat black cable lying beside her. She tried to not touch it, there was something threatening about that cable. She arrived at the first vent and peered down.

She was looking into a room. There was a nurse in the corner and a bed with a tray next to it. She strained to see around the edge of the vent, to discover who was in the bed. If it was Max, she would abandon her mission in an instant, would find a way to get to him.

It was not Max. It was an old lady, her white hair flowing over her shoulders, her head resting on a pillow. She was very thin, with paper-thin skin and when she lifted her arm, Lena saw bones with flesh hanging, the movements shaky and slow. The woman appeared barely alive. Lena shuffled on.

The tunnel had no discerning features, a long dust-filled hollow stretching before her. Lena used her elbows to propel herself forwards, her stomach dragging along the floor, the unsecured sections of hair hanging in her face, the air dry.

The next vent was over a corridor. People passed beneath her, she paused for a moment and watched their heads. Snippets of conversation floated up, none discernible, a general babble of sound. That helped her relax a little, to think that she herself was unlikely to be heard unless she coughed or shouted when above a vent. Whatever the ceiling was made of, it was clearly well insulated, containing both heat and sound. She continued.

At the next vent there was a crossing of routes. She checked the map again, took the fork to the right. Her arms were beginning to tire now and her throat was dry. The tunnels were dusty, dry, uncomfortably hot. She wondered what her uniform must look like now, imagined it was far from the pristine white it had been a few minutes ago. That would be a problem when she came to leave. There was nothing she could do now, so she continued, taking her weight on her arms, shuffling with her legs. An uncoordinated caterpillar.

***

Mel4 was watching her screen closely. She could see that Midra had arrived at the holy place. He had left the car and was moving into position, walking through the clapping public, through the arched doorway and along the aisle. All seemed to be going to plan. She watched the live feed, switching between monitors until he was in his seat at the front. He would be introduced, then would stand and make a speech.

She reached for her keyboard and turned her second screen on. It flashed blue, then she called the island reports back into view. She had made her decision. They could not alter the boy, that was too severe, held too many risks. She thought it was an unreliable method of control, disliked the number of ‘failures’ her department had been forced to cover up. No, she would not sanction that.

However, her bot had given her three options and the second, the decision to wipe a part of his medium-term memory, seemed sensible. He was young, he would have many more years to build new memories. A few gaps wouldn’t matter.

She entered the codes, sent her decision. They could do it this morning. He could then be returned to the island; she saw no reason to remove him permanently from his family. Her understanding was that they were planning to leave soon anyway, they could be reunited and go. Then they wouldn’t be her problem anymore. It was not as if they were a security threat, they held illegal views, that was all. Mel4 did not agree with the law as it stood, but her job was not to make judgements about that, it was to ensure it was upheld. She finished writing and sent her conclusion. Then she turned back to watch Midra.

***

Lena reached the next vent. She sat up, easing her back, stretching the muscles. This was physically very tough, she wondered if it was going to be possible, she would be tired when she eventually arrived. She peered down, adjusting her position so she could see through the gaps in the vent, squinting her eyes, looking for her son.

She seemed to be over a cafeteria, she could see heads moving, smell something spicy. It made her feel nauseous. A tendril of hair was tickling her nose. She pushed it back, swept all the escaped hair together, hooking it back into the hairband—it didn’t matter what she looked like now. She noticed her hands were dusty, dry, she wished she had gloves. Wished a lot of things.

Lena checked her map, refolding it so her current position was at the top. The exit shaft, the one near the clones, was now on the same square of paper. She was getting closer. That was good, she told herself, nearly there, nearly at the right place. She stopped there—not wanting to consider what came next, what she must do when she arrived and the myriad of things that might go wrong. She had no sense of time but she felt she had been crawling for hours. She checked the vials were still in place, moved them slightly so they didn’t knock against her leg, then leaned forwards, continued moving.

“I can do this,” she told herself, willing her arms to keep moving, clawing her way forwards, heaving her body through the vent. “I can do this, I can save Max. . . ”

 

***

On the island, John’s computer beeped. A message. He opened it. It was sent in code, talked about monitors being fixed, awaiting collection. He smiled, they had located the boy. He checked the time, rubbing his hands together, the slightest smile flickering on his mouth. This was all going to plan.

John rose and went to find Den, to tell him to pack, he and Lucy would be leaving on a boat before nightfall. Whatever happened, it would not be safe for them to stay now. Too much was going to change.

To be continued on Sunday

Counting Stars by Anne E. Thompson is available from an Amazon near you. Amazon Link Here

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Quarantime to Read. . . Counting Stars: Taken


Taken

Due to the KDP rules on Amazon, I am not allowed to upload a whole book anywhere other than on the KDP site. I can therefore share chapters with you, but must remove them when read.

 

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***

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Quarantime to Read. . . Counting Stars: Chapter Six


Chapter Six

Clones

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Quarantime to Read. . . Counting Stars: Back on the Island


Chapter Five

She doesn’t look, think, or fight like James Bond, but sometimes a mother simply has to do whatever it takes. . .

Back on the Island

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Counting Stars by Anne E. Thompson is available from an Amazon near you:

UK Link Here!

 

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Quarantime to Read. . . Counting Stars: Chapter Three continued


Chapter Three Continued

.  . . If the guard turned around, he would see Max.

Max turned to look around the section of room where he stood, the part separated by the glass wall. He kept his movements slow, not sure if he would cast shadows that might cause the guard to turn. He hoped there were no motion or heat sensors. Whatever was in this room was important, of high enough value for a human guard to be used. Human guards carried live ammunition—they killed people.

Max was standing in a room, with three beds. Each one was covered in a plastic tent, tubes snaking into them, wires sliding out. At first Max worried he might be in a bacteria ward, may catch some deadly disease. He peered into the nearest bed, then stopped.

He knew that face. Had seen it many times. It was Midra, the main spokesperson on the Global Council. His face often appeared in debates, explaining new laws, on news programmes. That explained the human guard. Yet, it wasn’t him, it wasn’t Midra. Or was it?

Max bent closer. The same but not the same. No, he decided, it was not him, was too young. He knew that Midra was old, very old. He seemed to have been leading the Council for generations. Max had heard his father talk about laws that Midra had introduced when he was young, so this could not be him. It looked like him though. Very like him. Max supposed it was a much younger brother, weirdly similar in appearance, clearly very ill. He crept to the next bed, knowing he should leave, but curious as to who might be allowed to share a room with the relative of someone so powerful.

He stopped, frowned. This too was Midra. Except it wasn’t. Again. This person was even younger than the first, about the age of his own father, but with the features of the ancient Midra. Did all his relatives look identical?

******

Due to the KDP rules on Amazon, I am not allowed to upload a whole book anywhere other than on the KDP site. I can therefore share chapters with you, but must remove them when read.

 

If you would like to read the whole story, or perhaps buy a copy for a friend, it is available from an Amazon near you. The link is below:

 

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*****

Quarantime to Read. . . Counting Stars: The Mission


She doesn’t look, think, or fight like James Bond, but sometimes a mother simply has to do whatever it takes. . .

Due to the KDP rules on Amazon, I am not allowed to upload a whole book anywhere other than on the KDP site. I can therefore share chapters with you, but must remove them when read.

 

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***

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*****

Quarantime to Read. . . Counting Stars: The Woman


She doesn’t look, think, or fight like James Bond, but sometimes a mother simply has to do whatever it takes. . .

Due to the KDP rules on Amazon, I am not allowed to upload a whole book anywhere other than on the KDP site. I can therefore share chapters with you, but must remove them when read.

 

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*******

Quarantime to Read. . . Counting Stars: The Island continued


She doesn’t look, think, or fight like James Bond, but sometimes a mother simply has to do whatever it takes. . .

You can buy a copy of Counting Stars from Amazon: UK Link Here!

Due to the KDP rules on Amazon, I am not allowed to upload a whole book anywhere other than on the KDP site. I can therefore share chapters with you, but must remove them when read.

 

If you would like to read the whole story, or perhaps buy a copy for a friend, it is available from an Amazon near you. The link is below:

 

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Quarantime to Read. . . Counting Stars: The Beginning


About 6 years ago, I decided to write a dystopian novel, looking roughly 100 years into the future. At the time, my three children were all studying—economics, science, law—so I asked them what they thought was coming in the near future. They all gave me lots of ideas, and especially the scientist was very enthusiastic about discoveries which had been proven, but due to ethical or financial implications, were not considered viable.

It was written at a time when there were several religious terrorist incidents, and so I tried to imagine how the world might solve this problem—and what new problems would arise in its place. It was rather fun to look at the problems in the world—why do we still have people dying of hunger when we can send people into space?—and to solve them all, and then to consider what new problems my solutions would create. I also tended to go off on tangents when things took my interest. I had recently had brain surgery, so was fascinated by how we are affected by relatively small physical changes within the brain, and I became side-tracked with a quick study of Lamarckian theory (such fascinating ideas). I tried to incorporate all this within a story, about a family, set 100 years from now. My rule was that it had to be possible, even if it wasn’t probable. It was great fun to write, and in 2015 I put a new section on my blog each week. At the time, it was very popular, and I had students writing to ask me to send me the next chapter because they didn’t want to wait a week, and elderly ladies complaining they had been on holiday and missed a chapter, and middle-aged men who emailed to say it was the first time they felt properly represented by a character in a book.

It is several years later, and a surprising number of those futuristic predictions are now beginning to appear (though thankfully not all of them). I thought it might be interesting to post it on my blog again, so I hope my faithful followers from 2015 won’t mind reading it again. When I had posted the last chapter, I rewrote it, and sent it off to an editor, who charged me £300 to improve it, and I then turned it into a short book, available from Amazon. I therefore hope that if you are rereading it, you notice some improvement! The editing took all my funds, so the cover was a DIY job, and I have reliable feedback that it’s pretty terrible. Please do not judge the book by the cover. One day, I will perhaps design a new cover, but I am always besotted with my work-in-progress, and the time to redesign a cover that is rarely seen is very low priority.

Anyway, of all my books, I think this was the most fun to write. I hope you will enjoy it too. I will post sections of it every Wednesday and Sunday. Enjoy. . .

 

Counting Stars

by Anne E. Thompson

She doesn’t look, think, or fight like James Bond, but sometimes a mother simply has to do whatever it takes. . .

Chapter One

 The Door

They wouldn’t know her, because they had never met. But that didn’t matter. What mattered was that she remembered. It was what she did—remembered. It was why she was useful.

Due to the KDP rules on Amazon, I am not allowed to upload a whole book anywhere other than on the KDP site. I can therefore share chapters with you, but must remove them when read.

 

If you would like to read the whole story, or perhaps buy a copy for a friend, it is available from an Amazon near you. The link is below:

 

https://www.amazon.co.uk/Counting-Stars-glimpse-around-corner/dp/0995463212/ref=sr_1_1?dchild=1&keywords=counting+stars+by+anne+e+thompson&qid=1589905723&sr=8-1

***

To be continued on Sunday.

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If you want to buy a copy for a friend, Counting Stars is available from Amazon: UK Link Here!

QuaranTime to Read. . . Chapter Eighteen


Chapter Eighteen

The following Thursday, Jane took Christopher to the park. It was a beautiful Summer’s day, with a high blue sky and a gentle breeze. She had parked in the small car park near the swings, and now they walked hand-in-hand across the grass. Max was in an ecstasy of sniffing under a wooden bench. The sun glinted off the paint of the large red slide, and she could feel Christopher skipping at her side. Her bag bumped against her hip. She needed to buy white cotton on the way home so that she could reattach buttons to Abigail’s school blouse.

School was not a happy thought at the moment. She had been summarily telephoned following her evening out and told: thank you for volunteering, you are manning the barbecue at the Summer Fair. Burgers! It was bad enough having to cook at home, now she would be burning food for the whole school. She sighed, at least she had nothing to prepare and it was only one day.

She lifted Christopher onto a swing and pulled it back. It was wooden and heavy, with a thick metal chain. She released it, watching it swing free, then braced for its return. Christopher wiggled his legs.

“Higher! Higher!” he chanted.

“That’s enough Chris,” she sighed after a few minutes. “You play on the roundabout; I need to find Max.”

She left her son climbing onto the orange wheel and went in search of the dog. He lumbered over when she called, tail swaying, stick in mouth. She obediently threw the stick a few times, watching her son as he played in the low-fenced enclosure. He too had found a stick and was poking beneath the roundabout. She walked over to where he was.

Red faced and frowning, Christopher was peering under the roundabout, making frantic sweeps with a thin branch.

“I can nearly get it,” he said in frustration.

At last, with one long swoosh of the stick, his prize was dislodged and tumbled over the grass in the sunlight.

“It’s magic!” he cried.

“It’s dirty!” she said.

It was a whiskey bottle, drained empty and flung under the child’s toy with drunken disregard. The golden label sparkled in the sunlight enticingly. Before she could stop him, Christopher had snatched it up.

“Can I keep it?”

“No,” said his mother, “it’s got germs on it. Don’t touch it.”

The boy inspected it closely. No germs could be seen. The glass was very smooth and the lid was made of gold. The label was beautiful, and seemed to have secret writing on it. It was clearly magic. He glanced at his mother. Her face looked cross and he could tell she did not understand the importance of his treasure. He felt his bottom lip begin to quiver.

“Please mummy, it’s mine now.”

Jane looked into the deep pools of his pleading eyes. ‘How am I supposed to not give in?’ she wondered. She knelt down and put an arm around his narrow shoulders. He gazed trustingly at her.

“Chris, it’s not clean,” she began. His eyes began to fill with tears. “Alright, we can take it home and wash it I suppose.”

She removed it from his grasp, deciding it would be easily disposed of later, when he had forgotten about it. She called the dog and clipped on his lead, then told Christopher that they needed to buy cotton before they went home. Not having a hand free to hold his, she sighed, and slipped the bottle into her bag, hoping it was not as dirty as she feared.

They moved to the road and stood waiting as traffic passed. Jane watched the cars impatiently, wanting to go home.

Suddenly, with heart-lurching familiarly, she recognised Matthew’s car. He glided down the road towards her. She searched for his face. He saw her, raised a hand in salute and continued past.

“That was Matfew!” announced Christopher.

“Yes,” said Jane, watching the car until it disappeared.

“Mummy, we can go,” said Christopher, waggling her hand so that she would notice the road was clear. Trance-like, she led him across.

She was a blur of emotion. She had seen him. He had waved. Their contact was not completely severed. Maybe she would see him again one day. Perhaps, now he knew they visited the park sometimes he would drive past again.

Or perhaps not.

She took a deep breath and gave herself a mental shake. This was silly. She was like a teenager with a crush on a celebrity. This obsession was getting out of hand.

“Come along,” she said and led the way to the hardware shop.

***

Leaving the dog tied miserably to the post outside, they entered the gloom of the shop. It smelt of glue and fabric. The floor was grey cement, and the air felt cold after the warmth of outside. Narrow aisles were precariously stacked to the ceiling with a jumble of products.

“Don’t touch anything,” Jane instructed.

She led him past cans of paint, a display of brushes perched above an array of door locks. Helpful signs warned of guard dogs, not to park in front of entrances, and a request to close the gate. Christopher put out a finger and traced their cold letters. They walked around stacked plastic buckets, and passed mops that bent shaggy heads towards them. His finger trailed across rough doormats, and onto shiny saucepans that stood in pyramids above his head. They passed boxes of electrical appliances, which nestled against a display of scissors. Bolts of coloured fabric were piled almost to the ceiling. He reached out and stroked pink fur, then poked a finger through some white lace.

“You’re touching!” his mother hissed, “Fold your arms.”

Jane had stopped beside a rack of coloured cottons. Selecting a reel of white, she guided him back towards the door to pay.

The counter was very high, much taller than his head. Behind it was a tiny man with a white beard. Christopher was fairly sure he was an elf. His mother seemed to have not noticed, and was searching for her purse. He moved behind her. There was an interesting display of tools hanging from the wall. Bright orange handles with comfortable grips, connected to grim looking blades. Saws of various sizes hung like crocodile jaws. He reached out a hand. His mother was busy paying. He pointed a finger and ran it along a blade. He snatched back his hand. Dark red blood oozed through his fist. It stung. He screamed.

“Mummy!”

Jane turned. She heard the cry, turned while pulling her purse from her bag, saw the blood and leapt towards her child. Off balance, her foot caught on the edge of a broom, which began to tumble, bringing another broom with it. She tripped. As she fell, she put out a hand to save herself, pulling a large tin of emulsion to the concrete with her. Jane, brooms, a brush and the tin all fell to the floor with a crash.

For a long second, all was still.

Jane was lying on the floor; Christopher standing above her, his crying suspended; the shopkeeper, watching.

Then they all moved as one. Christopher began to wail and Jane sat up, opening her arms for him. The shopkeeper hurried towards them, full of defensive concern.

“Madam, you really shouldn’t let your little boy touch things,” he clucked anxiously.

Jane ignored him and inspected the wound. It was very minor and had stopped bleeding already. She put his finger in her mouth and sucked to clean the wound. Then she wiped his tears with her fingers and kissed his nose.

“Stop crying, you’re alright,” she said quietly, reassuring him.

“It bit me,” he whispered.

Jane smiled, “You shouldn’t have touched.”

“I do think you should watch him more closely in future,” said the shopkeeper. “This is not a toy shop.”

Jane declined to comment and began to get up off the floor. All was fine—until she put weight on her right ankle. Pain shot up her leg. She sat again quickly, waves of nausea washing over her.

“Are you alright?” asked the man. “You really should have looked where you were going. Luckily, I do not believe anything was damaged, so I won’t have to charge you.”

He picked up a couple of brooms and replaced them on the stand, then retrieved the paint.

“It’s lucky this lid stayed on,” he said. “You would have made no end of mess if that had come off. You can’t rely on that you know. Manufacturers do not guarantee that lids won’t come loose. Paint should always be stored upright you know.”

He paused.

The woman was still sitting on his floor. She did seem rather pale. He did hope she would not faint. It would not be good for business.

“I’m afraid I need you to move,” he said, his voice rising a pitch. “I will have other customers shortly and you are rather in the way.”

‘Customers,’ he thought, ‘who will buy more than a single reel of cotton and who will create a lot less fuss.’

Jane remained on the floor. She really was unsure if she could stand. Her ankle hurt a huge amount and she felt quite ill with pain.

Then, as if she were in some ludicrous farce, the shop door opened and in walked Hilary.

Her gaze swept across the tear stained child, the flustered shopkeeper and Jane, who was sitting on the floor.

“And what happened here?” she asked.

“This woman did not have her child under appropriate control and he handled the merchandise” the man hurried to explain. “Then she did not give due care and attention to her actions and she fell over. Nearly damaging more goods, may I add.”

“I see,” said Hilary. “Jane, can you stand?”

“It hurts,” said Jane, “I don’t know.” She looked at the shopkeeper. “Do you have a stick I could lean on?”

“She could purchase a walking stick,” he informed Hilary, deciding that Jane was best not spoken to and realising the two women were acquainted.

“Right, please fetch one,” the older woman commanded, “and Christopher, please sit on this chair and hold my handbag with both hands.”

Christopher obeyed. He was reassured by her presence, and now she was clearly in charge of the situation he was extremely interested to see what would happen. His finger only hurt a little bit now, the pain eclipsed by the excitement of seeing Jane on the floor. He wondered if Nana would tell her off for getting dirty. He clutched the bulky bag. It was shiny black leather and very full. He longed to peek inside and investigate the contents but felt sure someone would then tell him off. Instead, he held it close to his chest, feeling the hard shapes inside. He found he could make his finger bleed again if he pressed it very hard, and he amused himself creating a line of round red spots across the width of the bag.

The man reappeared with a selection of sticks.

“Which would madam prefer? Lightweight steel or more traditional wood? Or perhaps one with a seat incorporated into the handle?”

Hilary pointed at a wooden stick with a plain curved handle.

“That one is suitable,” she said. She looked at Jane, “You can reimburse me later.” She handed her credit card to the shopkeeper.

They both helped Jane to stand and she tested her weight on the stick. She could walk, but it was painful. Driving would be difficult, so Hilary agreed that she would drive them all home. When she realised that a dog was involved she bought a long length of thick polythene. She then spent several minutes lining the footwell of her car while Jane sat awkwardly in the shop, Christopher standing close.

Jane thanked the shopkeeper uncertainly.

“Yes, he responded, “well, I hope this has been a lesson to you, young lady. One needs to take more care in life if one is not going to be an inconvenience. Perhaps you will take better care of your child in future.”

The child in question gave him an angelic smile, and placed a tenth bloody fingerprint on an unseen white tea towel before following his mother out of the shop.

Hilary had driven round to the shop front, so Jane had to hobble only as far as the curb. She lowered herself into the passenger seat. Christopher climbed in beside her. There was no child seat, which worried Jane, but she decided the journey was short enough to merit risking an adult’s seat belt. She pushed her coat under him, to act as a booster seat. Hilary, sighing loudly, was loading the dog.

They drove to Jane’s house in near silence. At one point she tried to thank her mother-in-law and explain what had happened. Hilary waved a hand dismissively. Jane was unsure if this was at the thanks or the explanation.

When they arrived, Hilary leant across for Jane’s bag.

“Let me take that for you,” she said, “then I can unlock the front door and come back to help you.”

She walked down the path then stood by the door and unzipped the bag. There, at the top, was a bottle. Slowly, Hilary removed it. A whiskey bottle. An empty whiskey bottle. Her daughter-in-law had been at the park—with a bottle of whiskey—and then had fallen over. She looked back at the car. Mother and child were both watching her. With a frown she found the keys and unlocked the door.

“I think this discussion is best kept for another time,” she decided, placing the bag on the hall table. Then she went back to help Jane.

Later, Jane sat on the sofa sipping tea. Hilary had advised her to bind the ankle tightly, cover it with a bag of frozen peas and raise it on a cushion. She had collected Abigail from school and offered to help the following day if necessary.

“I hope it won’t be necessary,” thought Jane, “I feel such an inconvenience when she helps me.”

She smiled at the memory of her unexpected appearance. Then her thoughts wandered to her glimpse of Matthew.

“Of all the moments when he could have passed,” she thought, “it was just as we were crossing. It’s like it was fate, like our paths were meant to cross.” It was a comforting idea and she settled against the cushions. “I wish I could tell him what happened,” she yearned. “He would laugh with me, make me feel better about that horrible man.

“There’s no one to tell,” she realised. “Peter will just tell me I’m silly, and then rush to thank Hilary. Once he’s spoken to her, he’ll be convinced I’m inadequate. They will make me feel like it was my fault, they won’t be sympathetic. He never sides with me against his mother. He won’t defend me to her, he won’t laugh about her with me. I am the outsider.”

A shot of loneliness pierced her and she felt close to tears.

“Oh Matthew, I do miss you,” she thought, “when will I see you again..?”

To be continued on Sunday.

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