Dec entry – John Thomson’s Christmas

“So does anyone remember from the video the name of the land between the British and German trenches?” asked Mrs Beatie.

Johnny shot his hand into the air. “I know, Miss,” he said. “Nomad’s Land.”

Mrs Beatie smiled.

“That’s a very good guess, but it’s not quite right. Actually it’s No Man’s Land,” she said, turning to the whiteboard to write it out.

“My great-great-grandad was there,” said Johnny, and Mrs Beatie paused, having just written the ‘M’ in Man. “Or my great-great-great grandad, I’m not actually sure. He was called John Thomson too, just like my dad, and his dad, and everyone’s dad in my family all the way back to when Tutankhamun was alive or something.”

“That’s very interesting, Johnny. Do you know anything more about him?”

“Err, I’ve heard from my dad that he was in Nomad’s, sorry No Man’s Land lots of times, and he was very brave, and he was fighting a lot of battles and only stopped once at Christmas to play football with the Germans. He scored five goals! I don’t remember anything else. Sorry, miss!”

“That’s no problem at all, Johnny. It’s very interesting to hear about your great-great grandfather. And that story about the soldiers from Britain and Germany playing football together at Christmas is true. There was nothing about it on the video, but as soon as Mr. Cummings fixes the projector, I can show you some pictures,” said Mrs Beatie. Her eyelids fluttered as she wondered if any of the eight and nine year olds would pick up on her hints to ask Bill Cummings about the projector when they saw him around the school. “There were many thousands of soldiers, but who knows, we might just see your ancestor on those photos, Johnny – if we can get the projector working.”

Johnny smiled and blushed as the whole classroom turned around to look at him.

John Thomson could feel the slime seeping through a gap in his boots. The end of the freezing cold spell had cheered him at first, as the stinging pain he experienced at night was gone. After a few weeks of winter, he had already forgotten how bad the mud could be though. The thaw left the beaten ground of the trench ripe for churning up anew. Then they rain came and made for one giant sticky mess. The sensation of standing on lookout with your feet slowly getting submerged in a cold mush was as close as Thomson bloody well planned to get to torture.

He tried to focus on the periscope.

“Still no sign of St. Nicholas?” asked a cheerful voice Thomson recognised as Grice, a fellow squaddie in the Royal Berkshire Regiment. Grice was ferrying some medical oils along the trench as one of the foot infections further down had turned bulbous.

“I could have sworn I saw Fritz’s gunners take down a couple of reindeer in the sky earlier, but I rather feel Captain Brown felt it was all make believe. A ploy on my behalf to spend Christmas day at the clearing station.”

Grice emitted a wheezy laugh that turned into a rasping cough.

Thomson strained to see the barbed wire and sandbags of the German trench in the dim afternoon light. He had to focus beyond the horrid sea of bumpy black mud strewn with ripped-apart trees, rotting body parts and scraps of blown off clothing. No Man’s Land. What a name. This small strip of land the whole world wanted to fight over – they could have called it Everyman’s Land. Not to mention every wife and daughter’s land, for there might be millions of women who have their loved ones consumed by that diabolical swamp by the time the war was through. Still, like everyone else, Thomson did his best to blot that space out of his mind.

Superficially, the German trench looked just like the English one, but hundreds of hours of staring at the thing since arriving in France in the summer had given Thomson a sixth sense for when something was afoot. There was an incredible stillness on that breezy Christmas Eve that made Thomson curious. Not even Fritz would shell on Christmas Eve, Thomson was sure of that. When the previous attacks had come, you could just see it in the air in – he had that feeling before Fritz’s last big heave-ho at the start of November, just before another lookout had spotted a number of sandbags bulging at the German trench while they busied for the attack.

As a matter of fact, in some absurd way there was a kind of stillness that day you might expect on a Christmas Eve back home. The tingling sensation of peace and goodwill. It reminded Thomson of the crowds strolling under the lamps on Newbury market place and heading to St. Nick’s Church for midnight mass.

‘Better not let your thoughts wander’ Thomson told himself. As much as he wanted to concentrate on the job at hand, he also tried to limit his thoughts about life at a home he didn’t know when he’d return to. He deliberately kept his letters short, figuring that his relatives wanted to know he was still alive but wouldn’t enjoy the details of life in the trenches. That Thomson, a lad of 19, had no wife or even a young lady to court made being away at the trenches a little easier perhaps, although his youthfulness also made the shock of war that much more striking.

“In some way the war came ten years too early for you, but I’m sure you’ll make the most of the experience,” Thomson’s father had told him on the morning he took the train set for London and Dover. His father’s reasoning was that having gone to St. Bartholomew’s, a local grammar school, if John had gone to war at 29, he would most likely have been made an officer. Not that he minded being a humble soldier, at first at least. It just seemed the natural thing to do. His father was a town clerk whose brother, John’s uncle, had died in the Boer War. The call of King and country was just not one young John could refuse. When they had asked for volunteers to declare and go on stage after a show at the local music hall at the end of August, Thomson had stood up together with his friends, Curnock and Patterson, without the three even having to swap glances. How they had soaked up the applause then.

It didn’t take long for Thomson to realise the dark shadows of the war would smother his optimism. When passing through Boulogne to the front, the three friends went to the harbour district, which was teeming with rum-soaked squaddies. The ladies under the red lanterns – something you didn’t see in Berkshire – were the first real sign of entering a mixed-up world.  Thomson’s friends egged him on, saying you never know when the next chance might be, etc. The friends had both found mademoiselles by the time a pale young lady with scraggy hair blew a kiss in Thomson’s direction. She lifted her dress at her side and said “monsieur! Avez vouz cinq francs?” while rubbing her hand down her thigh. Thomson sensed this display of flesh was a means to divert attention from the sadness in her eyes. He just couldn’t, and he didn’t.

Now with the muddy water lapping his ankles inside his boot, he regretted his restraint. What use is there for morality, after all, when you spend your days waiting for the next chance to rain shells on the men on the enemy trench – all the while when one can land on you at any moment and send you out of this world altogether, as had happened with Curnock in that November attack?

‘It’s extraordinarily still over there’ thought Thompson. His hopes raised of a little rest over Christmas, as the sky darkened above. A rat then tiptoed into his vision, sniffing towards the top of the periscope. He reached up to the top of the sandbags to swipe his hand at it, only to knock a clump of mud right onto the mirror, obscuring his view.

“Damn!” said Thomson. He wiped his right hand on his coat and spat into it. He clambered up to reach the top of the periscope to try to clean it.

“Fritz at one o’clock!” Shouted the nearest lookout to his right. Thomson jumped down with his heart aflutter. There was a frantic sound of splashing as Captain Brown dashed towards the lookout. Hands on rifles tightened their grasp as far as the eye could see.

“He’s with a white flag! Repeat – Fritz with a white flag!” screamed the lookout. Hands on rifles loosened as soldiers looked around, not knowing quite how to react.

Captain Brown pushed the lookout aside and peered through.

“Well, I say!” he said, just before the first words of song drifted above the trench.

Oh Tannenbaum, oh Tannenbaum, du kannst mir sehr gefallen!

Captain Brown and the lance corporals in the company mounted horses and trotted out to no man’s land to meet their German equivalents. Thomson watched their meeting, which was nervous at first, and could hear a few of the words said from the British side when the wind was favourable.

“Er, right, how do you want to do this?” and “Yes, my men would very much like to try German cigarettes” were heard in Captain Brown’s booming voice. “Got any beer?” was then said by a corporal, greeted by laughter on both sides, followed by “what about women?” Somebody even mentioned playing football, a rough and tumble game which Thomson, a keen cricketer, loathed.

—-

“You aren’t coming to meet Fritz?” asked Grice.

“Erm, no…I just…just can’t bear to look them in the eye, after all the men they’ve killed,” said Thomson.

That was a lie.

There was just no way Thomson could go. He had battled so hard to keep any thoughts of that German soldier away from the top of his mind, pushing them into his stomach to be another nagging pain – along with the lice, bruises and infections. He was sure to be there, and there was no way he could see him again. He was picturing his face now and he felt a swelling in his throat as sweat formed on his forehead.

Thomson strolled around the trench in confusion for a few seconds, not seeing the smiles and laughter on the faces of men leaving their positions and scrambling up onto no man’s land.

He decided to return to his shelter to rest, but on passing the walkway leading to Captain Brown’s dugout and seeing it empty, he couldn’t resist heading in. A Christmas truce meant rules of combat were suspended, so he hoped there would be nothing wrong with a private entering a dugout to have a look.

A lantern had been left on the table. A couple of rats sped out as Thomson stepped in. He sat down at the chair. It may have been only three wooden walls slotted into a mound of earth, but after months in the trench, this was a blissful retreat. He could hear some singing and laughter outside, but the solitude of the dingy dugout was what he needed.

Thomson pictured him again in his mind, and his body was seized with an anxious grip. He sent his shaking hand into his coat for his hip flask. He had been saving his rum rations over the last six week for Christmas. It tasted good but the sharp taste still wasn’t able to dislodge the image of that German soldier out of his mind.

Thomson put his hand to his forehead as his mind reeled through events of that morning in early October yet again, searching for some kind of excuse or solace.

It had been a hazy dawn. There had been talk that the mediocre visibility would get the attack cancelled, but the telegraph from the Field Marshal said proceed. One big push before the autumn bogged them down was what they wanted. It was Thomson’s first attack. Just treat it like a training exercise, Thomson told himself, and he used the awesome energy of the shells to push him on. He had been in the county finals in the 100 yard dash as a teenager, so he expected to be among the quickest, but hadn’t imagined he would get so far ahead of the rest. He started to slow down to avoid getting cut off, but onward he knew he had to go. He could see the barbed wire of the German position in the mist, and took out his grenade, chucking it to where it ripped open a section of wire and blasted a gap in the sandbags. The others were coming now. But so was Fritz. Two men chased out towards him, one with a mean grimace on his face, and Thomson cocked his rifle and shot him in the top of the chest.

It wasn’t his muted cry or the thud when he hit the ground that most alarmed Thomson, nor the fact in itself that he had killed a man. Instead it was the moment when he looked into the terrified eyes of the short German private who was running behind his victim. A young lad holding his rifle askew. The German stopped in his tracks as his eyes, from behind misty spectacles and beneath shaggy blond hair, pleaded for his life. He looked a lot like Hawkins, the lad from the dairy who brought milk to Thomson’s townhouse in Newbury every morning. The German held his mouth open in shock and gulped, expecting this moment to be his very last. Who could say which loved ones he wished he could have the chance to say farewell to right there and then? The German made no attempt to even point his rifle in Thomson’s direction. While Thomson pointed his rifle loosely towards him, the sheer terror of his foe sent a chill through his body. A moist patch spread throughout the top of the German’s trousers as he pissed himself. Thomson looked over his shoulder, thankful that in the mist nobody could see the encounter.

“Retreat,” was then shouted above the gunfire and screams. Thomson turned and ran.

That swapped glance, unpleasant as it was at the time, grew to fester like a sore on Thomson’s conscience. Of course Thomson was just doing the job he had signed up for. If fate hadn’t placed Thomson in that exact spot, no doubt another soldier would have equally filled the German lad with terror, and perhaps even taken his life. Still, Thomson was angry that simply by following his instincts and heart, he had put himself in a situation where he represented a lot more than just John Thomson from Newbury to that boy on the brink of death. Thomson knew his eyes, as far as the German lad could see, stood for imperialism, great power rivalry, contempt for the common man, a thirst for blood. Where had the humanity he always assumed was a defining feature of his character gone for that vital moment? Instead, a confluence of evils had wormed its way inside him and compelled him to kill in their name.

The tears were forming in Thomson’s eyes now as he took another swill of rum. He had never loved, nor had he made his fortune, but he had inflicted great terror on a German volunteer, who was probably in much the same situation as him. A terror that was sure to haunt him for life. Who knows what might become of him in Germany, if he survives the war? Could he go on to enjoy life though when he had seen how cheaply and easily it can all be taken away? That helpless face came back to Thomson whenever he least wanted it to – when the cold was nagging him at night, when his spirits were already low. And now, the German was no doubt over there marking Christmas with our men. The absurdity of it all.

Thomson felt a louse crawl along his right forearm. He slapped his left hand at it until the forearm was sore. He noticed a pistol had been left on the table under a pile of letters. He reached for it. He held the gun out into the darkness and recreated the encounter in his mind.

“Don’t shoot, you monster!” the German boy screamed as Thomson pictured him now in the dugout.

“Why of course not, my friend!” Thomson pretended to say.

“Thomson! Shoot, you traitor!” he imagined Captain Brown shouting behind him.

How many more would there have to be before the war was out? How many men must Thomson put to the sword, and how many could he petrify and then slyly let go? How far had the front moved in the last few months, after all? Five miles?

Thomson turned the pistol to his own temple now. His life was already defined by this war. He could marry later, sure, but that German boy, and the other victims to follow, were sure to accompany him wherever he went.

He took another swill of rum.

“For the sake of King and country, I order you not to!” said the imaginary voice of Captain Brown now.

Thomson leaned back on the chair and laughed.

“For the sake of John Thomson, I –“ he said. He wasn’t the only John Thomson, his father had borne that name too, and his grandfather, and so forth, all the way back to before Victoria’s reign. If he could only get through this war, even if it scarred him for life, he could continue the line of John Thomsons. The thought of a future version of himself not knowing any kind of misery like this in a brighter age comforted him. He laid the pistol down.

Trouble down at Donny’s farm – Nov CW competition entry

Sophie glanced around in all directions but could see only millions of heads of wheat dancing in the breeze, competing to interrupt the pale blue morning sky. She checked again over her shoulder and squatted down, dropping her sickle into the dry earth. She hoisted her stained and fading trouser leg up and fumbled at the sock on her left foot. She tugged a black metallic tube out. Giddy with excitement, she reached into her right sock and pulled out her Samsung phone. She scanned all around again and listened out, but could hear only the whooshing of the crops and the distant roar of the A road a mile and a half away.

Her hands were shaking as she slotted the white charging point of the tube-shaped battery-powered phone charger into the phone.

“Come on, come on, come on,” she whispered to herself through gritted teeth.

The screen on the phone remained in moribund black for a few seconds until a faint white battery icon appeared. ‘0%. Charging’ it said underneath. Success.

Sophie clawed an opening into the earth with her sickle and then tugged a few clumps out with her hand until a wide enough hole appeared. She wrapped the phone and charger in a plastic bag, tucked them inside the hole and smeared the soil back over the top. She brushed with her fingers to flatten the ground and try to make sure it didn’t stand out too much from the surrounding soil.

She sighed when she saw that despite her best efforts, she had left a patch with a much darker shade than the surroundings that had been lightly scorched by the dry summer. She stepped backward five paces and marked an ‘X’ on the ground.

Then she turned and ran all the way until the sea of wheat came to an abrupt end.

“Hey Soph!” said Jordan, “Donny was looking for you.”

Claudia tittered as Sophie’s cheeks turned a stony white.

“Funny man!” Claudia said. “We still haven’t seen the tractor at all again today yet.”

“I wonder what he gets up to?” Sophie said.

“Something better then this, obviously,” said Jordan, glancing down to his sickle and reaching to squeeze his sore right bicep.

“How many sacks are we on now?” asked Sophie. She turned to look at the three half-filled straw sacks encircled by piles of empty sacks being buffeted by the breeze. She regretted asking the question.

“Er, not nearly enough,” said Jordan. “Come and help us pack this lot up, and I can take a couple of sacks to the storehouse. Oh and if you can possibly help it ladies, no more toilet breaks please.”

“Aye aye captain!” Sophie said, figuring she should best play along to better disguise the true reason for sneaking off among the rows of wheat. Claudia gave a half-smile but Jordan did not look amused. He reached to push his sleeves up then wiped a drop of sweat from his brow.

Sophie reached for one of the half-full sacks and dragged it towards the uneven pile of freshly cut wheat. She knelt down and clutched as much wheat as she could with both hands before shoving it in the sack.

“Have you seen how the other groups are doing?” asked Sophie.

“I don’t want to even think about it,” said Jordan, who was furiously filling a sack of his own. “I mean, with George – ” He let the sentence end there, as he didn’t want to elaborate on his sense of frustration at seeing Donny chalk up the scores at the end of every day with George, who played rugby for Bath University, grinning with his arm around Belinda, who always looked just as made up as at the start of the day. Jordan also didn’t want to air his frustration at George also being allowed to have Alan on his team, while he had to work with two girls.

Donny had said he would change the teams if they were unfair, but adjudicating that fell on his shoulders, of course.

Jordan had looked on scornfully a couple of evenings ago as Donny congratulated George and his lover for their tremendous yield of 24 sacks for the day. Donny walked slowly past Jordan, Sophie and Claudia, wondering whether to berate or encourage them for their 11 sackloads. Jordan, red in the face, had been about to open his mouth when Donny said, all of a sudden: “And not only have you won at a canter, but in a fair contest too. Yeah, these teams are fair.” The farmer from hell could also read minds, it seemed.

Donny turned back to the winners.

“So, George, are you taking the phone charger tonight?”

“I think I’ll let Belinda have it again,” he said, squeezing her shoulder.

Sophie looked down at the concrete floor of the granary in disappointment. She badly wanted to write to her sister before her birthday on Thursday, and she had been without any battery on her phone for two weeks now.

Sophie had been in good spirits when she signed up online to spend her summer at the Abergyl Organic Collective. Over the last academic year, her posh friend from university had spent several evenings, as they sat together on bean bags and sipped herbal tea, raving about her time on an organic banana farm in Borneo, about how great it was to connect to nature and everyone was super friendly and you got to spend your evenings chatting under the stars with lovely guys. Seeing as Sophie couldn’t afford the airfare to anywhere quite as exotic as Borneo, she decided to go to Wales.

The collective had an extremely basic website, which seemed really trendy. There was a bold chunk of text in the middle boasting about how the place was ‘Completely free from all modern technological distractions, giving you a 100% natural experience.’ The thought hadn’t occurred to her at the time that this meant that the 50-acre farm was completely devoid of mechanical farm equipment. The lack of WiFi was something she could accept – she had packed her Kindle and she could always use the 3G on her phone for emails and Facebook, she reckoned. She hadn’t counted altogether on Donny, the farmer, not providing a single socket in the farmhands’ quarters and controlling access to the one universal phone charger he kept in his own house as a means to reward whoever he saw fit – i.e. usually George and Belinda.

Donny the farmer was welcoming at first, his stubbly face cracking into a wide grin as he treated everyone to drinks on the first night, cracking joke after joke and praising them for coming. A good number of idealistic young heads had nodded along when he said “Whatever you do in life, whatever you achieve or fail to achieve, you can say, proudly, that one summer you came and tried to make a difference.” He had a certain swagger when he patrolled around in his red wellies. You never knew from looking at him what kind of mood he was in though – it could change in an instant for no apparent reason.

He struck fear into the workers – all students from middle-ranking universities like Sophie – by the constant prospect of turning up at unpredictable moments to berate them. “Who’s the clumsy arsehole who spilled three cans of weed killer today?” he shouted when bursting into the quarters at two in the morning one night. “Come on, come on, own up or nobody gets to charge their phone for the next fortnight?” On one of the first days of the harvest, he called Jordan a “lazy scrawny piece of shit” and ordered him to go and sleep with the pigs, before running after him, laughing and saying he was only joking. “But if I catch any of you slacking, I will do it, you know!” he added.

There were some other incentives Donny provided, as well, for his favourites. George and Belinda were allowed to use a spare bedroom in his farmhouse on evenings when George had been particularly productive on the fields. A girl in the third of three harvesting teams had also been invited in to use Donny’s shower, instead of the rusted contraption behind some bricks in the corner of the yard that delivered a trickle of cold water they always had to queue up for. This favour was only granted when Donny complimented her on the fantastic job she had done on cleaning the tables.

Sophie didn’t like to think she was addicted to her phone, but after a long spell without any battery on it, it became all she thought about. She had put it on battery-saver mode when arriving at the start of July and managed to keep it going until the end of the month with a strict routine of checking emails and Facebook just once a day. After it died, she had waited three long weeks until George had one evening nominated her to use the charger he had won the right to use for the evening.  That was a massive surprise to her as she had hardly talked to the guy, although he had actually allowed her to use the charger just to spite Belinda, whom he had argued with earlier that day.

Sophie’s heart had raced as she knocked on Donny’s door to pick up her phone that night. She walked to the side of the barn and turned it on, along with the mobile data. ‘Ping!’ it sounded as ‘You have a message’ was displayed, which quickly turned to ‘2 messages, 3 messages, 12 messages’. There were 47 in total. One of her friends from university had split up with her boyfriend, another had fallen madly in love with an Italian guy on holiday in Rhodes while a third friend was stressing like mad while working for a solicitors’ firm.

Sophie typed out her replies. She wanted to call everyone but resisted the urge. She didn’t want to create any more jealousies among her colleagues who were still without phone access. She did find time the following day to call her parents and sister though. She put on a brave face when they asked her how things were going on the farm. It was an interesting experience, she said, the work was hard, but most of the people were nice – that was a slight exaggeration, although a sizeable minority were pleasant. The food was ok and they had some fun, which was all true, and every Friday and Saturday night, Donny left them with as much homemade cider as they could drink – something that was greeted with approval from Sophie’s friends. Soon enough, a couple of weeks before harvest, Sophie’s phone battery ran empty again.

Some friends had asked her if she was going to stay to the end, which had taken her by surprise – seeing as they were working towards the harvest the whole time, it hadn’t occurred to her to drop out. A few of the farmhands had left – three didn’t survive the first week without their home comforts, and another four had baulked after the first few days of hard graft at harvest time.

In theory anyone could leave at any time, but it was clear that Donny didn’t approve. You had to explain yourself to him first, as he kept all purses and wallets in his farmhouse for safekeeping. He made a big thing about leaving references on the volunteers’ social media pages, where friends and potential future employees could read them. The first person to drop out at the start of the summer was a silent guy called Mike, and the following day, Donny left his laptop on the dining table at lunch for all to see, with Mike’s LinkedIn profile open. A curt reference was on display: “Mike said he was going to work hard on my farm but he was a complete waste of space. His social skills are so poor even the cows ran away from him.”

Even leaving the farm on a Sunday was something Donny clearly frowned upon. It was a good 45-minute drive to the nearest town, where Donny promised he would take all the farmhands for a massive night out at the end of the harvest. Jordan had developed a couple of holes in his boots just before the start of the harvest and asked Donny for permission to hitch a lift to the town for replacements. “No need, I’m sure I’ve got some for you,” Donny promised, before producing a ragged old pair four sizes too big. When Jordan asked again, Donny asked if Jordan had heard of negative ions, explaining that they are some kind of wonderful bundles of energy that you can flood your body with while walking barefoot to live a happy life. “It could be worth trying, if you want to be a happier person?” Donny had suggested. When Jordan had insisted that only comfortable boots would stop him feeling miserable every day on the fields, Donny sighed and escorted him in person to the nearest outdoor gear shop, even shadowing him inside to help him choose.

Sophie, Claudia and Jordan had hacked the way across to the furthest edge of the field, and could see George and Belinda smiling with their giant yield of the day in the neighbouring field. Sophie was waiting for an opportunity to sneak and retrieve the phone along with the battery-powered charger. She had stolen the charger having seen it half-hidden under a rock between the barn and the shower. She felt bad at first, as she had never stolen anything before, but she was desperate to talk to her sister on her birthday and catch up with her friends. So she took it. There was an every man for himself spirit in the camp, and Sophie reasoned that while she had played no part in creating that, she would get left behind if she didn’t go along with it. She resolved to do some good – in the hope it might counteract the crime of stealing in some way – by sharing her phone with Jordan, who had been without battery all summer. He had told her after a few drinks the past weekend that he had an ill father and while he refused to reveal any further details, she sensed he had something serious. It would be nice for him to call.

“Seriously, I just can’t help wondering what Donny gets up to all day. He must have some kind of secret hobby,” said Claudia.

“What like child abduction, that kind of thing?” Sophie said.

“Hmm sounds a bit too tame for him,” joked Claudia. “What about kidnapping family pets and torturing them, that’s probably more his cup of tea.”

“It’s golf,” said Jordan.

“Jesus, how did you know that?” asked Claudia.

“I saw when he drove me to buy shoes. He had a parking permit for Celtic Manor golf club that had been renewed in May. Got to cost a fortune, that does.”

Sophie’s first instinct was to shake her head or express her disbelief by swearing, but instead she swiped ferociously at the wheat. They had reached the end of the field for now.

Sophie put her sickle down, and Claudia and Jordan both tossed theirs on the springy layer of corn.

“Hey look, Golden Balls and the Plastic Cow have sneaked off somewhere,” Claudia said, pointing to the adjacent field. She was stubbornly using her nicknames for George and Belinda that had failed to catch on, probably because most people were too depressed by their presence on the farm to even joke about them.

“I need the loo again, sorry,” said Sophie.

“I’ll come with you Soph,” said Claudia.

Sophie’s mind raced to try to think of a way to lose Claudia so she could retrieve her phone and the stolen charger without being seen.

“Are you sure you want to do it au natural in the field instead of going back to the quarters?” Sophie asked.

“Ah come on, it’s so damn far, I don’t want to even think about that stinky portacabin. I’m sure Donny probably approves – returning nutrients to the earth, saving money on fertiliser and all that…”

Sophie smiled as she thought how nice it would be to hear her sister’s voice tonight. Then for the first time she pictured how joyful Jordan’s smile would be when she surprised him by lending him her phone.

She thought of just running into the wheat with no explanation. In no time she’d be out of sight of Claudia, who carried an extra stone or two, then she could track down her fully-charged phone.

A deep shout from the next field made them both turn their heads.

George was shouting. Then came the sound of a struggle of sorts. Belinda was screaming at him. Were the king and queen of the farm possibly fighting in public? Sophie rubbed her hands together in glee at the prospect.

Then there were some swooshing noises, sounds of an object being struck and anguished howls floating around the wheat field. Sophie sensed something seriously wrong was occurring and rushed back.

Soon she could see Belinda trying to grab at George’s shirt, while he shook her off with ease. He was holding his sickle, and at his feet lay Jordan, writhing in agony with his grey T-shirt slashed with big bloody stripes across his chest.

“He bit me, he bit me, he bit me!” George was shouting into the air, perhaps at the millions heads of wheat. “First this pathetic little thief tried to steal our sack of wheat, then he bit me!”

Sloth and lust – Oct 2016 CW competition enty

“Bloody hell, it’s true!” said Gavin, staring incredulously at the plant bursting out of the yellow plastic plant pot. The plant, with its the orange and black flowers, shone amid the scattering of items adorning the desk – old receipts, a pair of lost and since refound Oyster cards, a crumpled version of the Economist, a few dusty socks and a remote for a long since broken TV.

“Yeah, well, I was in the shop and thought I’d add a little touch in here, you know,” Tom said, wafting the hem of his T-shirt as he talked.

“A little touch,” Gavin repeated. “Better than just touching yourself as usual, I suppose.”

“Piss off,” Tom said, grinning.

“Do you reckon those flowers are going to even last a week in here?” Gavin said, tilting his head towards the single window in Tom’s room. It was a small rectangle of frosted grass, designed to obscure the view of the dingy path at the side of the house that housed the wheelie bins – plus a heaped assortment of food packaging that had failed to make it into the bins over recent years and had since rusted or faded.

“Says on the label it’s suitable for all interior environments.”

“Pah, must be genetically modified or something.”

“I dunno. Looks nice, I think,” says Tom.

“Nick told me there was some bullshit sales talk on the tag?”

“It’s a harmony tulip plant. Go on, enlighten yourself!”

Gavin stepped gingerly over the haphazard layer of newspapers over the floor. He wanted to avoid stepping with his polished office shoes on the smattering of discarded beer cans, at least a couple of which had been abandoned with some contents lingering inside.

“Madagascan Harmony Tulip plant,” Gavin read out loud. His suit trousers stretched while he bent and read the label. “This delightfully bold plant offers the ultimate botanic solution for those seeking a constant dose of harmony in the home.”

“Nice, isn’t it?” asked Tom.

“Dearie me. I think I’ll stick to my own botanic solution for guaranteed harmony, thank you.” Tom placed his index and middle finger to his lips and made a puffing gesture. “You coming to Nick’s room later for a smoke? He’s trying this new supplier.”

“I think I might pass. I picked up a 12-pack of Grabnius on special offer at the supermarket along with the plant.”

“No wonder it’s on special offer. That stuff is rank. You need to try some Pontius Praga.”

Tom was taken aback. Gavin had been raving about how wonderful Grabnius was just a few weeks ago when be brought a bottle back to share in the kitchen after a night out.

“Pontius Praga – that’s not one of those poncey micro-brewery beers they don’t even sell you unless you have a beard, is it?”

“Ha – well they don’t do it in multipacks, so it’s not one you see many unemployed people buying.”

“Go and get high, you loser!” Tom said, grinning.

“Oh sorry, I’ll leave you to enjoy your mass-produced cats’ piss in the presence of your mutant tulips. Actually the plant might love a few sips, it’s got a hint of Miracle Gro to it.”

“Very funny. Nick told me you had a letter for me?”

“Oh jeez, yeah I think it came when you were over at your parents. I dunno where I put it, but I’ll take a look.”

“Yeah if you can, I’m still waiting to hear back from the civil service graduate scheme.”

“Ha yeah, like they’re going to employ a pisshead!”

Tom slammed his door shut and smiled. He went to the plant and sniffed at the flowers. What he hadn’t told his flatmate was that he bought the plant as a ploy in winning Marianne back.

He’d never before noticed there was a small garden section at the supermarket, but as he was picking up the beer he overheard a couple of arty young women buzzing with excitement over the harmony tulips.

‘That’s the kind of thing Marianne might like,’ he thought.

The yellow pot was a nice touch, and the swirly blue font carrying all the spiel on the pot-shaped label added a hipsterish touch. Instead of feeling like a middle aged man in a garden shop as he took the plant to the checkout, he felt like a kind of pioneer – perhaps a Scandinavian web designer getting a trendy plant to brighten up his office.

Tom was feeling pleasure at his purchase until his flatmate Nick laughed when seeing him holding the plant at the front door. At the same time he was struggling with a carrier bag threatening to burst from the weight of the beer cans.

“Sorry mate, I don’t know what’s so funny about you buying a plant, it’s just….I think that’s the first time I’ve seen you buy anything other than booze or pizza,” Nick said.

Tom sat on his bed. It was time to call her. His conscience had been nagging him all day. “It could be your last chance, what have you got to lose?” it had called out as he clicked his way through a few games of internet poker after breakfast. “Do you really want to wait till it’s too late and realise you’ll never know what could have happened…if you’d only just have picked the phone up,” it had argued as he thought about it at the chicken shop as his lunch sizzled behind the counter. “Just man up and do it!” it had cried as he strolled around the giant supermarket.

He was going to do it, that much he was sure of. He could feel his heart racing through his hoody. He’d have to be ready for it though. Tom looked at his laptop and closed a couple of porn sites that had been left open since the morning. He circled his neck around to relax his muscles.

Then he reached down to the plastic bag and picked up a can of Grabnius. The metallic ‘ping’ of the ring pull as the can opened immediately sharpened Tom’s mind, a bit like a referee whistling to start a match.

‘What to say exactly?’ he thought to himself. ‘Should I start by apologising for last time or just hope she’s over it?’

He raced through the first can, his gums feeling sore from each fizzy gulp.

By the start of the second can, his mind was clearing out the anxieties that troubled him from time to time – not relentlessly, but a bit like a nuisance neighbour who you might get annoyed thinking about even when they’re actually on holiday. For instance, the poorly disguised disappointment in his mother’s voice when phone conversations turned to “how are the job applications going?” which had developed into “still no luck with the applications?” and more recently “how are you spending your time these days?”

He picked up his phone and scrolled through his contacts to find Marianne’s number. His heart protested with a thunderous pulse and he put the phone face down on the duvet of his IKEA bed to placate it. He sighed and tilted the dregs of the second can down his throat, before placing it on the floor.

Tom liked his bedsit room. An outsider might presume his life there was defined by inactivity and boredom, but the other guys were quite alright. The lack of a living room and its location in Zone 7 also helped make the ground floor apartment somewhere Tom could live after his parents had begun capping their rent contributions and still make the occasional interview easily on the tube. The lack of a living room meant the bedrooms were a little bigger than in other flats on the market. All the better to offer him his very own splendid isolation – a space where he could drink what he want, watch Netflix all night until the early hours if he wanted to, even bet on Mexican football at four in the morning.

But tonight was all about Marianne. He’d been thinking about her a lot again recently, especially when he was trying to sleep. All those thoughts seemed to have some kind of momentum propelling him to act, and didn’t that also mean there was something in it – something indicating that it was all meant to be?

Tom clicked on the laptop to look at the photo he loved – Marianne grinning as she leant against a railing on the South Bank in a blue summer dress, a glass of gin and lemonade in her left hand with a pink straw poking out. It was the same grin she’d sported when he’d watched her dancing with her friend in the pub on the night they met – sweet, authentic and brimming with positivity.

He sipped and slurped his way through another can as he watched a couple of Sinead O’Connor videos on YouTube. A song of hers had been playing the moment he met Marianne, and he wanted to transport himself right back into that state of mind. It had been a night when the pints in an Irish pub in Islington had given him an easy smile, and the mixture – all so difficult to recreate – of just enough alcohol, the right company, the right mood on the day and the perfect vibe had made him feel ultra-positive. A time when the cogs that wound to produce whatever came out of his mouth, often so clunky and stiff, and unable to express his true intentions, whirred and buzzed with ease.

“See that blonde over there, I’m gonna ask her for a drink!” Tom had told Gavin back on that night.

“Uh, oh, move over Casanova!” he replied, giggling. “Tell you what mate, if you don’t end up getting slapped, I’ll get you a pint.”

Tom kept on repeating the videos. He put his torrent of thoughts about Marianne to one side, and reflected for a moment about how good Sinead O’Conner is. Given her stunning voice and catchy songs, it struck him as bizarre you don’t hear here more frequently, but then she’s too rocky for the pop radio stations, too poppy for the rock stations, too unpopular for the classic hit stations and too weird to be heard in cool bars. But a couple of clicks on the internet, and there she is, in 1989, a bouncy 21-year-old Sinead O’Connor revelling in her very own niche, belting out a song at the Grammy’s with a skip in her step and grin on her face.

The more he replayed that song, the more it helped oscillate dormant stores of passion inside him. He guzzled through the rest of the can and grabbed another. Tonight he’d try to win Marianne’s heart, and tomorrow he’d get a job, Tom decided. All these graduate schemes with never-ending online application forms were a draining waste of time, he realised. He was going to take the fight to them. He would call employer after employer and if there was any opening he’d drop by their offices, then shake as many hands as he needed to until he landed his dream job. His 2:2 in English was an uncomfortable focal point to his CV, but he’d joke about that and concentrate on everything else he had to offer. He’d been quite good at French and only hadn’t taken it further as his best friend at school called it a waste of time and badgered him that for all his studying he was nowhere near as good as Google Translate. He could pick French up again, hell, he could maybe work in Paris for a while. He could even sing a Sinead O’Connor song at the interview if he needed to.

But Marianne?

His inebriation was reaching the stage when his thoughts became slow and base, yet deliberate and determined. Time to call. Go on!

Tom pressed the dial icon next to her name on his phone.

He closed his eyes momentarily. ‘Please don’t answer, please don’t answer, please don’t answer,’ he thought to himself – so determinedly it almost spilled out as a whisper.

It was ringing. The clock indicating the call time wound to 0:05, adding a second after every pair of Tom’s heartbeats, until it reached 0:10 and 0:12.

Tom clicked on ‘end call’.

Phew, he thought. That was a close one, what was I thinking?

He scooped a can off the floor and tried to take another gulp, only to have accidentally taken an empty can. He corrected his error.

Having made a missed call provided the perfect excuse to send a text message. That should be less stressful, Tom figured.

“Hi Marianne,” he began to write.

“I can’t say sorry enough,” he typed in. He liked that. It was to-the-point and honest.

“What are you doing tonight? I’m listening to Sinead O’Connor and admiring my new plant – it’s a Harmony Rose”. Tom clicked send. Better not be too to-the-point.

He turned his phone face down again and leant against the bedroom wall as he drank some more. After five minutes he flipped the phone over. Nothing.

Damn. Maybe it sounded too contrived to now be listening to the artist he had nodded his head to when he carried the rum and coke back to Marianne on the night they met. Too obsessive.

“It’s the first time I’ve listened to SOC since that time we met. You know what’s really wired – I always thought she was singing ‘Hand in Glove’ on that song, and she’s actually singing ‘Mandinka’. I do like her accent though.” Tom clicked send.

Oh no, he thought, looking at his phone, I’m drunk. Only a drunk could have written that message. He had written wired instead of weird, and dished out empty praise on Sinead O’Connor’s accent just because Marianne’s mother was from Sligo and he didn’t want to imply it was tough to understand Irish people.

Tom took a few more long sips of the Grabnius. Still no reply from Marianne. Maybe she was asleep. Or in the cinema. Or making love to another guy.

Damn it, this tiptoeing around isn’t going to get me anywhere, Tom thought. I have to be clear. Ask the question, just like when he held his hand out in the bar inviting Marianne to dance, just like when he said she had a pretty smile, when he grabbed her by the hip, just like when her friend went to the toilet he asked her if she wanted to sit, just like when they chatted and laughed like long-time friends – so much so that neither of them ever got around to asking that horrid ‘so, what do you do for a living?’ question –  just like he was able to laugh along with her talk about the characters on a comedy show he’d never even heard of, just like he ran to get some napkins to help when she knocked her gin and tonic over and just like when their lips first met.

“To be honest, Marianne, I’ve been thinking about you a lot these past days.” Tom tapped on ‘send’ again.

He couldn’t help but cherish his recollections now. He remembered how amazingly snug it felt to have Marianne clinging on to him, squeezing his hand as they kissed, oblivious to the rest of the bar, and still holding on as they waited to take a taxi home.

“Things have been a bit tough recently, but when I think of you I always cheer up.”

Tom burped. He smiled as he recalled leading Marianne by the hand to his bedroom that night.

“If you want to relax while I go to the toilet, and then we could maybe watch something?” he had said. She had responded with a knowing smile. Then he had gone to vomit in the toilet, and had knocked on Gavin’s door, as quietly as he could in the circumstances, which was actually unbearably loud, to ask for a condom and some tic tacs. Then he had become filled with anxiety as he pinched at his numb privates through his alcohol-stained jeans and reflected he was likely too drunk to perform.

It had been a relief to see Marianne sleeping in his bed – clothed and still in shoes – as he returned to the room. He climbed in next to her, put his arm around her waist and felt her soft heartbeat. He woke up a few times that night near ecstatic to realise it wasn’t a dream, and that this beautiful young lady had entered his room. It was as if a few strokes of a masterpiece had just been dashed on the gigantic empty canvas of his life, with the paint not even dry to the touch. He clung on to her tummy and stroked her hair while she slept.

“I’ve got to be truthful with you Marianne. I dream all the time of just holding you again one day – even if it’s just for a few seconds, it’ll be the closest I ever get to heaven.” Tom clicked ‘send’ again.

A whirring in Tom’s stomach alerted him that the beer was making him queasy. He tossed the phone aside and snapped close the computer, which was still displaying the photo of Marianne by the Thames on her Instagram page. Sweat formed on his forehead. Wasn’t her behaviour the morning after that night, seven months ago, a sign she wasn’t interested? He had been awoken by a shriek, and Marianne said, with startled eyes “Oh my God, oh my God! How the hell did I end up here!?” before grabbing her jacket from the desk where the tulips now stood and darting out of the door. That was the last he had seen of her.

Tom closed his eyes.

He was awoken by a frantic knocking on his bedroom door.

“Tom!” cried Gavin. “Two coppers are at the door! Don’t tell me you’ve been contacting that girl again?”

Tom was silent. He didn’t know what to say.

“For heaven’s sake! You’ve got to leave it!”

Sep Comp Entry – Brian Lara Loves Batting

They say people worship sport stars. Except I haven’t had time for that since Robbie Fowler went out of form at Liverpool and I started studying for GCSEs. I reckon they are much more like casual acquaintances or old friends you bump into, figuratively, every now and again. For instance, when I heard that Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink was the new QPR manager, my first thought was ‘Jimmy Floyd, where the heck have you been? Last I remember of you was eons ago in Amsterdam when the waitress at the bar cheered when you scored for Chelsea, saying you used to be her neighbour.”

Brian Lara is a master in his own right. I used to be very fond of cricket but it’s so low down my list of priorities I’ve barely watched it since my student days. Lara therefore goes right into the ‘old friends’ category. I have twice had chance meetings with him, which is rather strange as I don’t have too many celebrity encounters to boast of.

1995 or 1996 – School library

One of those long rainy lunchbreaks. I reach for the Times, the only newspaper our school library stocks. Its sports section is big and jazzy now, but back then, before the internet, when you really needed it, it was crap – hardly any football at all.

“Jesus, have you seen Brian Lara’s scored another triple century?” I ask Chris, a friend.

“Yeah he’s a bit good isn’t he,” he says.

August 2000 – West End

I’ve just seen Buddy with my parents and we walk to the tube station. The pavement is packed. I twist through the crowd and end up brushing into a short guy with beefy shoulders. I look up to see whether he is going to apologise or I should. It’s Brian Lara, who is outside the team hotel with a few of his West Indies’ team-mates.

I didn’t get all starstruck but I told a few of my schoolmates about it. It was nice at the age of 16 to feel that the world of celebrities isn’t in some distant galaxy. The following week I choose which subjects to take for A-Level and opted for German instead of Economics as my last of four choices – a decision which would end up to shape much of my time in university and my 20s.

April 2004 – Linda and Chris’s House

I’m dog and house sitting for my mum’s friend during the Easter holidays. They have Sky Sports and while two golden retrievers rest on the living room floor, I watch Brian Lara eke his way to 400 not out – the greatest ever test match innings.

May 2012 – The Thar Desert, India

We sit around a fire and Baba, our extrovert guide, tells my wife [then girlfriend] how he can’t find a decent woman to wed from his own caste. Eventually the topic changes to cricket.

“Who is the best batsman of them all?” he asks me. We discuss the merits of Tendulkar and Ponting, but agree Lara is the greatest.

November 2012 – Excel Centre

I’ve recently left the country, moved in with my girlfriend, quit my job and begun to freelance. I’ve gone to a travel conference in London looking for inspiration. It’s huge – all the countries in the world are represented – glamorous women in national dress handing out samples of local spirits, that kind of thing.

Trinidad & Tobago have Brian Lara and Dwight Yorke sitting at a table for visitors to chat to. I don’t really know what to say the latter, as I can’t quite remember when exactly he played for Man Utd. I also remember some horrible headlines about his love child.

Let’s forget him and focus on Lara.

“How on earth did you manage to score so many runs?” I ask him.

He chuckles and gives one of the best answers I’ve ever heard to any question. “I just loved batting.”

He signs a miniature bat for me.

December 2014 – The old flat, before moving

“You really want to take that little bat?” asks my wife, while sealing her seventh box of toiletries.

“Of course. Brian Lara signed it. Really? You don’t know him?”

September 2016

I’m looking for the bat to take a photo to add. Nowhere to be seen. It must be in the house somewhere. I’ve no time to search for it as we’re taking our two kids on holiday in a couple of days. I’ll see it around some time, and it’s sure to make me smile.

Sep Comp Entry – Two Sides of a Different Coin

Gordon had an impulse to leave the office to think. He headed around the corner to the main road. Without any idea where to go and not wanting to leave his depleted team unattended for too long, he just stood there. A glamorous woman paced past him on heels and drew a paper bag from the sandwich shop away to avoid hitting him, and he resisted the urge to turn around to take note of the view of the back of her blouse and trousers. A couple of women jogging together in blue T-Shirts sporting the name of the accountancy firm they worked for then went either side of him, revealing a view of a homeless man sat against a wall in his sleeping bag. As he hated lunchtime joggers – a sanctimonious bunch who thought they owned the pavements – his mood worsened even more.

The deep hum of idle engines filled the street, with the four-storey banking buildings either side offering the sound no chance to escape. A trio of cyclists streamed alongside a white van, which was stuck behind a pair of buses, each packed with faces obscured by the thick glass and smattering of free newspapers. A cyclist with a camera attached to his helmet then swore at a taxi driver who had been attempting to seize possession of a cycle lane before turning left.

There has to be someone out there who can do a job for me? Gordon thought. He wasn’t a bad boss. Okay he wasn’t too chummy or jokey and never went to the pub for drinks, but he certainly wasn’t mean or slimy either. Cold calling wasn’t always fun, he appreciated that, but the buzz of making a sale was something special. He sighed. How to find the right person though, in that lot? Where were all the young Mr and Miss Run of the Mills hiding? How to spot one when he saw one? First he would have to wade through all the copy and pasted CVs and cover letters that he had volunteered to check through.

Nigel shuffled along by the wall to grab hold of a discarded Pret a Manger bag. A good chunk of double chocolate muffin had been left inside, folded inside the wrapper – it was amazing how many people left the drier bit at the bottom of the muffin. Nigel gracefully bit into it.

Then he shovelled it away as he saw a well-worn polka-dot dress and pair of black women’s boots stride into his vision.

He grabbed his empty coffee cup and held it aloft. “Any spare change, love?” he asked. A splattering of pound coins then nearly knocked the cup out of his grasp.

Years of sitting out in the streets of London had given Nigel the ability to judge a person’s level of charity simply by the way they walked. From ideological teenagers tiptoeing in torn jeans to help him to nasty folk in big boots and all those who scurried straight past him. He’d seen it all.

An arrogant-looking businesswoman walked past with a bag of sandwiches that she tilted away from him, seemingly out of fear he was going to jump up and grab them. She also reached over her shoulder to grip her handbag. If only she had a hand free she probably would have held her nose.

Then two pairs of finely shaped sports leggings ran by without the women running in them even noticing him. That always pleased Nigel. He dreamed of one day no longer being a person who people turned to look at over their shoulders or whispered to their friends about or peered down and said “is there any way I can help you?” or shouted “get a job!” at those times when the bars were packed and he became a figure of amusement rather than a public nuisance. It was like what the celebrities felt, no doubt, except they all had castles to go back to. Just to eat a leftover piece of muffin without feeling that five pairs of eyes were watching him would be bliss.

Nigel took a mental note of the impressive behinds of the joggers. A pair of loafers at the end of some black suit trousers then stepped this way, then that way in front of Nigel. He looked up to see a middle-aged businessman looking around. He could have been lost, except he didn’t seem puzzled, more sorrowful. Not worth my while asking him for money, Nigel decided.