My heart is breaking.

Not over a man. Not over a silly relationship.

Over losing the best friendship in the world. The most steadfast person in my life. The one who truly believed in me.

My mum has gone, and I miss her so much.

I want to tell her so much. I want to ask her so much. I want to hug her again, I want to see her smile, and get excited about something so her eyes light up. I want to answer all the calls I missed. Those I couldn’t answer because I wasn’t able, or embarrassed that I wasn’t the success she deserved. I want to come home last Christmas, and visit more often.

She was so unlucky, but she still had hope. Hope that everything would be okay in the end – that my hips would somehow get better, that I would become a famous writer, that I would finally meet someone to settle down with.

Every time I find something she had excitedly planned, like flights booked to a relative’s naming ceremony, my heart breaks a little more.

It breaks when I see her dogs playing in the garden, or scampering around the house, she took such joy from them. And they miss her so much. They don’t understand where she is. They don’t understand why I want to hug them, or when I’m doubled over, sobbing with grief.

It breaks when I see her clothes, her make-up, her awkward smile in photographs – she never liked having her picture taken.

It breaks even more when I think of the pain that she was in. The confusion of her last minutes. Of being told to ‘Calm down!’ by the selfsame doctors and nurses who had previously ignored her, ignored the warning signs, who relied on monitors instead of going to see her losing her breath.

Despite her spending a week being so patient with their abrupt manners, speaking so kindly of them, and trying her best to not be a bother.

She didn’t need more medications – they only made her feel more sick. She needed them to realise how ill she was, instead of her being at the bottom of the list to be transferred to another hospital for treatment. They needed to talk to her about her concerns, instead of just telling her off.

I know that they have a hard job, but I can’t forgive them for sayin to my sisters it was ‘all in her head’. Half an hour later, she was gone.

My mother wouldn’t have harmed another soul. She had the softest, gentlest heart, which unfortunately wasn’t strong enough. We’ll never know now what part(s) finally let her down – it didn’t seem right to have a post-mortem after all she’d been through. She would have hated the thought too.

All the flowers in the world won’t bring her back. All the cards either. I know people mean well, but I find it difficult to even look at them. Especially the religious ones.

She’s not up there, looking down on me. On us.

She’s gone. Forever.

And my heart is broken.

Tx

How to not embarrass yourself at the rugby – SIX NATIONS RELOAD

Yay! It’s the Six Nations!

washing jersey

Time to find my Wales jersey & give it a wash.

I have to confess, this year’s tournament has caught me unawares. Although I’ve been popping along to London Welsh home games, most weekends, I’ve also been involved in another sport where getting wet and muddy is a bonus – cyclocross.

20160104 phone download 026

One of the cleaner days. Honest. (And you can’t even see their backs.)

 (If you miss those days where you couldn’t tell one mud-covered lump from another, and like to see people falling on their arses and faces, this could be another spectator sport for you.


Very entertaining stuff.)

Back to the rugby. So, to discover last week that Wales are favourites for the Six Nations according to most of the commentators here was quite a shock, to say the least.

What could possibly go wrong? Oh yes, Biggar goes limping off and Wales draw against Ireland. Great start.

Anyway, I was perusing other exciting links when I came across this lovely bit of ‘build up’.

Far be it for me to disagree with that ‘advice’ (*shudders*), but if you’re the kind of person who paints their nails in team colours but has no idea what the laws of rugby are, please read no further. We’ll never get on, so I won’t even bother.

Speaking of which, the SWEP have obliged with their own idiots’ guide here. Thanks, bois.

Returning to this side of Offa’s Dyke, ‘Six Nations to fill pubs with higher class of git’. Hmmm.

 

Of course, I tripped off to Old Deer Park on Saturday for the opening matches. And proceeded to down a few too many ‘Bows.

hat on boiler

It was quite the operation to discover why my hat was there – apparently it pissed down with rain at some time on Saturday night, and Drunk Toria somehow managed to put it there to dry. Drunk Toria is epic. Hungover Toria searched the whole house looking for that hat though. Perhaps Drunk Toria should’ve left her a note?

I was grateful for dark glasses the next day. And I discovered that sports nutrition recovery drinks are also quite a good tool in your hangover arsenal.

Out of the goodness of my heart and without further ado, here is my HOW TO NOT EMBARRASS YOURSELF RELOAD –SIX NATIONS style. You may have read my original (longer, and RWC-themed) guide here.

But I think some people may need a reminder. (After last Sunday’s hangover, I include myself in that observation.)

 

The laws of rugby.

Oh, FFS. If you don’t know them by now, you really can’t be arsed, can you?

Look, the original piece had some more information & useful tips, but I’ll repeat the most cogent words: DO NOT TRY TO BLAG ANYTHING ABOUT THE SCRUM. No matter how tempting it is (‘he’s dropped his bind, hasn’t he?’ ‘that was no way straight’). You’ll be like one of those really annoying commentators who insist on filling every millisecond with their voice, instead of letting the pictures speak for themselves.

HOWEVER, my earlier words still apply:

EAT

IMAG0146

Brekkie on the benches at ODP.

Have a proper breakfast. Don’t rely on a ‘pre-match meal’ – you may already be the best part of bladdered before then. Try to snack all day – this is not a time to be worrying about your diet. Don’t be the person puking up in the bogs at half time, or the one disposing inelegantly of a curry/kebab behind a bush.

DRINK

This isn’t a sprint, it’s a marathon. No, there’s not as many matches and ad breaks at the RWC, but it can be more intense. Remember what I said about drinking more when nervous?

20160104 phone download 007

LOO BREAKS – If you need to go to the loo at a match, wait until a break in play before you force people to get out of your way. If you know your bladder is weak, stick to shorts until after the rugby finishes. Or chew gum instead of drinking.

REFILLS – If you run out of drink during a match, wait until a break in play. Or just fucking deal with having nothing to drink. Don’t ruin someone else’s experience just because you’re prioritising alcohol intake over watching rugby. That’s just fucking selfish.

DO NOT INVOLVE YOURSELF IN DRINKING GAMES IF YOU’RE ALREADY HALF-CUT. It’ll only end in tears/puking/embarrassment/passing out. Finding other people to talk with or a well-timed disappearance may be your best option to salvage whatever’s left of your dignity. This includes Dai Lama’s drinking game:

Dai Lama Drinking Game

There’s no way in hell you’ll still be standing after that. And you probably won’t care. Until the pics made it to social media…

BE MERRY

Wear what you’ll be comfy in all day, including shoes. If you’re not sure what to carry, this may be a useful guide.

Whether you’re at a match, at a rugby club (now is a great time to pop to see their matches also – with the rescheduling that’s often forced on them, they need your support) or being boring and watching it at home, you should try to still try to keep standards up.

STAND FOR THE ANTHEMS. Sing along too, even if you’re a neutral and it’s not your own. Even if you’re at home and the only one there. The French National anthem is great for its bloodthirstiness. The Italian, well…

Clare grinned happily. ‘Woo-hoo! I’m off to Italia.’ She started humming and was soon gesticulating wildly with her other friends.

‘What on earth are they doing?’ a bemused Tom asked Sarah.

‘On past experience, I’m guessing that’s the Italian National Anthem they’re singing. Or trying to sing. It’s a bonkers anthem – half opera, really.’

‘Of course, that explains it, I thought it was familiar.’ He hummed along good-naturedly too.

It built to a crescendo, then all the performers paused, not knowing the next bit. Their small group broke into laughter, and some around them applauded.

Playing For Keeps by Toria Lyons

Flower of Scotland can be a joy or a dirge, depending on the proclivities of the band, while Ireland has far better ditties than their Call. Anyone not English and those of a republican leaning all hate GSTQ, but at least it’s short, hey?

I reckon the best of the home nations is Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau (Land of My Father’s), and that’s not because I’m Welsh. Honest.

20151215 phone download 249

Fortunately, they didn’t have this in my size.

NEVER BOO. Don’t slow-clap either. It’s not a fucking pantomime.

TRIES – Don’t over-celebrate unless the try has definitely, irreversibly been awarded.

PENALTIES/CONVERSIONS – Again, please don’t boo. The English/Irish thing is to hush. While I’m not a fan of silence, pissing everyone off around you means you don’t get to share their hip flasks.

CLAP GOOD PLAY – by either side. Yes, it may rankle to do so, but this is a major part of being a rugby supporter.

POW! Yeah, massive hits are great to see. Well, FAIR and SAFE massive hits are. However, if it’s a Lawes-like late tackle on a defenceless, smaller player? Similarly, tip or tackles or shoulder barges. Remember, the player tackled should be able to get up afterwards, not be carted off on a stretcher.

INJURIES – If a player is injured, be patient. If a rugby player stays down, it usually means the outlook is bad. No player would voluntarily be stretchered off, and if they limp or are carried off, a sympathetic clap is the norm.

DO NOT SING OR DANCE TO THE SHIT MUSIC CLIPS PLAYED AT BREAKS IN PLAY. Every proper fan hates it. If you want to hear a five-second clip of badly piped music, go to a bloody pop concert, not a rugby match. (When will the bloody stadiums learn this? Grrr.)

AVOID BEING A POOR WINNER OR A SORE LOSER. Remember, if your team wins, try not to rub it in the face of anyone supporting the opposition. Be dignified – what goes around, eventually comes around. THIS IS ESPECIALLY APPLICABLE DURING THE SIX NATIONS – the Six Nations is annual, not quadrennial.

ABOVE ALL, NO FUCKING MEXICAN WAVES. Nothing could be more disrespectful to the players on the pitch and proper supporters than that shit.

Have fun and enjoy yourself, even if the result doesn’t go your way. Absorb the atmosphere, get chatting to other supporters from either side, and join a singalong. AND KEEP THOSE BLOODY ARMS DOWN.

I’m off to the bookies now to place a bet on when Hartley’s going to get sent off.

Much love,

Tx

He spent his last thirty quid on a plate of oysters…

… and a glass of champagne. To be delivered to the birthday girl’s table.

Finally ready to tread the miles home, he picked up his coat, walking stick and wallet shorn of emergency funds. The strike wouldn’t end any time soon, and all the apps in the world couldn’t find him a taxi or minicab.

He pushed open the bistro door and groaned. It was still torrential; pools of water had turned into dark lakes, and water beaded and streamed off every street-lit surface.

‘Sir?’

For a moment, he contemplated ignoring the plaintive female voice, but sighed and turned.

‘That was really nice, what you did.’

He shrugged at the dark-haired girl who’d been serving behind the bar all evening. Girl? She was barely younger than him. He’d thought of flirting with her, but she was stunning, and out of his league. Like the sombre, plain woman in the corner, quietly celebrating her birthday while counting pennies with another sombre, plain friend. They were all way out of his league.

‘Why are you leaving now?’

‘They’ll want a handsome prince, I’m a scarred toad.’

‘You’re no toad.’

He shook his head. Maybe before the insurgents’ raid, he could have been considered handsome. Not now.

‘Have you far to go?’

‘A few miles.’

‘Walking?’

‘Yeah.’

‘But, it’s pouring!’ She’d heard him on the phone. Seen him slump and accept his sodden fate, had given a sympathetic smile.

‘I was in the Army, it’s not far.’

‘But with your leg…’ she trailed off.

‘Legs.’ The prosthetics clunked when he tapped them with his hated stick. ‘They’ll be fine.’ They weren’t fine – the fit of one cup wasn’t quite right, and he could feel a sore developing.

‘Can you wait just a while longer?’

He drew his shoulders back, lifted his chin up. ‘Sorry, I have to go now. Goodnight.’ And stepped out into the deluge.

Fifty yards later, he was wishing he’d kept the thirty quid to offer any driver still brave enough to be on the roads. Along with wishing that he’d chosen any other night to venture out. His arranged date had failed to show, citing a work emergency. He suspected she’d arrived at the restaurant, seen him and backed out.

He lifted his face to the darkened heavens, enjoying the sprinkling of autumn rain, reminding him he was still alive. Unlike his mates, blown to pieces in that desert-dry country. Until the pervasive drift of wet fingers reached duller scar tissue.

Some bleak days, he thought his mates were the lucky ones, to have experienced a quick death rather than the protracted withering of body and mind.

Enough malingering. He pulled his collar up, focussed his eyes on the end of the street, the first leg as it were, and continued.

Such was his concentration in setting one foot in front of the other, he didn’t notice the buzzing to his right. ‘Sir?’

That voice again. This time louder. The girl from the bar, hunched on a moped, shadowing him on the road. He stopped. ‘What are you doing out here?’

The buzzing stopped. She rested a foot down. ‘Would you like a lift? I have a spare helmet.’

He looked her over. A coat covered her torso, but a short skirt bared her already-soaked legs, running with water. ‘Aren’t you a bit underdressed for this weather?’

‘I w-wanted to catch you. Please, get on.’

He wanted to say no. But she had gone to so much effort. He sighed, and nodded. The corners of her mouth twitched up, flashing dimples. He took the helmet she offered, and clambered on.

‘Where do you live?’

’10 Swansby Road.’ His hands on her coat barely touched her.

‘Hold me properly please, I don’t want to lose you.’

Her waist was narrow, he could feel her every breath. He soaked up the human contact.

The streets didn’t exactly fly by – his sparse weight was enough to slow the machine– but they arrived at his building sooner than he’d wish. His hands reluctantly released her, and he busied himself with untangling his legs.

He handed the helmet back. ‘Thank you.’

‘It w-was an hon-honour.’ Her smile had stiffened and her whole body tremored slightly.

‘Do…would you like to come in to dry off?’

A catch of breath, and her eyes shone along with her dimples. ‘W-would you mind?’

‘Not at all. You’d be welcome.’

An unexpectedly light feeling grew in his chest. Hope.

***

This is a short story I wrote for a competition, using the prompt, ‘He spent his last £30 on a plate of oysters and a glass of champagne.’ It’s the first story I’ve written featuring disability, something I know a little about myself.

Unfortunately, it didn’t place, but I still enjoyed writing it.

Tx

How to not embarrass yourself at the rugby

THE RUGBY WORLD CUP IS HERE!

OK, those words may fill you with excitement. Or they may fill you with trepidation and/or dread.

Webb Ellis arse

Yes, that does look like an arse reflected in the trophy, doesn’t it? Hehe.

Never fear, Toria is here with a few words of advice. After all, I’ve embarrassed myself all over Britain. (Fortunately, this was mostly in the days before social media, so photographic evidence is thankfully rare.)

WHAT IS RUGBY?

There’s only so much someone new to rugby can blag. And you will be found out and look like a complete idiot in front of your friends.

20131018 rugby pics ODP 001

That thing on the right? That’s a rugby ball. Pretty, isn’t it?

If your fellow match-watchers have more than a basic knowledge, following the tips here in a slightly condescending article in the Grauniad will only serve to make you look even more stupid.

If you really want to start learning about the game, here are the basics:

Rugby for beginners: a guide to the rules of rugby union (video by RFU – a bit England-focussed, but has some useful stuff.)

Or an even shorter version from the Telegraph here.

Whatever you do, don’t be tempted to do a Jack Whitehall and have a go at playing rugby yourself, especially after a few pints. You’ll find any silky skills from school days are strangely absent.

Here are my tips for watching a game:

NEVER BOO. Don’t slow-clap either. It’s not a fucking pantomime.

DO NOT EVER PRETEND YOU KNOW ANYTHING ABOUT SCRUMMAGING unless you are a twenty-year veteran prop, and even then you’re probably not au fait with the current laws and how they are applied haphazardly even at international level. You simply cannot blag scrum knowledge. Boring, binding, bending, shearing-off and collapsing – it’s a real minefield. Appreciate a well-set scrum where the front rows don’t pop up or collapse – they are true battles of wit and strength.

IF you are feeling brave: you can comment once or twice only about how crooked the feed is (when the scrum half – number 9, usually the littlest guy on the pitch – puts the ball in). No more than that. It’s never straight. And the referees seldom blow for it. (Let’s face it, modern-day hookers are rarely able to lift their leg high enough to strike either – if the ball went in straight, it would just sit there until one pack pushed the other far enough to reach it. Utter farce.)

BREAKDOWN – If this is successively a mess, a pile of bodies, and the scrum half (little guy 9 – remember?) is having difficulty pulling the ball out, you can make a comment about how ‘he’s not keen on reffing the breakdown, is he?’ Recognising not rolling away, or not releasing, or being self-supporting when competing for the ball isn’t something even international referees consistently get right. They often ignore the minor transgressions to focus on their own pet offence. An intelligent team should be able to play the individual referee – as the All Blacks do – rather than be constantly pulled up.

ROLLING MAULS – Feel free to query out loud if there’s an obstruction or ‘truck and trailer’. No one will agree with anyone else. They’re worth cheering on though, with a deep rumble of ‘heeeeeaaaaaavvvvveeee!’ Like a well-set scrum, a well-constructed rolling maul is a beautiful, beautiful thing.

TRIES – Check for the ref’s arm before you over-celebrate, there’s a good chance he’ll have to check with the TMO (Television Match Official – a bloke who’s supposed to spot dirty or illegal play that the ref has missed), and the try may still be disallowed.

PENALTIES/CONVERSIONS – Again, please don’t boo. The English/Irish thing is to hush. While I’m not a fan of silence, it may not a good idea to piss off everyone else around you.

CLAP GOOD PLAY – by either side. Yes, it may stick in the craw to do so, but this is a major part of being a rugby supporter.

POW! Yeah, massive hits are great to see. Well, FAIR and SAFE massive hits are. However, if it’s a Lawes-like late tackle on a defenceless, smaller player, that’s nothing to be admired. Similarly, tip or tackles or shoulder barges. Remember, that player should be able to get up afterwards, not be carted off on a stretcher.

INJURIES – If a player is injured, be patient. Unlike in football, if a rugby player stays down, it usually means it’s not good news. No player would voluntarily be stretchered off, and if they limp or are carried off, a sympathetic clap is the norm.

DO NOT SING OR DANCE TO THE SHIT MUSIC CLIPS PLAYED AT BREAKS IN PLAY. Every proper fan hates it. If you want to hear a five-second clip of badly piped music, go to a bloody pop concert, not a rugby match.

STAND FOR THE ANTHEMS. Even if it’s not your own.

ABOVE ALL, NO FUCKING MEXICAN WAVES. Nothing could be more disrespectful to the players near-killing themselves on the pitch than that shit.

D’YA HEAR ME? NO FUCKING MEXICAN SODDING WAVES!

 

PREPARATION

Wear the colour of the team you’re supporting. Not the opposition. Not many colours are truly neutral. (And yes, I’ve turned up more than one match having made this vital error – it’s easier than you think.)

However, don’t go OTT. If you’re not comfortable in a rugby jersey (and they can be rather warm), don’t wear one. Don’t be a Full Kit Wanker either. Please. Or wear a club tie without being a member of that club. Smart-casual is fine, and will get you into most bars and clubs afterwards.

If you’re a neutral supporter, don’t worry about what you wear. It’s actually much easier to watch and enjoy a game as a neutral.

NOVELTY WEAR/FANCY DRESS has its place (usually at Sevens tournaments), but remember that you probably won’t be wearing that daff head all day. Or Morph suit. Or onesie. Unless you’re on a stag/hen do. In which case, none of the above applies. Except the sodding Mexican Wave. Just. Fucking. Don’t.

It’s worth having a fall-back outfit stashed somewhere, just in case. (I remember turning up at the local rugby club to find a stag do there in bear onesies. One chap had managed to rip a massive hole in the rear of his, displaying his worldly goods to the…ummm, world. Being on my bike with a well-stocked saddle bag, I managed to stitch the massive gash up with judicious use of a few cable ties. However, you can’t usually rely on an ex-Girl Guide turning up at the right time.)

If you’re not sure what to take to a game, this may be a useful guide.

 

EAT

You’re going to be drinking for most of the day, so the most important step to not embarrassing yourself is to eat, and that starts with having a decent brunch. Something to absorb the alcohol is essential.

IMAG0146

The perfect brunch for a day of drinking.

Even if a formal, pre-match meal is planned, you’d be surprised how much drink floats around before then. (Several times, I’ve been the best part of bladdered prior to the starter arriving.)

Remember to eat during the day too. Post-match, find some grub. Even a snack before you wobble off to bed can help alleviate the crushing hangover.

DRINK

No one will want to buy you a half. Don’t even ask for one, that’s just embarrassing. Instead, either refuse a top-up (avoid double-parking) or when it’s your round, get yourself a pint of water or a glass of lemonade. Your choice to not drink or to pace yourself should be respected. Plus, nobody wants to cart a legless friend home.

While I’m on the subject: get your rounds in. No one like a freeloader. However, treating friends who are genuinely short of funds is acceptable, and honourable. In my experience, good deeds are reciprocated.

LOO BREAKS – If you need to go to the loo during a match, wait until a break in play before you force people to get out of your way. If you know your bladder is weak, stick to shorts until after the rugby finishes. Or chew gum instead of drinking.

REFILLS – If you run out of drink during a match, wait until a break in play. Or just fucking deal with having nothing to drink. Don’t ruin someone else’s experience just because you’re prioritising alcohol intake over watching rugby. That’s just fucking selfish.

YOU WILL DRINK MORE WHEN YOU’RE NERVOUS. So many tense matches, I’ve been paralytic before the final whistle. Once I recognised my habit of raising glass to mouth when stressed, I tried food instead. Two four-finger KitKats in five minutes later, I was even more jittery with an additional, massive sugar rush. I haven’t found a solution to this yet, as in these circumstances I also pulverise nails and chew gum like a dementedly masticating cow. Gah.

DO NOT INVOLVE YOURSELF IN DRINKING GAMES IF YOU’RE ALREADY HALF-CUT. It’ll only end in tears. Well, that’s wrong – it’ll end up with you puking your guts up. Or totally embarrassing yourself during Fuzzy Duck/Yee-Hah. Or passing out. Finding other people to talk with or a well-timed disappearance may be your best option to avoid losing whatever’s left of your dignity.

 

BE MERRY

Have fun and enjoy the rugby, even if the result doesn’t go your way. Absorb the atmosphere, get chatting to other supporters from either side, and join a singalong.

AVOID BEING A POOR WINNER OR A SORE LOSER. Remember, if your team wins, try not to rub it in the face of any mates supporting the opposition. Be dignified – what goes around, eventually comes around.

There’s being a rugby supporter during the Rugby World Cup, and there’s being an utter cockwomble.

If you want to piss your partner off so they’ll never speak to you again, follow this advice. And don’t expect any fun in the sack any time soon.

(Important tip: if you want beer in the fridge, buy it and put it in there yourself. If there’s no room in the fridge, buy ice or stash your beer outside/in an ice bucket/in another fridge. It’s not rocket science, is it?)

RWC rugby rules

DO NOT behave like this if you’re not a bona fide rugby supporter with understanding people around you – you’ll be single/friendless before you know it.

IN SUMMARY

Aww, fuck it – go out and enjoy yourselves. Just don’t be a total twunt. Please.

10 Years Later – My memories of 7/7

On Thursday, the 7th of July, 2005, I was working in Central London, on Gray’s Inn Road and living seven miles to the north, in East Finchley. It was the day after London had been awarded the 2012 Olympics, and there was a feeling of excitement in the air, an optimism.

In those days, the Northern Line was regularly up shit creek – there had been delays from first thing.  So, I didn’t think much of the havoc at King’s Cross* that morning. It was a little busier than normal, but 8.30-9.30 was always a bit of a scramble – an exercise in toleration of getting out of the busy tunnels and to the bus stops above.

08:50 Tanweer detonates his bomb between Liverpool Street and Aldgate, killing seven people and injuring 171. Khan is seen fiddling with his backpack before it goes off near Edgware Road, killing six and injuring 163. Lindsay is on a particularly packed service between King’s Cross and Russell Square, and kills 26 passengers, with more than 340 more injured.

I arrived in work complaining loudly about the Tube (something about the ‘bloody Northern Line’ was probably close to what I said**). We were expecting some Merseyside police officers*** from our case team to arrive that morning for a case conference, but they called en route to say they were heading back to Liverpool, as the mainline trains were screwed up too.

09:47 Hussain has now found a seat on the upper deck of a number 30 bus, which is crowded and on diversion due to the tube chaos. His bomb explodes in Tavistock Square, killing 13 and injuring 110. It is thought that Hussain was either unable to board at King’s Cross, or that his original detonator had failed.

When reports of a terrorist attack started coming through, I couldn’t believe it. I remember the antsiness of wanting to do something; after previously working on a crisis management team, I was unused to carrying on as “normal”. I found it impossible to work, to concentrate on anything. Hearing the cacophony of sirens echoing outside, for hours on end, didn’t help. Our building, like so many others in Central London, was locked down.

Throughout that horrible morning, I relied on a Welsh rugby forum to find out what was going on – it was the only place with capacity as all the news websites kept falling over. Many of my London-based friends were there too, and it was a relief as one-by-one they checked in. Work colleagues too. I called my mother to let her know I was OK – she hadn’t even heard yet. This was before the days of Facebook and Twitter.

They told us to go home early that afternoon. There was no public transport – most roads were still closed – so I was pretty certain I would have to walk at least part of the seven-plus miles back to East Finchley. I had trainers under my desk which I donned. I got into a lift (elevator), only to find it going up instead of down. The people who got on were actually headed in the same direction – north towards Holloway, Archway and Finchley. I still can’t believe how lucky that was. Otherwise I would have had to walk by myself. Company was distraction.

So we walked.

There were thousands of people walking, and it was strangely silent. No one really knew what to say. I can’t remember anyone dawdling, the pace was brisk. It was a dull day, but really warm – close. One of those humid British summer days. There was very little motorised traffic. Just masses and masses of sombre pedestrians, mostly suited and booted, sweating heavily. The clomping of feet breaking the silence. The odd siren that we cringed at.

Some bus stops were overrun with people, mostly those unable to walk any further****. I wasn’t keen to get on a bus.

Our group dwindled until there was three or four. We paced it up Highgate Hill, and then stopped at a pub as a reward. And proceeded to get very, very drunk.

We weren’t the only ones with this idea. After all, heading to the pub for a “quick pint” is default mode for the British. Every place we had passed earlier was packed. Apparently, some didn’t even bother trying to get home, instead booking a hotel room and hitting the town.TV screens were tuned to rolling news, but I can remember trying not to watch, in fear of breaking down.

By the time we left the pub, it was dark, raining, and buses were running.Taxis too. Despite this, it seemed a good idea to walk the rest of the way to East Finchley, where the remaining two of us stopped for Thai.

I can clearly recall not wanting to go home for some reason. By the time I eventually did, I was slaughtered. I watched with horror the news coverage, and wished I hadn’t.

Getting on the tube the next morning was difficult, though I can’t explain why it was so hard. There were several people sitting in the waiting areas, obviously not keen either. Some tears. Many reading the free Metro paper in silence. Also an air of strength, of defiance.  We had to continue as normal. We knew what we were doing – defying the terrorists – and the chance of anything else happening was minuscule. However, I was relieved to be off and out of the station. And relieved that the weekend was starting soon.

I didn’t lose anyone I was close to. I carefully scanned the pictures of the victims, and was guilty with relief that I didn’t know any. I still shed tears for them. Such a mix of nationalities, of ethnicities, and of ages and backgrounds. This wasn’t brown versus white, or Muslim versus Christian. It was evil versus innocence.

I don’t understand what led the perpetrators to commit such a despicable and cowardly act – it’s totally beyond my comprehension.  How can you possibly justify taking away someone’s mother, father, son or daughter? Someone who’s just going to work, going to a hospital appointment, having a deserved day off, visiting family.

52 people killed, and hundreds of others scarred for life. Loved ones forever gone. Lives ruined. For what?

Mine is the story of thousands, of millions of Londoners on that day. We got to work, we were shocked, and we somehow got home, eventually. Safe and sound. Unlike others. It didn’t necessarily change anything, but for many, not changing was that defiance.

It’s strange. Thinking about that day ten years ago brings back the emotions. The memories and actions may have faded, but the feelings, the impressions still remain. 

 

We remember.

**********************************************

*King’s Cross was the location of a devastating underground fire in 1987, in which 31 people were killed and 100 injured. When I commuted through there, it was still possible to see traces of what had happened, where fierce heat had scarred and ceilings damaged. Unbeknownst to me at the time, every working day I passed through the ticket hall and used the main stairway shown in the news footage. It’s all been renovated since.

**IIRC, the ‘bloody Northern Line’ already being delayed that morning led to the fourth bomber getting on the bus, in an attempt to fulfull their plans of the bomb locations creating a cross shape. So the metaphorical bloodiness of the Northern Line could have stymied their plans, and moved the devastation above ground.
I can’t re-read the news reports to confirm that though, they tear me up too much as it is. And I mean ‘tear’ in both meanings of the word. (Timeline excerpts in italics from ITV.com)

***Another irony was the Merseyside police officers had to head down to London shortly after, as they were all seconded to the ‘picking up body parts’ teams. Months later, they were released back to the case team. We used to go for drinks and chat about old incidents and cases, but this was one they couldn’t talk about. A rather grim time for them, poor buggers.

****Ten years ago, my joint problems had already started, but with care I could still walk well enough, and uphill was always easier than down. I was sore the next morning, but home, hungover, and whole. Unlike those who never got home that day.

Cliffhangers or incomplete novels? Enough already!

Time for a rant about my personal anathema as a reader, my bête noire: when you buy a novel, and get to the end to discover…it’s a bloody cliffhanger!

Or, even worse (and as seems to increasingly be the case), an incomplete novel.

I’ve noticed this in a lot of novels, especially  self-published, free, first novels. After all, you need a hook to get people to fork out for the next five, don’cha?

Pah! You’re not fooling me with that technique!

For a start, WARN THE READER. If it’s incomplete or a series, I’ll avoid it or won’t knock stars off my review.

If it’s going to be a cliffhanger, resolving at least one of the major plot conflicts of an arc would help, preferably the majority of them. Start threading in parts of the next story and hooks.

Or ensure the HEA is complete for your main characters, and start introducing the characters who’ll be the focus for the next novel.

Then there’s the incomplete novel. I’ve read a few recently which just stopped. No resolution of anything, just ‘END OF BOOK ONE’.

What the actual f*ck?

Really?

I don’t care that ‘THEIR STORY IS CONTINUED IN [blah-de-blah]’, I care that you’ve just shat on the reader, big style.

It’s even worse when ‘BOOK ONE’ wouldn’t even qualify as a novel, I read a ‘Complete Series : Box Set’ the other day, consisting of three ‘books’ totalling just over 60 pages. That’s barely a novella.

So, I beg of anyone who may be reading this, please think carefully about how you end your novel, and how you describe it in the blurb. I’m aware that it’s thought of as a promotional tool to tempt a reader into buying more, but you’ll piss off more people than you’ll please, and others may be harsher than I am.

Tx

Playing Power Games – Chapter 1 – An anti-Valentine’s tale

Chapter 1

‘I hate Valentine’s Day and I hate Friday night games,’ grumbled Lindsay. ‘Whose bloody stupid idea was this?’ The redhead stood, well wrapped up, pint in hand, staring out at the pouring rain and the late arrivals dashing to the shelter of the stand. ‘All this false bonhomie, and everyone desperately trying to enjoy themselves in too little time.’

‘Are you talking about Fridays or Valentine’s?’ grinned Sian.

‘Both. What’s wrong with Saturday at two o’clock and keeping your smug coupley-ness to yourselves instead of infesting all the restaurants and decent pubs, and now even Harford Park Rugby Club?’ Lindsay’s Scottish accent strengthened when she was on a rant.

Sian sniggered at her ire. ‘The club thought they’d do something special. It’s primarily the idea of that new social media bloke, Roman, he hasn’t realised the importance of rugby being played at two in the afternoon Saturdays.’

‘All hail two o’clock Saturday rugby! Seriously now, kick off wasn’t until half seven, you’re not going to be eating your “Luscious Late Love Lunch” until ten.’

‘Or later, by the time Rob’s got off the pitch, showered and tarted himself up. For a manly prop, he takes longer than me to shower and get ready. Oh, and physio treatment, have a beer with his buddies, all the rest.’ Sian regarded her generous curves, ‘I’m hardly going to starve, but I won’t be able to drink much without getting squiffy.’

‘We’ll share a burger at half time.’

‘You’re on. Where are you off later?’

Lindsay pursed her lips, ‘Flames is having an anti-Valentine’s night for singletons. Which will probably turn into the usual meat market.’

‘Awww, I love Flames. It’s so bloody cheesy, it’s brilliantly dreadful. I got together with Rob there. Who are you going with?’

‘Some of the women’s team. They decided on the fancy dress theme: “leather or lace”.’ Lindsay wriggled, smirking.

Sian stared at Lindsay, ‘You’re dressed up, under your coat? G’wan, give us a flash.’

‘Later, it’s buried under jumpers.’ At Sian’s faked wobbling lower lip, she pulled open her long coat to show her long, black leather boots and skin-tight leather trousers, pulling up her layers to show her pierced midriff and the bottom of her corset. ‘I’m a dominatrix. My whip is back at the club.’

‘Wow, you have the body for it too, you’re so toned. Red lips to clash with your bright red hair?’

‘The full works, plus a black eye mask. I’ll add the dramatic touches later; I don’t think the Harford clubhouse is up for Mistress Ell.’

‘You’d give the old boys a collective heart attack. I’m not even sure if Flames is up for Mistress Ell.’ Sian shook her head, ‘I have to say, apart from having Rob’s company, I’m rather jealous.’

‘Oi!’ came a voice from the row below. ‘You’re on the same table as us and our husbands, it can’t be that bad.’ Their brunette friend, a heavily-pregnant Sarah joined them. Like most watching the game, she was wrapped up in a thick winter coat, hat, gloves and a scarf.

Sarah shook her brolly out. ‘It’s bloody tipping down and freezing. Whose idea was this again?’

‘The new social media bloke,’ chorused Sian and Lindsay.

‘Roman? The one who’s just walked out?’ asked Sarah.

‘Really?’ Lindsay rolled her eyes.

A low, male Scottish-accented voice came from a massive hunk behind them, ‘Yes, and he’s dropped the club well-and-truly in the brown stuff. Nothing’s ready for tonight. Lindsay, I may have to call on your organisational and diplomatic skills to help us out of shit creek. I wouldn’t ask if we weren’t desperate.’

‘Yes, boss.’ Lindsay was Tom’s second-in-command in his City offices, and had got to know the rest of the Harford crowd through his wife, Sarah. ‘Looks like I won’t be seeing much more of the match, I’ll see you in the bar later.’ Lindsay waved goodbye, and returned to the clubhouse.

When she entered the function room, the whole place was in turmoil. Some pink, red and silver decorations lay scattered on random tables, others were still in their boxes. The bar staff had set up, but were short of hands and coming into conflict with the caterers who were also in chaos.

It took five minutes to soothe the irate chef worried about his food getting spoiled, and placate the bar manager concerned about several missing bottles of wine.

One mousy young girl was attempting to lay all of the tables by herself. Lindsay approached her, ‘Hi, do you know where the rest of the waiting staff for tonight are please?’

The girl blushed and didn’t look at her. ‘The other girls? Ummm, they’re here…’

‘But where?’

‘Ummm, I think they’re getting ready in the ladies?’

Lindsay helped the girl, whose name she discovered was Becca, for a few moments. ‘So, how long have you been here?’

‘Since seven, that’s when Roman said he’d pay us from.’

‘And the other girls, how long have they been here.’

‘Ummm.’ Becca blushed. ‘Around the same time, we were on the same bus.’

It was approaching eight o’clock. ‘I’ll be back in a bit.’

Lindsay went in search of the missing waitresses. It didn’t take long; the clubhouse was nearly empty apart from the working staff and she could hear giggling from the loos. She pushed the door open, to be met by a cloud of hairspray, perfume and cigarette fumes. Three girls in short, tight white blouses with black miniskirts were propped up around the sinks, drinking the pilfered wine, gossiping and fussing with their make-up. One further girl was smoking out of an opened window. They gave Lindsay dismissive glances and carried on their conversations. Lindsay went into a stall and listened.

‘Did you see the size of that girl who goes out with Rob, the prop? She’s massive, must be a fourteen at least. What an elephant!’ Sniggering followed the comment.

‘Fat cow, what the hell does he see in her?’

‘I’m going to flirt with him tonight, I don’t care if he’s single or not. He’s lush.’

They all cackled and agreed and discussed which of the men they fancied, each adding a malicious slur about the player’s wife or girlfriend. Lindsay had heard enough and exited the cubicle, spuriously washing her hands and striding out of the door.

Seconds later, she returned with backup in the form of a couple of bar staff and a doorman. ‘You four, you’re sacked. Don’t expect to be paid a penny for tonight, and don’t expect to ever work here again. Now, pay up for that stolen wine and piss off.’

With much bitching, the girls left.

Which was nice, but left them short of workers. She spotted Tom coming in to check progress. ‘I need at least four bodies to act as waiters or waitresses, plus a couple of bar staff who won’t drink the profits. Any ideas?’

Tom thought for a second, ‘I’ll send some of the squad who aren’t playing over. Maybe some of the under-20 boys as waiters. Don’t let them give you any shit.’

‘You know I won’t. How are things on the pitch?’

‘It’s only halftime and we’re winning by miles. So much for a close-fought local derby; they haven’t even turned up.’

Lindsay returned to the function room and was relieved to see Becca had finished laying the cutlery. Some bar staff had taken pity on her and started polishing the glasses to be placed on the tables.

‘Lindsay? Ummm, would you mind if I tidied myself up a bit? I haven’t stopped since I got here and I need the loo.’

‘No problem, apparently there’s more help on its way.’ Lindsay cast an eye over the room, assessing what was left to be done. Napkins with hearts on and other related table and wall decorations, more chairs. There wasn’t even any table plan to check. She could strangle that Roman.

The heating had been bumped up, and after walking back and forth a few times, she was far too warm in her long coat and layers. She hung the coat up with her whip and stripped off a couple of jumpers, leaving only a translucent, figure-hugging black silk blouse over the corset.

Where was the help? Becca had returned in short order, and was placing the glasses out. Her brown hair had been pulled back neatly into a more-flattering high ponytail. Becca was naturally pretty, a subtle beauty rather than in-your-face-and-caked-with-makeup, and under the baggy clothes was a good, athletic figure. Her eyes had nearly popped out of her head when she’d seen Lindsay’s skin-tight outfit.

The “Happy Valentine’s Day!” banner was to be suspended on permanent hooks installed above the bar. However, even kneeling precariously on a stool wouldn’t lift it high enough. Lindsay dragged a small table over, and retrieved her whip. In her insanely high heels with the use of the whip, she could just about catch the rings over the hooks, and the decoration looked great once up.

With hands on hips, she surveyed the room. It was slowly coming together. Now, she just needed some more staff.

Sniggering came from her left. Six males kitted out in hoodies and jeans were slouching in the doorway, watching her in her outfit.

‘You two!’ she barked and pointed her whip at the two closest, ‘Help me down from here.’

Their tittering shut off abruptly and the two lads uneasily approached her. She recognised them and a couple of others as younger players from the youth squad. The last duo, Gavin and Adam, were seniors in their mid-twenties.

‘Arms up!’ she snapped, and with their assistance, gracefully stepped down. The top of her head barely reached their chins. She squared her shoulders, tapped the whip against her boots and fixed them all with a gimlet stare.

Their expressions were combined terror and awe, and some sexual heat from the older pair. Despite their superior size, they seemed compliant. Hmmm, maybe she was onto something?

She circled the youth players, taking in their jeans and general scruffy appearance. ‘You! Name, and what other clothes do you have with you?’

‘D-Damian,’ her victim stuttered. ‘Us younger players have smarter clothes for later.’

‘You! Name and what kind of smarter clothes?’ she directed her question to another youth player.

‘Ricky. Sh-shirts and ties, trousers and shoes.’

She pointed at the youth players, ‘You’re now waiters for the night. You will be paid. You four have ten minutes to change and return here. Go now.’

She flicked the whip towards the door and the four scuttled away, leaving Gavin and Adam.

She had to hide the tremors of anticipation running through her. Hell, they were tall. And fit. Just how she liked her men. She took her time to slowly assess them, tapping her whip against her opposite palm. ‘You two. Clothes?’

Gavin answered, his redhead complexion blushing, ‘Just a change of shirt.’ The dark-haired Adam echoed him in his soft Kiwi accent. Neither of them could look away from the whip in her hands.

‘Have either of you ever served behind a bar?’ They both nodded. ‘Ok that’ll be your main job for tonight. You have five minutes to change.’

They nodded, but didn’t move. She scornfully looked them up and down again. Tall. More than filling out the front of their jeans. At her glare, they shuffled. Were they aroused? They seemed to be breathing heavily.

She stepped closer, meeting their widening eyes and whispered, ‘Go. Now.’

Gavin gulped, ‘O-Our kit bags are below the coat stands behind you.’

Lindsay permitted herself a smug smile, ‘Good, you can change here and help me with the rest of the decorations.’

She strode off to where Becca was watching open-mouthed. ‘Everything ok with you, Becca?’

‘Oh my god, you’re, like, my heroine. The way they went from cockiness to cowering in front of you in seconds.’ Becca was grinning and had forgotten to be shy, ‘I’ve never seen anything so epic.

‘How old are you, Becca?’

‘I’m eighteen. Just.’

‘Are you still at school?’

‘Ummm, I’m just finishing my A levels but…ummm, I want to be a professional cyclist,’ she rushed out.

‘Ooh, I cycle too. Only club runs though.’

‘I thought so; you have the legs of a cyclist…’ Whatever Becca was about to say next, she completely forgot, distracted by something behind Lindsay. ‘Wow!’ she breathed.

Lindsay suspected she knew what had distracted the goggle-eyed waitress, and before turning around, carefully blanked her expression. Wow indeed.

Two half-naked professional sportsmen, firm slabs of muscles and ridged abdomens on show, they rummaged in their bags for garish shirts. Gavin started pulling his shirt on. Looking up and seeing Lindsay and Becca watching, he slowed his movements down, smirking as he slowly buttoned the silky fabric from bottom to top. He said something to Adam who looked their way too.

Lindsay could feel herself losing control of the situation. ‘Follow me, and stop staring!’ she hissed at Becca.

Sauntering towards the troublesome two, she slowly unbuttoned the thin shirt she wore over the leather corset. Gavin and Adam’s eyes darted to her chest, the smooth black leather and bare midriff she was revealing. She let the shirt slip off her shoulders. ‘It’s rather…warm in here, don’t you think?’ she asked Adam.

His eyes were glued to the breast shelf barely covered by leather. With a deep breath, she nearly popped out.

She tittered, and shrugged the shirt back on, slowly rebuttoning it. ‘Silly me, I need to run to the cold office, and I’m afraid I’ll have to find you other shirts to wear, those just won’t do.’ She shook her head in mock disappointment. ‘Please be getting on with decorating and placing the wine glasses on the tables, tell the youths to help you when they return.’ She strolled out of the room, swinging her hips confidently, Becca trotting behind her.

‘Ok, Becca. First things first, we need table plans and a list of names. Secondly, we both need to keep those boys and everyone else under control all night. Part of that is appearance, most of it is attitude. I’m going to give you a makeover and “Don’t Fuck With Me” lessons.’

Becca almost skipped in happiness and clapped her hands together with glee.

Lindsay laughed, ‘I’m afraid the first lesson is be happy inside but don’t be too happy on the outside when you’re in a position of power. Second is, don’t overdo it and be a hard bitch, there’s always room for a smile and compliment if someone’s done well.’

***

Twenty minutes later, Lindsay had the paperwork sorted and a transformed assistant. She’d borrowed a skirt and shoes from one of the women players who’d brought them to change into after watching the match, and a red v-neck T-shirt with the Harford logo, from a youth tournament. There were more T-shirts for the waiters and bar staff. One other problem sorted.

She’d also enhanced her make-up and applied a bit to Becca to bring out her natural beauty. The improved appearance and lessons had dramatically boosted Becca’s confidence. Her shoulders had gone back and she could already sashay like Lindsay in the unfamiliar heels. Giving her a clipboard and clear tasks had also improved her assurance.

Lindsay checked her watch, the match was due to end in ten minutes. The muted buzz of voices and laughter came from the function room. Well, at least that meant they hadn’t walked out on her, yet.

The doors creaked as they walked in and the boys looked around from blowing up balloons. All of them did a double take at Becca’s appearance, and she responded by coolly meeting their eyes. Good.

The tables were almost finished too. Also good. Lindsay allowed herself a quick smile of relief while no one was watching her, before clearing her throat, ‘You waiters, Becca will be giving you a brief rundown on service, and T-shirts we’ve managed to procure. No more worrying about getting tomato sauce on your best pulling shirt, hey?’

She allowed time for the four to finish their current balloons, and to follow Becca to the catering outlet and congregate around her. A brief moment of worry was placated by Becca’s serene smile.

Gavin and Adam were left, and she could just tell that they were feeling belligerent. ‘Here.’ She threw T-shirts at them, ‘They may be a bit small though.’

Adam glanced at the label, ‘I usually wear a large. This is a medium.’

‘There aren’t any large so tough luck. It’ll stretch.’

Gavin had already started unbuttoning his shirt; he wasn’t going to argue. It took seconds for him to pull the top on, he looked resplendent in the formfitting fabric. Lindsay gave an approving nod, for some reason, it looked wonderful against his redhead colouring; his hair verged towards auburn rather than ginger. She returned her gaze to Adam who was grumpily pulling at the snug garment.

Wow! What a knockout! If Gavin looked wonderful, Adam looked superb.

She had to stop herself gaping, giving the same approving nod, ‘Both of you look great, and well done on the decorations. Now, go to Jim, he’ll give you a run down on the bar, it’s bottles only in here, mostly wine or beer. If anyone wants anything different, send them to the main bar. We have about ten minutes before the hordes descend.’

Those ten minutes she spent correcting cock-ups on the table plans and keeping an ear out for Becca, noting that she was spare in awarding compliments but the boys were preening when she did. The caterers came to her with some minor problems but they were all resolved in no time. Far from being a disaster thanks to the disappearing Roman, there was a chance they may, just, get away with it.

***

The main course of the “Luscious Late Love Lunch” was served at ten o’clock on the dot and Lindsay breathed a sigh of relief. Becca had come through for her, the boys behaved, the decorations, while utterly naff, seemed to lift everyone’s spirits, especially the remaining packets of pink, red and silver balloons they hadn’t had time to inflate so had just placed on the tables as DIY decorations. Blowing up and popping balloons entertained even the most churlish.

Tom offered his help once he had finished his coaching duties. Lindsay had waved him back to his wife until pudding was served, when she escaped to join the rugby girls in the bar for a drink, just in time to delay their imminent departure for Flames. They were very impressed with her outfit, and she didn’t have the audacity to tell them either how much it had cost or that she’d had it a few years. Or explain the difference between the dominatrix she was masquerading as, and the domme that she was in reality. The women agreed to hang on for a while longer, and she bought them a bottle of champagne to keep them entertained while she finished up.

‘What an evening.’ Tom came up behind her as she surveyed the function room for any more problems. ‘I think you deserve another pay rise.’

‘I wouldn’t have done it without your boys and Becca.’

Tom laughed, ‘I heard how you terrified them into submission. Well, apart from Becca, who has turned into a little domina herself. Ricky’s just asked her out.’

Lindsay gasped and laughed, ‘What did she say?’

‘She’s outlined a list of demands to which he happily conceded. I’ve paid them all, given her double, and as soon as they clear the last plate, they’re all dismissed. Is that ok with you?’

‘Perfect. What about Gavin and Adam?’

‘I’ll let them go in a bit. Were the tight T-shirts your idea? That was evil. They’ve been complaining of fighting off housewives all night.’ Tom grinned.

‘Serves them right for giving me shit earlier. Has Sarah enjoyed herself?’

Tom grinned even more, he was so besotted with his pregnant wife, ‘Brilliantly, thanks to that comfy chair you organised. I’m off to take her home.’ There was a ripple of applause from the room and a triumphant masculine whoop, ‘Awww, sounds like Rob proposed to Sian. He said he would if the night went well. Another pat on the back for you.’

Lindsay smiled in contentment, ‘Away wi’ ye now. I’ll also be off with the girls to go clubbing all night. Tidy, as Sarah would say.’

 

Want more? Comment, Tweet or Facebook me!

A True Horror Story

This is a true story. There is no exaggeration, this is exactly what happened.

 

I have no warning before it happens.

It’s true that I haven’t been sleeping well, and the nap on the sofa was probably a mistake. I didn’t think this would happen, this stomach-churning journey of horror.

First I wake. The middle of the night, still pitch-black outside. I’m lying on my back, the way I normally sleep.

I feel It in the room, a certain heaviness. It’s come to visit. I hear the bed creak as It sits down beside me.

It’s heavy, the bed is noticeably lower. I keep my eyes shut. If I believed in deities, now would be the time to start praying.

The pressure begins, hands making Their way up my body. To my breasts, I feel Them cup and press down on my breasts. I hear It’s heavy breath.

Enough!

I begin to struggle, to free myself from the paralysis. I force my heavy eyelids open. There are shadows all around my room, unnaturally bright due to the full moon.

Where is It?

I move my body, turn slightly to the side. My breath is loud in my ears. My heart beats like a drum.

Where is It?

The shadow there, that’s a hanger on on the front of the wardrobe. The one opposite the bed, is that It? No, that’s the clothes stand. Is It crouched behind the bed? Looking in the window at me? The dark patch by the door, is that It?

My eyelids are heavy, I close them, and feel It return. Pressing me down, feeling my body. This unwelcome Visitor. This Creep. This Assailant.

Eyes open again. I force my legs to move, force my shoulders to shift. I’m so tired, so utterly tired. I want to relax into the welcoming embrace of sleep, but every time I do, It’s waiting there for me. Lurking. Haunting. I can’t see It, but I can still feel It there, just waiting for me to close my eyes again.

I shift further. I move my arms and legs, change the side I’m balanced on. I feel It stand up off the bed, hear the bed creak again, and Its malevolent presence seems to have gone.

I don’t trust It. I fumble to turn on the bedside light. My eyes hurt from the harshness.

My room is empty. There is no one in here but me. The door and windows are all closed. I hear creaks outside the door. Perhaps It’s waiting for me?

I pull out my laptop, force my exhausted brain to start reading something innocuous.

Force myself to calm down.

Force myself to stay awake until the sky begins to lighten.

 

The next night, I’m scared to go to bed, and to turn the light off. I turn the light back on. Someone has suggested I sprinkle rice or salt around my bed, to give It something to count, instead of bothering me. In the bright light of day, the idea seemed ridiculous. Now, it seems like a harmless thing to allay my worst fears.

I sprinkle a light amount of fine salt around my bed.

It doesn’t work.

This time It wakes me up lying down beside me, on the opposite side to the previous night. It’s in a more playful mood this night – it tugs my hair a couple of times. I think I hear a chuckle, and the bed creaks as It moves away.

 

The next night, I have a few drinks to help me sleep. The night after, some tablets. I couldn’t take another night of this.

Sleep paralysis. The Old Hag.

I have been assaulted by my own brain. Tricked, terrified and left feeling sick and exhausted.

 

I’ve had episodes since I was young, though it was only in the last fifteen years that they became as terrifying as this. They’re sporadic, and have happened in many different places. I’ve read that you’re supposed to ‘relax’ into them, and the feeling is supposed to go away. This doesn’t work. I’ve read that once you’ve woken up and moved, it won’t return. It does. I’ve read that drugs and/or alcohol are supposed to make them worse. They don’t.

The only common pattern I can find is sleep disruption, when I’ve either napped earlier in the evening or gone to bed earlier than usual.

I’ve told other people about them – sometimes I have to as the next day, I can be completely on edge and unsettled. Some insist that it must be something paranormal – a ghost, a malevolent spirit or demons. That’s what it feels like.

However, I’m a scientist. A pragmatist. No matter what tricks my brain is playing, I know that it’s just that, just tricks.

Or do I?

What stopped me writing…

…in school.

On a writing forum I frequent, there was a discussion about geographical accuracy, and if readers picked up on errors.

I went to great lengths to get the geography correct along with the timing of the trip. A complete section had to be rewritten to accommodate a short drive that was originally an overnight drive.

I could see the comments about traveling 100 miles in eight hours. We had them stop to rest and refresh instead.

It reminded me of this, from my youth:

About 25 years ago, as a piece of GCSE school coursework, I wrote a story based on a similarly long drive.

I wanted it to be overnight, and long enough for the characters to learn something about themselves. Unfortunately, this discounted the UK as it wasn’t big enough, city-to-city, for the story length.

Having watching too many episodes of California-based soaps, and also having consulted an atlas, I decided to base it in America. And was highly criticised for it not being realistic enough with US slang, etc. I really didn’t know enough about the locations, what junctions were called, how to write American dialogue.

I think I received my worst English mark ever for that story.

It was a painful lesson to learn, as I was the year swot at the time and everyone took the piss out of me getting a C+/C. I had always, always, received As in English until that point; English had always been my favourite topic when I was younger, I’d often placed in school competitions and won a prize in a county-wide contest. My enthusiasm for writing and reading seemed to die from that point. I still read voraciously, but seldom classic works. I fell behind in my coursework. I didn’t really enjoy the subject any more. Coupled with post-mortems of many classic works for English Lit, which I rarely could agree with but had to parrot the conclusions of, English became a subject I could barely tolerate.

The US-driving story was the last time, until I started writing again five years ago, that I had produced something fictional that I enjoyed, or could even recall.  I’ve no idea what I wrote for the rest of my coursework, I have feeling it wasn’t up to much, and I finally gained a B at GCSE English, with a C in English Lit.

With the failure of that story, I look back and realise it was also the teacher himself who took a lot of the joy of writing out of English for me. Mr F was the ‘trendy’ sort – relatively young, easygoing with a snazzy ‘tache and dress sense. He was popular with everyone.

Unfortunately, I didn’t really ‘get’ him; I always got on better with the more traditional type of teacher. A combination of Mr F and the course also managed to kill my enjoyment of Thomas Hardy novels (amongst others) and any poetry. One time, after I had heard part of Robert Frost’s poem ‘Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening’ and I wanted to know who wrote it. I quoted him the final lines:

‘I have promises to keep, / And miles to go before I sleep, / And miles to go before I sleep.’

He didn’t know (HOW? He was an English teacher, FFS!) and was so utterly disparaging, he totally put me off.

I hate regret or blaming others for my misfortunes, but I wonder now how different my life would have been had I been assigned the more-traditional Mr C. Had I scored better in English, I probably would have studied different A-levels, done a totally different degree at uni, maybe begun writing even earlier…

Wow. Please excuse the trip down memory lane.

And I’ve realised that there was something else I wrote that I enjoyed:

About 3-4 years later, and following the death of my grandma, I had an A-level General Studies exam. It was essentially all multiple choice, apart from the English section, which was a short story based on a true event. I wrote about the funeral, about the grandma I hadn’t seen in a couple of years and didn’t particularly like, about how I hadn’t cried until I saw my granddad stood at the front of the church, shaking and alone. It remains to this day, the most enjoyable and cathartic exam I’ve ever had. I always wanted a copy of the story, but was unable to obtain one, though I still remember the last line, ‘Finally, I cried.’

My former English teacher would have hated it.

For that, however, I received an A.

Christmas read: Playing It Cool – free story

Playing It Cool

Here’s a short Christmas-themed story for you to enjoy.

Contains: snow, high levels of drinking and sporadic swearing, ice-related peril, references to classic rugby matches, a pitched battle and perhaps some romance. Please comment!

Tx

***

‘Fuckit, I’m cold.’

‘Fucking freezing.’

‘I’m starting to wish the pitch had frozen hard enough for the match to be postponed.’

‘Me too. Despite that I’m enjoying watching Danny run around being manly. I’ve missed him since he stopped training us.’

‘You and your crush on Danny, I just wish you’d talk to him sometime.’

A heavy sigh, ‘I know, but he’s never looked at me that way.’

‘And he never will unless you say something! Ooh, a break. Go Matt!’

The women cheered on the action in front of them, until someone’s frozen fingers dropped the ball and the ref blew.

‘That scrum looks lovely and warm; I’d love to be in the middle of it, surrounded by hot men. It looks far more exciting than our scrums.’

‘You’d get mashed.  If we had a game tomorrow, it would have been called off, there’s a serious weather front supposed to be moving in.’

‘Nah, that’s for the north only. The weatherman said it would miss the south-east.’

A flurry of snowflakes whipped past the women’s noses.

‘I think Mother Nature says differently.

‘At least these bloody Christmas jumpers are warm. Well, warm-ish. When do you think it would be safe to move inside?’

‘When the final whistle goes? We’ll be fined if we head for the warmth before then, the Boss is watching.’

‘Fuck.’

‘Yeah.’

 

It had been decided several months earlier that the Harford Park RFC teams were to have a joint Christmas social. The first XV down to the vets and the women’s teams would unite for a night of drink-fuelled, festive-themed debauchery. Not that the average Saturday night in the rugby club was ever a quiet affair, but this would be special, with compulsory fancy dress, an “epic” fines session for real and imagined gaffes, and later, whoever was left standing could use the VIP passes for Flames, a cheesy nightclub nearer Central London.

It was the most eagerly anticipated social occasion of the year, the local shops were cleared out of Christmas finery and the postman inundated with parcels to be delivered “c/o Harford Park RFC”. No one foresaw that the unpredictable British weather would thrust a snow-covered spoke into proceedings.

 

Danny tucked his chin into the collar of his winter coat as he strode away from the raucous rugby club, trying to retain some body warmth for his long walk. He would never have even thought of walking the three miles home a couple of years ago, especially through ankle-deep snow, but now he saw it as good exercise and a decent way to sober up. Since he’d started training for triathlons, his stout build had slimmed down to a shadow of his former prop-playing self and he couldn’t drink so much. When the amateurs were desperate, he’d step in and make up the numbers, but he was at an age where his joints wouldn’t take the weekly rugby hammering.

The game that day had been a one-off and he already felt a few twinges and scrapes and bruises developing, overcoming the post-match-winning euphoria. It had been a good night but he’d had one hell of a ribbing for leaving early. It did help that those going clubbing had left earlier than expected too, before they were stranded in Harford. The flakes had begun coming down thickly at the end of the game and started sticking, despite the weatherman’s predictions. There was already a thick layer of several inches on the pavement and roads, cars were starting to skid and slide. However, as Danny had relied on instinct that morning, the boots he was wearing were sensible, with ridged soles so he wouldn’t lose grip in the deepening snow.

He shook some snowflakes out of his mop of curly blond hair, pulled a beanie on and started whistling as he cautiously stepped off the pavement to cross a side road.

‘Help!’ The faint voice came from down the dimly lit street.

Spotting something moving on the ground a few yards away, he stopped, ‘Hello?’

‘Hello, is s-someone there?’ The female’s voice was faint. ‘Please, help!’

Danny started walking towards the tremulous voice. ‘What’s happened?’ As he got closer, he saw a scantily dressed woman huddled on the ground.

‘Be c-careful! Ice!’

Danny skirted a dark patch and slowed. He could feel the lethal slickness under his shoes, disguised by the layer of snow.

‘I f-fell and I’ve h-hurt myself. Phone d-dead. C-can you help me st-stand please?’

The heavy snow obscured his vision again.  He held his arms out and hands grabbed him. As he pulled the woman to her feet, he could feel them slip out from underneath her. ‘Bloody hell, are you wearing skates?’

‘Stupid sh-sh-shoes.’

They turned towards the main road, and she tried to walk, but cried out when she tried to put weight on one glittery, sandal-clad foot. Her feet slipped again, and if it hadn’t been for Danny, she would have crashed to the ground. She attempted walking again, but had to stem another shriek.

Danny felt her slight weight as she gasped, ‘Look, would you mind if I carry you? We’re not going anywhere fast with you like this.’

‘O-O-OK. Please…my skirt…’

He looked down. It was rather short, barely visible under her hip-length coat. ‘I’ll try not to let it rise up.’ He swung her up in his arms, settled her as she tugged at her skirt. He could feel her shivering and icy water immediately started soaking through his jacket. Her skirt was the least of her worries. ‘Where are you going?’

‘T-train station. Catch train home.’

‘Not tonight, they’ve all been cancelled.’ Her increasingly violent shivers concerned him. ‘Look, the rugby club’s a few hundred yards that way, we can raid the place for dry clothes, get some first aid for that ankle, and see if anyone there is heading your way. Sound OK to you?’

‘OK.’

He could barely hear her voice, and started walking as fast as he could. Luckily, they were close enough, and the club’s drive was rough ground with a better purchase for his feet. The sounds of partying grew louder as his arms began to tire.

‘You OK?’ he asked.

There was no response from his bundle. He kicked the first set of double doors open, and turned sideways to get through, ensuring her legs weren’t knocked. He elbowed the lighter, second set ajar and walked into the noisy, warm bar.

‘Danny! You’re back so soon!’

‘Danny boy! Who’s the fair maiden?’

A woman gasped, ‘Oh my god, she’s fucking freezing, filthy and soaked to the skin. And look at her ankle!’

Immediately, the tipsy men and women surrounding him seemed to sober up.

The women’s captain elbowed her way to the front, ‘Emma, go put the showers on, she needs warming up ASAP. Matt, go find some towels. Jim, can we have some hot chocolate please? Anyone else, find dry and clean clothes. We’ll also need the first aid kit. Get Jim to call an ambulance too, although it’ll take ages to get here in this weather. Where did you find her?’ The last question was directed at Danny.

‘She was near the main road, said she’d fallen.’

The girl stirred, ‘Fall, where am I?’

‘You’re at the rugby club; we’ll sort you out here.’ Someone passed the captain a couple of towels. She draped one over the girl, gently lifted strands of water-darkened, long blonde hair out of her face and wrapped the other towel around her head. ‘What’s your name, sweetheart?’

‘A-Amy.’

‘OK, Amy. I’m Beth. Danny will take you to the changing rooms, we’ll warm you up and get you sorted in no time.’

‘Thank y-you. I’m s-so c-c-cold.’

Danny followed mother-hen Beth to the changing rooms, garnering many approving glances from the club patrons. He felt like Superman, despite his arms burning like hell.

Emma jogged back towards them, ‘I’ve started running the small bath in the ref’s room. It’ll fill in no time and be better than the shower.’

‘Good thinking, Emma. We can’t put her in until she’s less cold, but it’ll help warm the room up.’

The smaller room was already beginning to steam slightly when they entered. Beth stuck her hand in the bath water and nodded approvingly, ‘We’ll remove the jacket, and then I’m afraid you’ll have to leave as all her wet clothes need to come off.’

They propped the shaking girl up on a nearby bench and stripped off the lightweight jacket, and a handbag that she’d had tangled around her neck. She was wearing a glitzy, silver halter-neck dress underneath.

‘No wonder she’s so cold, even without getting wet!’ exclaimed Beth.

 

Danny felt like he was deserting Amy as he backed out of the room, with other women rushing in either side of him, carrying hot drinks and clothes, and even a bottle of shampoo. The door closed and he turned to return to the bar area.

In one hand swung her silver handbag. Opening it gave him a slash of guilt, it felt intrusive, but there wasn’t much there, just a slim black phone, a small purse, tissues and a lipstick. He knocked the door to the referee’s room and handed over the bag, minus the phone. Someone in the club usually had a charger; he could give it some power for her to call home once she felt better.

Re-entering the club bar, he felt like hours had passed since he’d departed for home to catcalls ringing around him. He was handed a glass of whiskey and clapped on the back.

‘Good work, my man, get that down you.’

He didn’t give his training any thought at all as he slugged the drink. She had gone so quiet, so fast. He’d been really worried she wouldn’t survive. What was a few drinks compared to that?

‘What a stunner, but did you see how little she was wearing?’ His tall and handsome but surprisingly modest and shy mate Matt rolled his dark eyes, ‘And those shoes? If she’s broken her ankle, I wouldn’t be surprised. Fucking madness.  Any idea how long she’d been there?’

‘No idea, she just said she wanted to go to the train station.’ As Danny shrugged, he realised the arms and front of his coat were wet, so stripped it off to drape over a nearby radiator along with his beanie and gloves. Underneath, he was wearing a tacky Christmas jumper and jeans, as per most in the bar.

‘There’s no way she would have reached the train station like that. You know, you probably saved her life.’

‘I dunno.’ Danny felt a blush rising in his cheeks.

Matt nodded at the window; the snow was now so heavy, despite the exterior lights, it was impossible to see more than a foot. ‘She was on the verge of hypothermia, her lips were blue and it looked like she’d been dragging herself quite a way, she had scrapes all over her legs and hands. You’re a hero, my man.’

A soft kiss was dabbed to his cheek, ‘I agree. Danny, you’re a hero.’ Emma smiled, ‘She’s come around properly, and we’ve cancelled the ambulance as she’s warmed up sufficiently according to the thermometer Beth is wielding.’

‘It wouldn’t have got here anyway,’ interjected Jim from behind the bar. ‘I’ve been listening to the radio, there’s been a massive pile-up on the dual carriageway, the road is blocked and there are possible fatalities. There’s been fighting at the taxi rank in town, most drivers have given up and gone home. Buses and trains cancelled. Police are advising for everyone to stay indoors.’

‘Lock-in tonight then, Jim?’ Matt grinned cheekily.

Jim sighed and looked around at the twenty-or-so drinkers left in the club, ‘Anyone who hasn’t left by now and doesn’t live within half a mile is stuck here, so I don’t have much choice. There are some mats you can borrow from the playgroup, and I’ve taken some blankets out of the cupboard to air, you’ll have to sleep on the floors of the function rooms. Or drink in here all night.’

Danny stared at the dregs of whiskey left in his glass, ‘In that case, Jim, I’ll have another. Thanks.’

 

An hour or so later, more of the women returned. Apparently, Amy had warmed enough to be able to get in the bath, they had helped her wash, towelled her off and cleaned her grazes. Beth thought the ankle was badly sprained and had strapped it up. A hairdryer had been magicked up to dry her hair. Danny had plugged the lifeless phone in to charge, and the dark-haired, petite Emma darted back and forth, but appeared to enjoy returning to Danny and Matt’s company.

Emma’s job had also been to keep the drink flowing between the changing rooms and the bar; once it was clear that Amy was OK, the women had continued drinking. They even had an impromptu, hilarious fashion show with all the clothes that had been gathered, including a scrum half prancing around in Amy’s now-dry dress and shoes. She had told the women she never, ever wanted to see the garments again, if it could be helped. They held an on-the-spot auction for the surprisingly undamaged designer items, and raised enough funds to raid the club shop for something more substantial.

A while after, the door opened and conversation hushed. A stunning blonde stood there, poker-straight shiny hair almost to her waist, green eyes gleaming in her make-up-free face. Her slim form was clad in a long red Harford rugby shirt with black leggings on her slender, shapely legs. A pair of red socks and crutches completed the picture.

Danny heard Matt gulp beside him.

‘I believe I have someone to thank for my life.’ Her voice was soft, her eyes travelling around the assorted occupants of the bar.

Danny gingerly put his hand up, ‘I…I don’t know if I saved your life but I’m the one that found you. I’m Danny.’

Amy’s eyes ran over him, finishing at his blond curls, jutting chin and smiling eyes, ‘Hi Danny, thank you.’ She hobbled into the bar, swinging carefully on the crutches towards their small group, and conversations resumed.

Beth followed her, looking pleased as punch at the result of her nursing. ‘She recovered really quickly, once we got her warmed up. And I’ve strapped up her ankle, I think it’s just badly sprained.’

‘Do you like my outfit?’ Amy did a whimsical twirl, ‘Your club shop had some base layers so I got a set plus the jersey and socks. I’m toasty warm now.’

‘You look lovely.’ Matt’s voice was hoarse and he had to clear his throat, ‘Err, hi, I’m Matt. What on earth were you doing there?’

The blonde settled against a nearby bar stool, taking the weight off her feet. ‘I’d been at a house party. It was supposed to be an elegant, civilised affair, instead it turned raucous and I left when the local scumbag drug dealer arrived.’ Amy rolled her eyes, ‘I was hoping for a taxi, but my phone died and I had to walk away from the house as some wasted middle-aged guy kept trying to feel me up. Then I got lost.’

‘Very unlucky.’

Amy shivered, ‘And cold. I never intended on walking anywhere in those shoes, they’re sitting down shoes only. I’m supposed to be training for a race next month.’

‘Not on that ankle, you won’t,’ warned Beth. ‘You’ll need an x-ray, I don’t think it’s broken but I could be wrong.’

Amy sighed, ‘Just my luck. Has anyone seen my phone?’

Danny fumbled behind him, ‘Here it is – it should have enough charge by now.’

‘Great, I’ll try calling a taxi. Or waking a friend up.’

Danny coughed, ‘Ummm, Jim says we’re snowed in and the roads are blocked. No one’s going anywhere soon. ‘

‘Jim?’

The barman bustled over, ‘I hear my name being used in vain? Evening, lovely lady, you’re looking much better.’ The grey fox gave Amy a flirtatious smile, ‘Booze or bed?’

‘Pardon?’

‘Your choice is either to try to sleep in one of the function rooms, or keep drinking in the bar here. Unless you live within walking distance?’

‘Nope, the other side of London. So we’re all stuck here?’

‘Yep, weatherman got it utterly wrong.’ Jim looked like he was enjoying being the portent of doom. ‘Roads won’t be ploughed until morning.’

Amy shrugged and grinned, ‘Well, I might as well make the most of it, there’s no one at home waiting for me.’ She brought a fifty-pound note out of her handbag, ‘Next round on me?’

 

It probably wasn’t the best of ideas for someone who’d been on the verge of hypothermia to be boozing it up with the rest of them a couple of hours later, but the first aid crew were satisfied she was fine. The women returning from the ref’s room plus others who had failed to catch a taxi or train sheepishly wandering back swelled the group to thirty or so. Some headed for a nap, but most stayed in the bar, drinking chatting and singing. Jim had found some old, classic rugby matches to watch on the TV screens, and they dragged some of the mats into the bar. They even unlocked the kitchen and fried chips to stave off the munchies.

Danny lay with a pint in one hand and a chip in the other and a woman either side of him, watching the Barbarians beat New Zealand in 1973. The large bowl of fried potatoey goodness was balanced on his flat stomach and both women were digging in with him. Beth and a couple of the other women were the other side of Emma with their own helpings of chips.

It was unusual for Danny to spend so much time with women, even when he was coaching their team, but he was enjoying it. Emma had a really offbeat sense of humour, and she used her hands to talk enthusiastically. Every now and again, she lightly touched him to make a point. Amy chuckled and added in some dry comments. He felt quite dizzy from the attention. And they both smelled so good.

They had all giggled over the awkward haka performed reluctantly by the New Zealanders, so unlike the present-day tour de force, and over the dated hairstyles and kit.

‘You know, I’ve seen that try a million times, but never the rest of the match,’ commented Amy.

‘You watch rugby?’ Danny and Emma turned to her in surprise.

‘I played in uni, and…ummm, my dad played for the Saints.’

‘What was his name?’ When Amy whispered the answer, Danny nearly choked on his chips. ‘Him? Bloody hell, he won England and Lions caps too!’

Amy blushed, ‘Ssshhh, I don’t usually tell people in rugby clubs, they start asking me for autographs or expect me to use his name. Or start calling me “the Smith girl”.’

‘OK, we’ll keep shtum. Won’t we?’ Danny elbowed Emma.

Emma nodded and hummed as her mouth was full of chip. They carried on watching the match, and Matt came to join them, sitting down on the other side of Amy. He was quiet, which was unlike the normally ebullient Matt.

‘You OK, mate?’ asked Danny.

Matt nodded, he seemed to be blushing slightly, ‘Good, thanks. Ummm, it’s been a long day. How are you feeling, Amy?’

Amy yawned, ‘Brighter than I usually feel at four in the morning, but not by much.’

‘Ummm, would you like a drink?’

Amy held up the pint of bitter she had been nursing, ‘I’m struggling.’

‘Something shorter?’

‘All right.’

While Matt went to the bar, Amy turned to Danny, ‘This night has turned out more enjoyable than I thought, barring the awful house party and near-hypothermia. That wasn’t so great.’ She shivered.

‘Yeah, I was worried for a bit. You muttered something about going to the station, although as Matt said, I’m not sure you would have got there.’

‘I can’t remember much from shortly after I fell, just a lot of white and pain. I can’t explain why I didn’t just knock on the door of any nearby house, but the cold got to me, I couldn’t think straight. Scary.’ She shuddered again.

‘Tunnel vision. I’ve seen people on the rugby pitch or triathlon field ignore serious injuries to carry on. Sometimes your brain doesn’t realise that circumstances have irrevocably changed.’

‘Yeah, getting to the station was all I could think about. Even when you found me, then you mentioned a rugby club and that sounded tempting and I knew I would be OK at a rugby club. The women were epic, you were epic too.’ She kissed his cheek and smiled widely at him.

He happily grinned back, feeling an unexpected warmth in his groin. Danny was used to being single; he trained so hard that his love life had taken a back seat. Amy was a stunner, and it occurred to him that if he asked her nicely, she may go out on a date with him. He was already in her good books for rescuing her. He opened his mouth, ‘Amy-’

A throat was cleared, ‘Ummm, I got some port, it seemed more Christmassy.’ Matt was standing above them looking like a just-kicked puppy, with a bottle and a few glasses in hand.

‘Ooh, port. Lovely idea,’ congratulated Amy.

The penny dropped for Danny – Matt only acted like he had when he fancied a woman. There had been jokes about how incompetent at flirting he was, and that it was usually obvious. So obvious that the boys usually gave him carte blanche just for the entertainment value. Somehow, Danny had missed the signs.

‘I got a glass for Emma but she’s fallen asleep.’

Danny glanced to his other side to see Emma dozing, curled up. Beth was the only one still awake, and she gave Danny an incomprehensible glare.

What had he done wrong there?

He was confused. First Matt, now Beth. Definitely too much to drink if he couldn’t figure out what was going on. He excused himself, ‘Sorry, little boys’ room is calling.’

The bar group had dwindled by half, and the remainder not watching the classic matches were dozing in chairs or singing mournful songs in the far corner. The break didn’t do much to clear his head. On his return, he picked up a couple of blankets, intending to head for the function rooms. Perhaps sleep would be a better bet?

‘You know those are the larrrshhtt ones,’ Jim informed him. As it had quietened and his services were rarely needed, Jim had joined the other drinkers. ‘I wash keepin’ dem for der women.’ He nodded towards their group.

That meant Danny had to stick around.  He wandered back just as Amy stood for her own visit to the loo.

Emma was shifting around a bit in her sleep, tucking her hands in her sleeves to warm up so Danny carefully lay one of the blankets partly over her. Beth and the others had found their own covers so he held the other out to Matt, ‘Here, last one for you and Amy.’

Matt looked guilty, ‘Danny, I’m really sorry about interrupting before, I don’t know…it was clumsy of me. I panicked.’

‘Why did you panic? Do you like her?’

Matt nodded so hard, his dark hair fell in his eyes, ‘As soon as I saw her, I had to stop myself from lifting her out of your arms.’

Danny laughed, ‘I’d have been quite happy for you to, my arms were killing me.’

‘Then when she returned…’ Matt rubbed his chest. ‘And she’s really nice and smart and knows about rugby. But you have dibs.’

‘Nah, the floor is yours.’

Matt’s shoulders relaxed, ‘I owe you a million.’ His shoulders stiffened up, ‘Fuck, that means I’ll definitely have to ask her.’ He knocked back a mouthful of port.

‘What’s up?’ Amy had returned silently on her socked feet. ‘Ask me what?’

Matt’s gulp was audible. ‘Amy, wouldyouliketogoforadrinksometime? Please?’

‘OK.’

‘OK? You will?’

‘Yes.’

‘OK.’ Matt looked lost for words.

Danny nudged him, ‘This is when you’re supposed to find out where she’d like to go and when.’

‘OK.’

‘I’ll leave you to it.’ He couldn’t spoon-feed Matt what he should do next; he was hardly experienced himself recently. Danny regained his position on the mat next to Emma, and tucked himself under the remaining half of blanket. He only felt a twinge of envy as Matt and Amy moved closer and closer together, instead sipping his port and watching Jonny drop that goal once more, then his eyes began drifting closed.

 

Mmmm. Something smelled fresh and clean, and felt soft against his face. A little body was snuggled partially over him, breasts against his chest and arm, hips against his awakening groin. Who was it? The bundle of womanhood groaned slightly, and yawned.

And stiffened.

Danny concentrated on staying relaxed, not sure who it was or what he should do. Last he could remember was seeing Jonno holding the Webb Ellis Cup aloft. Unfortunately, his body disagreed, continuing to harden.

Did he imagine her rubbing against him slightly?

‘Pssssttt! Emma!’

The hair was lifted away from his face, and he felt a sharp inhale. Then, slowly, the body moved off him. He felt some regret in letting it go, and some deflation in the groin area. Luckily. Otherwise the blanket resettling around him might have looked quite obscene.

It felt colder without his feminine extra. There was whispering around him, some soft snores and the creak of a door, the clink of a glass. And a giggle hushed up.

He slowly cracked his eyes open, to see the TV screen black and dark. Some bright light was coming in around the edges of the curtains, illuminating the bar area. He sat up slowly, his body creaking and aches from the previous day’s effort making themselves known.

None of the women’s team were there, but Matt was curled around Amy, contented smiles on both of their dozing faces. A couple of others were asleep across chairs, including Jim.

The bar door squeaked and he turned to see Beth sneaking in. The smell of bacon wafted over, and his stomach grumbled. He lifted a hand, and she looked guilty for a moment, then pressed a finger to her lips before crooking it.

Following the captain into the corridor towards another function room, the enticing scent of bacon strengthened as did the buzz of chatter.

‘We’ve raided the kitchens.’ Beth could speak normally once out of the bar. ‘We’re using the function room closest for breakfast. Some people are going to try getting home or to work once the drive is cleared.’ There was a cheer from outside, ‘And others need the energy.’

There seemed to be more people in the room than in the bar last night. Danny spotted a couple of families with kids tucking in to platefuls. They definitely weren’t around last night. The TV screens were showing dramatic pictures of snow rescues and kids tobogganing down slopes.

‘Half of the street lost power when a car hit ice and street furniture. They’re sheltering here while the electricity company sorts it out. We’ve set up a playroom next door.’ Beth handed Danny a plate of food. ‘Get that down you, there’s digging to do.’

‘Huh?’

‘Shovelling snow.’

 

As Danny ate, he searched for a glimpse of Emma. To no avail; there wasn’t a peep of her bouncing brunette head. However, ten minutes later a yawning Matt and Amy came in, the latter on her crutches. They waved before grabbing their own plates of food and joining him, Matt solicitously carrying both plates.

‘Sleep well?’

Matt and Amy smiled happily back around mouthfuls of food, glancing and each other and blushing.

‘How’s the ankle?’

Amy pulled a face, ‘Throbbing a bit, like my head. Beth has already given me some painkillers.

‘Good. Apparently we’ve some shovelling to do. Well, Matt and I have, to clear the club drive enough for cars to get out, and help some locals.’

‘People have cars here?’

‘A few were leaving them here overnight anyway and collecting them in the morning once they were sober enough to drive.’

Matt cleared his mouth, ‘Mine’s one of them. I was going to take a bus or taxi home last night and return this morning. It’s going to be a big dig; the snow’s really deep out there, over a foot, nearly two in parts.’

‘Really?’ Danny hadn’t thought to look outside yet, he’d been distracted by his experience on waking, and that Emma had since disappeared.

‘That’s one hell of a Michael Fish moment for someone; there was no prediction of snow for the south-east at all. Just a hard frost.’

Amy hummed, ‘They changed the forecast late morning, but by then it was too late for many. Me included, I was Christmas shopping before getting ready for the party and didn’t think to check.’

Matt teased the woman by his side, ‘You were underdressed for any kind of weather, admit it.’

‘Yeah, there is that,’ she admitted with a grin. ‘I wasn’t planning on walking anywhere though. Strictly taxi and train, with emergency taxi money just in case, hence the fifty-quid note I used for the drinks once I knew I was stuck here. See, I wasn’t being totally daft.’ She nudged Matt playfully.

Danny watched as the two teased each other while they cleared their plates, then Amy excused herself to go for a shower. Matt helped her part of the way, until Amy patted his cheek reassuringly and sent him back.

Matt grinned ruefully as he rejoined Danny with a couple of mugs of coffee, passing one over. ‘She’s going to freshen up, Beth’s found some toothbrushes. Wanna go for a walk?’

‘OK.’ They wandered out of the function room towards the main part of the club. ‘You know, I’ve never seen you so comfortable with a woman.’

Matt continued to grin, ‘She’s wonderful, isn’t she? I can’t believe she wants to go out with me. We chatted for hours and then she fell asleep in my arms. I’m going to drive her home later.’

Potty. Absolutely head over heels.

Danny couldn’t help another pang of envy. Which somehow reminded him of Emma. He glanced around, wondering if she would reappear.

‘Who’re you looking for?’ Matt’s grin had turned into a smirk. ‘Emma, perchance?’

‘How…?’

‘You’ve always had a soft spot for her.’

More like hard after that morning, thought Danny. He felt a twitch in his groin at the memory.

‘And she seems to like your company. Nothing’s ever happened between you, has it?’

‘She’s a player, no consorting between players and coaching staff, remember?’

‘You’re not a coach any more, are you?’

‘No, I’m not,’ realised Danny as he pushed the main club doors open and cold air rushed in. ‘Ooh, look, someone’s built a snowman.’

‘Fire!’

The first missile splatted into him milliseconds later, then they were bombarded by a barrage of white balls.

‘Oh shee-eesus!’

Danny and Matt both backed up and the doors swung closed to the sound of feminine and childish giggles. They looked at each other and laughed at the lumps of snow in their hair and clothes, even lumps sinking into and cooling the remains of their coffees.

‘War?’ Matt raised an eyebrow at Danny.

‘War.’

Seconds later, they were pulling their coats on, cups discarded. They paused by the double doors, noting that the frosted glass panels probably gave warning that someone was coming out.

Matt peered through a cleared piece of glass, ‘Looks like they’ve set up camp about twenty yards away, they’ve built up a wall. We’ll have to reach around the back to disarm them. Let them waste their fire, then we’ll attack.’

They dived out of the doors, one going left and one going right, landing in the soft snow. Shouts of alarm rang out, and more white missiles inundated them as they skirted the bunker, just beyond reach of the artillery powered by an adult and a couple of children.

Danny followed the sound of a familiar laugh as the shower gradually lightened. Their stockpile must have been running low.

‘Attack now!’

He ran as Matt sprinted in from the opposite direction. Two children jumped out, and began running away, screaming with delight. However, snowballs continued to be thrown from the dugout.

‘I’ll take the deserters, you go for HQ!’ Matt yelled as he jogged after the youngsters, giving them a chance to get away.

Several more hits, and Danny started sending hastily made lumps back towards the snowy barricade. He must have hit his target as there was a disgruntled squeal.

‘Do you surrender?’

‘No surrender!’ a woman yelled back, and pelted him with another couple of snowballs.

He jumped over, and found the woman he had been looking for.

 

When Danny had begun as assistant coach to the women’s team, their main coach was Paul. Although competent, Paul had been notorious for being a bit handsy with some of the women. Matters had escalated elsewhere as a result of Paul’s flirtations, and he left the club shortly after. The more-professional Marcus had taken over, and Club management had had a word with Danny and Marcus, making it clear that even though they were volunteers, they didn’t want a repeat. Danny had taken that to mean avoiding even mild flirtations. So, he’d never even considered the women sexually, even though they sometimes flirted with him. They were out of bounds.

Or were they?

Now he was actually looking at her, laughing, with clumps of snow in the hair escaping from her bobble hat, he realised how much he liked her. She had always been enthusiastic about drills, even in the worst of weather, and listened carefully to his instructions. She was intelligent, great with kids and a joy to be with. He’d missed her since another former player had taken over his role.

‘Emma-’ He had fistful of snow in his face for his troubles.

Danny charged her, taking her down onto the soft snow but not landing on her.  She giggled. ‘No surrender!’

‘Are you sure?’ He captured her hands and pinned her lower body down with a restraining leg.

She tried to wriggle away, but couldn’t. ‘Temporary ceasefire?’ she asked hopefully.

‘Cheeky.’ Her mouth was so close to his, he couldn’t resist a pecking kiss.

Her eyes were wide when he drew back, ‘Oh.’ She bit her lip.

Danny’s gaze was drawn to the white teeth nibbling the edge of her pink mouth, ‘Oh?’

Her body softened under his, she stopped fighting as clouds of breath puffed quickly from her mouth.

Sod it, he would kiss her again. He released her hands, and her lips met his halfway.

She tasted minty and fresh and warm and new and like home, all at the same time. Their kiss deepened as they both murmured with delight. He felt her hands in his hair as his tucked her closer.

Clunk!

A ball of ice hit both of them on their heads, breaking the moment. ‘Ow!’ groaned Emma.

He lifted off her as the guilty parties ran away chortling, and helped her to her feet. His body was humming with need, with wanting to get closer to the brunette. ‘You OK?’

Emma gave an awkward smile and brushed the rest of the snow out of her hair and off her clothes, ‘I’m fine.’

They stared at each other, wordlessly, for several moments, until the opening of the club doors broke the tension.

‘Time for you to come in, kids and grown-up kids,’ shouted Beth. Then she noticed Danny and Emma, ‘You two can stay out until you’ve had a proper chat. Don’t freeze.’

They were left by themselves in the white wilderness. Emma looked so small stood there, this time avoiding his eyes, a pink flush on her cheeks.

Danny summoned up his courage; if Matt could do it, so could he. ‘So, Emma…would you like to go for a drink some time?’

***The End***