Free short story part 2 – Death of an Annoying Person

The second part of the story, which considers the price difference between chocolate and steel, and the advantages of an apprenticeship.

Method of Murder

Monty glanced at the dead body, then asked Florence, “Do you want to start proceedings, or shall I?”

“Oh, please, be my guest.”

He nodded. Squaring his shoulders, he strode back to where Helen, Mark and the Engineer were gathered around the corpse of Alan Droightman. Helen and Mark were quietly bickering, while the Engineer was taking the duff defibrillators apart in great detail. Florence went to the door of the ballroom and called to one of the servants. No doubt she had thought of something he had missed – she was very good like that. He rapped his swordstick on the floor a couple of times to get their attention.

“Right,” said Monty, “Listen up, this is the situation. Droightman is dead, apparently from heart failure. The two defibrillators have been sabotaged, which makes it look suspicious. He was very important and influential, but rather unpleasant. This makes it quite believable that someone might want to kill him. Helen!”

“Yes?”

“How long will it take Board of Transport police to get here?”

“A few hours for the locals – they’ve got a long way to come. After that it depends whether or not they think the death is suspicious. If they call in an investigation team, that could take up to a day.”

Monty nodded. Helen’s late father had been the Rail Baron. As a result, he had had a train line built to his country estate – the estate that Helen had inherited and where the party had been held. If you’re the baron of a transport system, you can do things like that. No proper access by road, either. You wouldn’t want a rival transport system to get to your personal estate. The downside is that a private, picturesque train line winding its way through beautiful valleys is not especially quick.

Florence returned from talking to the servants. “I’ve impressed on your staff the necessity that there should be no external communications”, she said to Helen.

“Does that mean that you’re going to investigate Droightman’s death?” Helen asked.

“Yes,” said Monty. “You know how people will react to this. They will be pointing the finger while secretly cheering. The Transport police have many virtues, but subtlety is not one of them. We need to close this down before your name gets associated with it.”

“And the way we will do that, dear,” added Florence, “Is to hand over a murderer, neatly packaged for when they arrive.”

“Capital,” said Monty, clapping his hands together. “Now, cause of death. Heart stopped. I’m not a medical man, but Florence tells me he wasn’t in a high-risk group, and if she says that, it’s good enough for me.”

Helen raised an eyebrow, but he carried on, “So, what might cause a heart to stop?”

“Poison,” suggested Mark.

“Good. It would be difficult to administer orally at a buffet – too much risk of getting the wrong person – so it would have to be through the skin. Mark, as it was your idea, you can start checking for any scratches or punctures to Droightman’s skin.”

Mark looked uncertainly at the body for a moment, and then knelt down to start checking. Both Monty and Florence nodded approval at this. Not the nicest job in the world, but he was getting on with it.

“Could you check his pockets for anything interesting at the same time, dear?” asked Florence.

Mark just bobbed his head once and started the awkward task of removing Droightman’s jacket.

“Other ways for his heart to stop?” asked Monty.

“Sudden shock, physical strain,” said Helen.

“Not in this environment. The last thing he did was place a strawberry under a chocolate fountain. That’s not a very strenuous activity. Other ideas?”

“Electric shock,” said the Engineer.

“Again, how?”

Then Engineer shrugged. “The chocolate fountain has an electric pump.”

“Many people used it, but only one person died. Besides, I might not be an engineer, but I don’t think chocolate conducts electricity very well.”

“Oh, it doesn’t. Not at low voltages. But it’s still used for electroplating.”

Monty blinked. “I beg your pardon?”

“Sure. You know how we electroplate different metals?”

Monty waggled a hand. “Broadly speaking.”

“Well, with chocolate it’s called electrohydrodynamic spraying, but it’s a similar idea.”

“But does it kill people?”

“No – but a sudden high voltage electrical discharge through the chocolate would do it.”

“The chocolate fountain is there – please check it out. Why are you so knowledgeable about chocolate? It’s not like you can make a steam engine out of it.”

“Of course you can. It’s just that steel is cheaper,” said the Engineer, turning her attention to the chocolate fountain.

Monty sighed and returned his attention to Mark.”That was quick,” he said, seeing that Droightman was already stripped to his underwear. Stripping unconscious and dead bodies was a lot more difficult than films would have you believe.

“I’ve done it before,” Mark said. “A Board of Transport Apprenticeship teaches you a wide range of skills that will help you throughout your life. That’s what I found in his pockets,” he nodded at a couple of small piles, “And I haven’t found any scratches or punctures on his skin.”

“Did they really teach a course on how to strip dead bodies?” asked Florence, raising her eyebrows.

“No, that’s what the work placements are for.”

Florence appeared disappointed, but turned her attention to examining the meagre collection of objects from Droightman’s pockets.

“Good work, Mark,” said Monty. He was a little surprised at Mark’s responses. He had heard him indulge in that kind of banter with Helen, but not with others before now. “Have you learnt how to go through someone’s room looking for things?” he asked.

“What kind of things?”

“We don’t know, that’s the problem. People kill people for a reason. Even if they’re completely mad, they will still have a reason, maybe not one that makes sense to the rest of us, but a reason. If we can out what it is, that puts us halfway to finding the murderer.”

“So, blackmail material, stuff like that?”

“Exactly! Anything that might help us! Do you think you can  search Alan Droightman’s bedroom?”

Mark thought a moment, then said, “OK”.

Monty watched as Mark left the ballroom, curious as to what might be going his head. He still maintained  an air that he might run at the first opportunity, but he had just accepted two jobs that many people would have avoided like the plague. Of course, being bombed, torpedoed and shot at, not to mention several out-and-out murder attempts can change your perspective.

“Got it!” said the Engineer, breaking into Monty’s reverie. She had removed a panel in the base of the chocolate fountain, and was removing a small device.

“And that is?” asked Monty.

“Short version is that it stores an electrical charge, and discharges at a high enough voltage to overcome the resistivity of the chocolate. Set it off at the right moment, and whoever’s using the fountain gets zapped.”

“Death by chocolate fountain. Remarkable. How is it triggered?”

“Magnetic switch. Quite clever. All you have to do is walk past carrying a strong magnet, and bang!”

Monty turned his attention to Helen, who had been sitting quietly, watching proceedings. He suspected that she had been running the possibilities in her head, and seeing all the ways that this could end her career. No bad thing, in his opinion. With someone as headstrong as Helen, it did some good on occasion to realise that there was a real chance of failure.

But, he’d left her long enough to stew. “Helen,” he said.

“Yes,” she replied, looking up. “I need to know exactly who you invited, and who came. Especially anyone who might have a connection to our late friend.”

Free short story – Death of an Annoying Person

And now I’m going to try something a little different – a serialised story set in the world of “Runaway’s Railway”. Both “Runaway’s Railway” and “Runaway’s River” were told from the perspective of Mark, but this time the story is told as seen by Monty and Florence. Mark and Helen are still there, but I thought that telling the story through another character’s eyes might be interesting.

If you haven’t yet encountered the world of “Runaway’s Railway”, then there’s a guide on the home page of this website.

This story takes place after the events of “Runaway’s River”.

Death of an Annoying Person – part 1

Monty looked around the ballroom as his wife, Florence made pleasant conversation. Maybe he was no longer all that young, but he still enjoyed parties. He straightened his dark blue blazer and smoothed back his thinning grey hair while pretending to listen to the conversation. White shirt and tie, light grey flannel trousers and a swordstick disguised as a walking cane gave him the appearance of being ex-army. A convenient label. He liked it when people labelled him.

A string quartet was playing something classical while people circulated and talked. There was a buffet available, but like most people, he’d already had his fill. Some were still getting desserts from a table dominated by a large chocolate fountain. Something of a beast, that. It was at least as tall as he was and very impressive – but then, he couldn’t imagine Lady Helen Worthshire settling for less. Helen was one of the people he kept an eye on, a protégé, some might say. Hence, he’d been absolutely delighted when she’d invited Florence and himself to the party. She’d just been promoted to Mediator for the Board of Transport, despite still being in her teens. Of course, she had decided to celebrate. Florence had claimed that she had wanted to go so that she could be nosey about Helen’s estate and country house, but she was just as proud as he was.

“Oh, look, Monty!” said Florence, “There’s Mr Ainsworth! I simply must have a word with him!”

If Monty cultivated the air of being ex-army, his wife gave the impression of the social butterfly who had drifted into the role of society matron without realising it. Another carefully cultivated persona. Still, Monty reflected, she still looked incredible in her cerise dress. Not pink, but cerise. Florence was quite definite on the colour, and Monty wasn’t about to argue with her. He nodded politely to the other guests and followed in Florence’s wake.

And so here they were, at a country estate, in a ballroom that looked like it came from a film set. Around them circulated a wide range of people, some of them friends, some contacts from the Board of Transport. Helen believed in having a diverse network, and it showed in the mix of people at the party.

“My word, isn’t that Alan Droightman over there?” he asked Florence, nodding in the direction of a man with slicked back hair and a slicked back attitude. To Monty’s mind, he had a slicked back morality, too.

“I do believe it is,” replied Florence. “How did she persuade him to come, odious toad that he is?”

“Helen has a way with people, even with people as influential and important as him.”

“Indeed, although he does rather lower the tone of the party.”

Monty couldn’t help agreeing as he watched Alan Droightman making yet another excursion to the chocolate fountain, apparently unaware of the dribbles of brown on his dress shirt. Droightman held another strawberry under the stream of milk chocolate and paused. Monty saw him wince and drop the fruit into the reservoir before dropping to the floor like a puppet with its strings cut.

“Florence,” Monty said, rapping his swordstick on the hardwood floor to gain her attention, “I think we may have a situation.”

“Do excuse me,” Florence said to Ainsworth, “I believe my husband needs me.”

Monty offered Florence his arm. She took it and they walked rapidly but calmly to where Droightman had fallen. People at the party were starting to notice something had gone wrong, meaning that it was up to Monty and Florence to take charge. There were other people who would take charge given a chance – Helen, for example, and as it was her house, and her party, she might have a case. Which was all the more reason for Monty and Florence to make their bid first.

Monty knelt beside Droightman and did a quick check. “Not breathing,” he said to Florence, and started CPR.

“Attention!” Florence said in a loud voice; not shouting but projecting her voice very effectively over the growing noise. “Can I have your attention, please? We need a defibrillator. Please can someone bring a defibrillator?”

Monty was performing CPR on Droightman with the efficiency of a machine, but an awareness was growing that it was hard work for someone of his age.

“Need a hand?” asked a woman in a white silk blouse and black culottes.

“Please,” he said. He’d been around long enough to know when pride was foolish, and he recognised her as the Engineer from the Railway.

She knelt down opposite, waited until he’d finished the set of compressions, flicked her chestnut hair out the way and took over.

“Thank you,” he said, aware that he was breathing heavily. “Any news on the defibrillator?”

“Here,” said Helen, her hair in a French plait for the occasion. She knelt in the space vacated by Monty, ignoring what this did to her blue ball gown. While Florence kept other guests away, she opened the box she had brought. Strangely, the string quartet kept playing in the background.

“Battery’s dead,” she said a moment later. “Mark! Stables – there’s a second one there.”

A boy about the same age as Helen ran off as the girl knelt ready to take over CPR from the Engineer. It was hard, tiring work, and few people could do it for more than ten minutes. Monty frowned. Helen was nothing if not efficient, and she made very sure that people who worked for her were efficient too. Most peculiar that she would have brought a defibrillator with a bad battery.

Helen and the Engineer swapped over as Mark returned with a box that he handed to the Engineer.

“Everyone clear the room, please!” called Monty. He was starting to get a nasty feeling. “Come on, you can’t do any more good here. Clear the room, please!”

As people started to leave, the Engineer said quietly, “This defib’s dead too.”

“Help me clear the room, then”.

Between Monty, Florence, Mark and the Engineer, they got everyone out of the room while Helen carried on CPR. It was quiet now, with even the string quartet silent. Monty watched Mark as he closed the doors, and then closed the curtains over the large French windows. He was another of Monty’s protégés, and had come a long way from being a Runaway scared of his own shadow. He had never lost his slightly untidy, waif-like appearance, but at least he no longer looked half-starved.

“You may as well stop now, dear,” said Florence to Helen. “There’s nothing more you can do.”

Helen gave a couple more compressions, then sat back on her heels. She stared down at Droightman and asked, “What now?”

Florence glanced around, verifying that the room was empty, and that doors and windows were closed. “Engineer – can you give me an opinion on those defibrillators?”

“Already on it,” said the Engineer, as she took the back off one of them.

“Well,”, said Florence, “We have Alan Droightman, one of the Board of Transport’s leading lights, lying dead on the floor. Coincidentally, he is a very unpleasant man with a lot of enemies. He has apparently had a heart attack, despite not being in a high-risk group for heart failure. Both the defibrillators that could have saved his life seem to be broken.”

“That’s because someone has shorted out the batteries,” said the Engineer. “See here? This capsule on the battery that has burst? That’s to prevent an explosion if the battery shorts out. That can’t happen by accident. What are the chances I’ll find the same in the other one?”

Monty stalked to the door, cracked it open a little and called the butler over.  “Please ensure that no one leaves the estate, there’s a good fellow.” He waited for an acknowledgement and closed the door again.

He drew Florence to one side, and asked, “I assume that we’re treating this as a murder?”

“Yes, I think so,” replied Florence.

“You realise that Droightman being killed at Helen’s party will be very bad for her reputation?”

“Of course, I do. That arrogant man’s work has become the foundation of our understanding of transport systems. If his murder is connected with Helen, then she’ll spend the rest of her career negotiating season ticket discounts for a local bus company.”

“Does that mean that we’re going to use our positions as Special Envoys of the Board of Transport to sort this out before the Board of Transport Police turn up?”

“Special Envoys Without Portfolio.”

“Ah. I always forget that last bit.”

“I know. Yes, we will get involved. Because if we can’t sort this out quietly, then Helen will be ruined.”

“Getting involved is going to upset people,” said Monty, smiling. “Oh yes,” said Florence, smiling back. “And the first order of business is to find out how it is possible to induce a heart attack in an apparently healthy, if rather annoying man.”

Bookcases

Coronavirus and the lockdown have had a variety of curious side effects. For example, people have become accustomed to video conferencing in a way that they would not have considered a few months ago.  In fact, a few years ago, this level of video conferencing would not have been technically possible. TV shows where pre-lockdown there would have been a live audience watching notable people interviewed on a comfy sofa have changed radically. Now the interviewers sit at home while the interviewee appears in a picture-in-picture box, floating around the screen, talking from the comfort of their front room.

This, in turn, has given rise to a new phenomenon – other people’s bookcases. Granted, you can visit a site such as Goodreads to find out what people are reading, but you are only able to find out about your friends’ bookshelves. There is none of the voyeuristic thrill of seeing the bookcases of the unsuspecting stranger. This is a experience that lockdown has brought us. Today we watch chat shows not to hear what the guests are saying, but to see what they are reading.

For authors, this is particularly important. However original an author may be, it is a certainty that they will be affected by the authors they read. This is a good thing, because reading is one of the ways that we learn to write.

So, as we don’t have a video conference scheduled for today, after some suitable prodding from Hayley, I thought I show you my bookcases.

There are three of them, two large ones from Ikea chosen for size, and a smaller one which was chosen for looks, rather than capacity. The Ikea bookcases hold most of the books, one in the hallway, one at the top of the stairs. The smaller bookcase resides in the living room and has carefully chosen books for visitors to see.

And here’s the first bookcase:

The bookcase in the hall

It’s the one in the hall, and the books are two deep, so you can’t see everything.

What you will see in addition to copies of “Runaway’s Railway” and “Runaway’s River” is a large number of Terry Pratchett books. Of course, these days there’s not much remarkable about having Terry Pratchett on your book shelf, but I first started reading him when he wrote “Strata”, and before he was well known. If you haven’t read it, it’s a kind of proto-Discworld book. Straight science fiction rather than fantasy, and fascinating because you can see how the ideas fed into Discworld.

Alistair Maclean features quite heavily too – there are very few people who could write an action/thriller story like he did. He had an ability to write the big set-piece action sequences, and combine them with a plot that never felt contrived. Harry Harrison’s Stainless Steel Rat is another favourite on this bookcase. There is a string of Agatha Christie books on top of the bookcase, although you can’t see them here.

Worthy of mention is Genevieve Cogman’s “Invisible Library” series. If you haven’t read these, and you’re looking for a teenage/young adult book, then take a look at them. A clever idea and well written.

Scattered here and there you will also find various reference books, covering an eclectic range of topics.

Now we move on to the bookcase at the top of the stairs. Again, books are packed  two deep, and stacked on top as well.

The bookcase at the top of the stairs

Books that you can’t really see here because they’re hidden behind others include Robert Jordan’s “Wheel of Time” saga, epic fantasy at it’s best. On the top of the bookcase, in addition to a number of Biggles books you will find Jack Campbell’s “Lost Fleet” series. Good military science fiction is hard to find, and Jack Campbell represents this genre at its best.

Various other authors you might recognise include Brandon Sanderson (who completed the “Wheel of Time” saga after Robert Jordan’s death), and China Meiville. If you haven’t read Jonathan L. Howard’s “Johannes Cabal the Necromancer” series, then you’ve missed out.

You can also find most of Jodi Taylor’s “Chronicles of St. Mary’s” on the shelves. The ones you can’t see are probably being read at the moment. They are highly readable and a lot of fun – another series I can happily recommend.

And of course, more reference books, and more copies of “Runaway’s Railway” and “Runaway’s River”.

The bookcase in the living room

Going back down the stairs to the living room, we find the bookcase that holds the book that we like people to know we read (including yet more more copies of “Runaway’s Railway” and “Runaway’s River”). Mostly. I will confess that Mickey Spillane is possibly not the most intellectual of writers, even if he does tell a good yarn.

On the other hand, there’s Seamus Heaney’s “Beowolf”, which has got to be one of the better translations. You’ll also find a book of his poetry in there somewhere. Probably next to Stephen King’s “Dark Tower” series.

You can also see a scattering of titles like Garth Nix’s “Abhorsen” books, but also some by Catherine Aird. You may recall that she’s mentioned in the dedication of “Runaway’s Railway”, for having given me very good advice and encouragement when I started writing. Her books are well worth reading if you like detective stories. She has a devious mind.

Finally, you will find some of the novels of Umberto Eco, who really is in a class by himself.

Hopefully this little tour of my bookcases will have sated your curiosity, and maybe suggest a few authors that you might like to try yourself.

Concerning Chocolate Fountains

A Chocolate Fountain

Chocolate fountains are truly amazing.

Did you know that the world’s tallest chocolate fountain is 27 feet (8.23 metres) tall and contains two tons of chocolate?

Or that the instructions that come with a chocolate fountain tell you not to place your entire head under the fountain (presumably this means part of your head is OK)?

The genius of this device is that it is so simple. A heated bowl at the bottom for melted chocolate, and an auger. An auger is about the simplest form of pump there is. You know how an electric drill digs stuff out of a wall or a piece of wood? Same principle, except you’re drilling for chocolate. Once the chocolate gets to the top of the fountain, it then trickles down to the bottom, coating any items of fruit that it encounters on the way. It is so incredibly simple that you can’t help thinking, “I could have come up with that!”. Except the mere mortals like us don’t have ideas like this.

For me, though, the most amazing thing is how difficult it is to find out anything about the origins of this machine. You would think that for an invention of such great significance to human advancement a quick Google would provide you with everything you need. Indeed, you can do this, and discover that the chocolate fountain was invented in 1991 by Ben Brisman for a Canadian company called Design and Realization.

Except that isn’t quite right, as you soon discover if you probe a bit further.

If the chocolate fountain was invented less than thirty years ago, the chances are that the inventor is still around. Why not look them up on LinkedIn? Or Facebook? I mean, how cool would that be, to have the inventor of the chocolate fountain as a friend on Facebook? Plus, what would they have been doing for the last thirty years? Sitting around eating chocolate-coated strawberries? I don’t think so! What else might they have invented in the intervening years?

Except the inventor is not present on any social media. There isn’t even an obituary.

Eventually, you discover that although the Canadian company Design and Realization popularised the chocolate fountain (and will very happily sell you one), and that indeed the inventor was Ben Brisman, he invented it in 1920.

Ben Brisman is not on Facebook.

Finding out anything about him online is an uphill struggle. There’s no biography, no Wikipedia entry, just a void.

There are no photos, either. You might have expected a Google image search to bring up a sepia-tinted picture of Mr Brisman. He should be standing in front of a chocolate shop in America – probably New York, as that’s where everything seems to happen – a straight-backed fellow with a moustache, wearing a bowler hat and carrying a walking cane.

Yet there is none of that.

When I consider that my single greatest personal contribution to the culinary art is to put tomato ketchup in a cream whipper (this works really well – try it sometime), it seems a tragedy that Ben Brisman is all but forgotten.

I am very much aware that we all have many things to worry about now, many important things. But what better time than this to indulge with a chocolate fountain? It is for times like this that they were created.

And after all, how else should you celebrate the hundredth anniversary of its invention?

Free short story – Feeding the fishes

To celebrate my e-mail working again, here’s a free short story.

It’s not set in the universe of Runaway’s Railway, and it doesn’t feature any of the characters from those books, but I hope you enjoy it anyway.

“Fishes” – section of a mosaic by Hayley Wood

Feeding the fishes

“Two handfuls of pellets from jar one,” read Mary from the sheets of hand-written paper.

She unscrewed the top of a clear plastic jar which had a large “1” written in indelible marker. Two handfuls of pellets were duly scattered over the surface of the pond. The fish looked fat and well fed, as indeed they were. They showed little interest in the grudgingly provided food.

“Don’t know why they keep all these fish anyway.”

It was a large pond, taking up almost three quarters of the back garden. Tilde, her sister, boasted that it was almost six feet deep. Mary knew that this was true.

She blamed Tilde’s husband, Jon.

He was the genius who had first had the idea of the pond. He would confidently assure any listener that each fish was worth over three hundred pounds. Mary shook her head. From her point of view, the only place for a fish was on a newspaper.

She sighed and moved back inside where there were more fish to feed, each tank with careful instructions.

Fish feeding finally completed, she began cleaning the house. More accurately, she continued the cleaning of the house. It was incredible to her that they could go on holiday and leave the place in such a mess. When she went on holiday, she always cleaned her house from top to bottom first. That way, if someone came in to check the house she didn’t have to worry about what they’d think of her. Tilde and Jon didn’t worry about what anyone thought of them.

For the last week, she had tackled a room a day, cleaning, scrubbing, polishing… The wheelie bins were overflowing, but gradually the mess was conquered.

“How anyone can live like this is beyond me.”

It wasn’t as if they had children to worry about. All Tilde and Jon had to care about was themselves. In fact, all they did care about was themselves. Yet despite that, the house was a tip. During the week’s holiday – which they had insisted on calling a vacation – she had been cleaning the house in microscopic detail. Every year they went to Spain for a week, and every year she’d baby-sit the fish, and clean the house. She ended up doing it every year. She could not bear the thought of leaving the house so… squalid. There was no other word for it. They lived in squalor.

Mind you, as her husband Daniel had pointed out, there was a certain advantage in that routine. She had griped to her neighbors about it every year for the last ten years or so, explaining how she had cleaned everything. Everyone received an annual information overload on the subject.

She dusted the living room thoroughly. On the TV stand the dust looked like it was an inch thick. There was a dust-shadow where a Blu-ray player had been, cables still hanging off the back of the stand. Not a DVD player, oh no. A DVD player was too last year for Jon. No, it had to be a Blu-ray player. Time to clean the place up might be strangely lacking, but there was time to watch a Blu-ray disc.

Eventually she gave up shuffling the dust around and used a vacuum to shift the worst of the mess. Then she could dust and polish it. A ten second job that had taken ten minutes because of neglect.

A space that might have once held a Hi-Fi deck of some sort received the same treatment.

That was the story of every room, but all had succumbed to her cleaning. Not a speck of dust or a fingerprint left anywhere.

What really grated was that while Tilde and Jon might not earn much more than her Daniel, they didn’t do anything with the money. If Mary and Daniel had had the same money that they did, it would have been used far more wisely. After all, Daniel managed to keep their house maintained, and ferry the kids to different clubs, while Mary took care of everything else. By comparison Tilde and Jon’s house was all but falling down around their ears.

The result?

Mary and Daniel lived in a better house, in a nicer area, with three adorable – if horrendously expensive – children.  

Tilde and Jon lived with a bunch of fish in the only house in the country that had decreased in value over the last ten years.

Mary doubted they even realised how much money they had. They certainly didn’t spend much, apart from on trivialities. Daniel had a shrewd idea, though. He had shown Mary his back-of-an-envelope calculations. He was smart like that. Mary had been surprised by the figures, and even a little impressed.

It was all so unfair.

Tilde and Jon did nothing with their lives, just coasting along. Meanwhile, Mary and Daniel put themselves out, trying to better themselves. And now look at it. Tilde and Jon had all the cash – which they never used – and Mary and Daniel had to scrape by. All that money, and they did nothing with it. Nothing sensible, anyway.

The Battle of the Dust complete, the hoovering could begin in earnest. General debris was dumped in the overflowing dustbin, clearing a central floor space. Furniture was shifted into the middle of the room, and the edges of the room were attacked.

“Oh, Tilde, you have excelled yourself – or was it that slob, Jon?”

Behind an armchair was the remains of a take-away curry, which appeared to be developing a life of its own.

“On with the Marigolds.”

She snapped the yellow rubber gloves on with an attitude like a soldier snapping a magazine into a rifle. She carried the offending item through to the kitchen. The kitchen had been a nightmare a week ago, too, but with a bit of attention each day, it was now almost usable.

“Not that they’ll thank me.”

Still, despite the kitchen units being rather battered, her husband assured her that the damage was only skin deep. Daniel was confident that the house only needed a few thousand invested to reach its full market potential.

“Could always sell the fish to get the money, I suppose.”

Once she finished with the living room, the house would be ready for the return of Tilde and Jon, scrubbed clean throughout.

Of course, it wouldn’t be a surprise if Tilde and Jon didn’t phone tomorrow. You wouldn’t expect it, not by the time they’d flown back, come through baggage claim and customs, and got a taxi. Actually, you wouldn’t expect it anyway, not from them. That was like hoping they would remember to send you a postcard. The next day, though, it would be strange if they didn’t get in touch.

When they didn’t phone, she’d pop around, just to check, and of course, they wouldn’t be there. That would be when she’d contact the police, who presumably had a routine for these things. She imagined it wouldn’t take the CID or whoever it was very long to find out they’d never caught the plane, or even taken their early morning taxi to the airport.

A quick glance would surely reveal to a trained officer the absence of the Blu-ray player, and other assorted oddments. All expensive electrical goods, the kind of things that might be removed in a burglary. As it happened, they had been safely recycled at the local waste facility, but who was to know that?

Any investigator would be sure to jump to the conclusion of a burglary gone wrong. Such a shame she had cleaned away all the evidence, but how was she to know?

After these miracles of deduction, it would only take the police a few minutes to work out why the fish were so fat.

Bats

Having just written about reliability, I am mortified to discover that my e-mail (kevin@kevinwoodauthor) isn’t working. My apologies to anyone who has e-mailed me and not received a response. I will let people know when it is fixed. Hopefully my service provider is still doing the support thing during lockdown.

Whereas I, on the other hand, have been putting up a bat box:

We have three bird boxes and an insect house, all of which are empty. I’m not sure why this is. It doesn’t appear to be location, as last year sparrows built a nest right next to the sparrow box that we had bought for them. Persuading them to move their nest a few inches proved impossible. The box remained untenanted.

Still, we have high hopes for the bat box (which was made by the wonderful people at the Stepping Stones Project in Skipton), and we’ve carefully followed all the advice on where it should be sited.

There have been many tragic stories as a result of Coronavirus and the lockdown. People who have lost loved ones, families which have been broken, people who have died doing their job at the NHS. If you have been affected, then you have my sincere condolences.

Yet one of the tragedies is still to play out. It has been suggested that a possible origin of the Coronavirus is bats in China. Sadly, certain people have drawn a somewhat wobbly line from A to B and decided to go on a bat hunt. It seems that these animals will become collateral damage of the pandemic.

A good reason to put up a bat box, if ever there was.

The conspiracy theories of people like David Icke (former footballer and sports presenter, who has had his social media accounts deleted for spreading harmful disinformation) are, at least, somewhat easier to stomach. After all, you can have a good laugh and feel suitably superior to those who believe them. 5G towers and covert operations gone wrong? Very amusing. Unless the exposure of the conspiracy theories is, itself, a counter-intelligence operation on the part of the lizard people known as the Archons.

Imagine the scene in the Archon’s secret bunker (located beneath Buckingham Palace, if you believe everything you read):

“How does that David Icke fellow keep uncovering one’s plots?”

“He was once an operative of the Archons. It is unfortunate, Supreme Archon, that he was able to escape prior to re-education.”

“Unfortunate? One is appalled by the incompetence!”

“Yes, Supreme Archon. The effects have been devastating. Revealing the British Monarchy as being rulers of the lizard race has been particularly awkward.”

“Awkward is too mild a word. One finds it incredible that the public is prepared to believe such things.”

“The analysis suggests that one’s difficulty with the personal pronoun is unhelpful in this respect.”

“One finds that difficult to believe.”

“Indeed. However, this still leaves the problem created by David Icke.”

“Is it possible to discredit him?”

“He appears quite capable in that regard himself – yet it only takes a few people to give him credence in order to disrupt the Supreme Plan.”

“Then use that American asset. One has a 5G tower nearby. Use it to reprogram his brain. Again. As soon as he says something, everyone knows it must be false.”

“An excellent idea, Supreme Archon. Initiating 5G mind control to reprogram the American asset’s brain now…”

Reliability

I finished my last post by alluding to the reliability of the Circumvesuviana train. A break down on this train is made more entertaining for the tourist as there are no announcements made. You are left to your own devices to guess why the train isn’t leaving the station. Eventually a member of staff will come past to find out why you didn’t get off the train. They are extremely nice (a characteristic I associate with the Italians) to the stupid English who haven’t noticed that the train isn’t moving – and just a little puzzled.

Strangely, I didn’t really go into train breakdowns in Runaway’s Railway. There was one allusion to a train failure when the Railway was herding Mark in a particular direction. There was also a locomotive that gradually fell apart due to accelerated entropy as the heroes passed through the Ghost region. Still, considering the thousands of miles travelled, the world of the Railway was remarkably reliable.

Unlike my shower.

Considering we are in lockdown, it has chosen the worst possible moment to fail. Not only that, but the part which failed is a little bit of plastic in the on/off switch. The shower itself is fine, and if you can manage to wedge the switch in place, it’s still possible to shower. You must accept that it’ll probably switch itself off halfway through, and then scold you when you jam it back on again, but it’s just about usable.

Normally, I’d call out someone to repair or replace it. In lockdown, that’s not possible, But! I am an Engineer! I am fully confident of my ability to repair the shower given the right parts. Except that the replacement has been discontinued.

No matter – contact the manufacturer directly. And yes, they have a few of these parts left in a box in the office. Wonderful! Except we’re lockdown. So, the office is closed. And my shower remains broken.

I couldn’t manage to find a suitable word to describe this sequence of events. Clearly, there should be a word for it – we’ve all had similar experiences – but there was nothing obvious. Finally, in desperation, I approached the writer of the Inky Fool Blog (and some rather excellent books), Mark Forsyth. He is an etymologist, a word guru, and a rather clever chap. Options for a suitable word are limited, it seems, so I shall settle for describing it as a multifail.

Consider, instead, this:

A surprisingly clever contraption

It looks like a bit of iron that someone has nailed to a couple of planks. It looks like the kind of thing that you would trip over and bark your shins. It looks like it will break at any moment.

Except it’s been there for about 150 years, and it still works. Not only that, but it’s kind of clever, too. In electronics or computing it would be called an inverting switch. If you push one side, it’ll make the other side pull, and if you pull, it’ll push. If you doubt that it’s clever, then cover up the picture and try and come up with a design yourself.

This demonstrates two things.

The first is that given sufficient cast iron, the Victorians could build anything, up to and including super-computers.

The second is that people would rather have something made of sleek white plastic in their bathroom, even if that means it won’t last 150 years.

Circumvesuviana

There is a kind of writer who is able to go on research trips to provide a better background for their writing. On their return, they will write a foreword to their new novel where they describe their research trip in somewhat Colonial terms. “For this novel, I undertook a research trip to Margate on the Isle of Thanet. I was lucky enough to be able to spend some time with the locals, who informed me that ‘Thanet’ means ‘Death’, and I think you will find…”, and so on, and so on.

The rest of us just go on holiday, and if we manage to see something that’s useful in our writing then that’s great – bonus!

A while back (as you will have seen from my last post) the holiday destination was Sorrento. It’s a great place to visit, sitting at one end of the Bay of Naples, meaning you have easy access to Pompeii, Vesuvius, and more tourist destinations than you can shake a stick at.

The way that you get from place to place is by the Circumvesuviana train. This isn’t part of the Italian national rail network, but a privately run narrow-gauge railway. It was built in 1884, and through various changes of ownership, expansion and modernisation evolved into the railway it is today. Now it serves the Bay of Naples, providing public transport throughout the area.

It may surprise you, considering that I wrote “Runaway’s Railway”, but I am not a railway geek. Still,  there are some aspects of railways that delight me. For example, as a railway passes through a town, you get a series of snapshots into the lives of ordinary people. Back gardens, apartment balconies, a view into someone’s office. Combine this with some incomparable views across the Bay of Naples, and passing through heavily scented lemon groves…

Later, I mentioned to an Italian friend that I had holidayed in Sorrento, knowing that he came from Naples. “Did you use the Circumvesuviana? I had to use that train every day for five years. I hated it.”

And there you have the other side of the Circumvesuviana.

The Circumvesuviana train at Ercolano Scavi station

It’s an uncomfortable old boneshaker, and the seats! You remember those stacking plastic chairs they have in schools, to teach children what life has in store for them? Imagine those screwed onto the floor of a train, and you’ve got the idea. Reliability? Well, no. It doesn’t have that. Timetables? In theory, yes. At least, they have a timetable nailed to the wall in the main stations. It doesn’t bear any relation to the times of the trains, but they seem to turn up often enough.

Ercolano Scavi station – not pretty, but effective

It might serve a tourist area, but the Circumvesuviana is not a tourist train. It’s a hard working commuter train that offers the best option for transport in a heavily populated area. It might not be pretty, but despite all its problems, it does work, and I will confess a fondness for it (which my Italian friend definitely does not share).

Unfortunately, I didn’t visit Sorrento until after I had finished “Runaway’s Railway”,  but that’s not the point. It did cause me to do something so rare that it’s worth noting on a calendar. I actually wrote a poem about the experience.

Circumvesuviana

Hard plastic seats and

Graffitied windows

Narrow gauge tracks through

Lemon tree’d cuttings

Blank-faced commuters

Tourists with children

But when it stops it’s

Not Pompei Scavi

“È rotto”. *

(* “It’s broken”)

On writing blogs

Everyone has been most insistent that I write a blog.

Because “everyone” is something of a weasel word (“Oh, everyone knows that!”) I should, perhaps, qualify its use. I do not mean just immediate family, or close friends, or some bloke I met down the pub. Although considering we’re in lockdown at the moment, rather than referring to “some bloke I met down the pub”, perhaps I should say, “someone I saw from at least two metres away while taking my daily exercise”.

By “everyone”, I mean everyone who expresses an opinion regarding what authors should do. This means (in addition to people I have met at a safe social distance) a variety of media pundits, both in printed media and television, not to mention various websites for authors. In fact, anyone who is given the opportunity to express an opinion.

So I am writing a blog.

However, no one tells you what to write about, although you are advised to “find your niche” (whatever that means).

There are vast quantities of statistics about the correct length for a blog. Apparently, a blog entry should be between 150 and 2500 words long (a variation of about 1300%). To refine that a little more, it is necessary to decide who you are targeting.

For example, are you interested in SEO? If you don’t know what that means, then you’re probably not, but to save your curiosity I’ll tell you that it means Search Engine Optimisation – in other words, how likely is Google to find you? If you’re interested in SEO, then you need to be writing between 2000 and 2500 words. 

If you want something that people are more likely to share on platforms like Facebook, then you need to write about 1500 to 2000 words, but if you want to write something that people will read (perish the thought!) then 1600 words is your target.

But 300 to 600 words is considered to be a  practical size to write, especially as if you’re an author, shouldn’t you be writing books, not blogs?

It does seem to be generally agreed that pictures are a good thing to have, so here’s a picture:

Fishing boats at Marina di Puolo, Sorrento, Italy

This does have some relevance. When I write, I take a lot of photos. It drives my family nuts, but it helps me visualise what I am writing about. This photo is one that I took while I was writing “Runway’s River”. It was taken at Marina di Puolo, near Sorrento, Italy.

But there is no advice on what to write about. So I guess this will be a learning experience, and I hope you’ll join me on the journey.