It is an interesting title, My Secret Hove...

Originally, as a working title, it was The Café Stories. They take place in and around this café, and, of course in the minds of its customers. A place, with a fluid form. One morning, I was in the bath, listening to Sounds of the Sixties, and there came on Kathy Kirby’s version of “Secret Love”. It is raucous, even painful, but I can now almost forgive her, as in that very moment, there came to mind this variant on that device of altering the word love to Hove in song titles. And so my secret Hove is no secret anymore.

Naturally, people will ask how true all of this might be.

What is Truth? Even fantasy bears a resemblance to our world. That said, what is fascinating, all the time, about Hove is the amount that happens, what is said, and somehow more subtly than Brighton. Sometimes one hears, or hears of, a remark, an incident, and that might make an item in itself or, better perhaps, knit with other things, imagined or otherwise, and takes one goodness knows where.

Why stories rather than The Great Hove Novel?

I have written quite a lot of them, and have others in mind once I have finished one which has been evolving into something far longer than most, if yet short of a novella. In a way, such forms are notional. A story can contain a novel. But, in the here and now, the limits of a story also give one the space to experiment with form, tenses, points of view, and - crucially perhaps - a sequence.

What do you intend to do with these as a whole, whatever that might become?

Well, I shall add some here from time to time, and it is a work in progress. One of the advantages of this turbulent era is trying to catch it on the hoof.








     “They don’t give you much time.”
     “It’s not that bad.”
    His opening remark had been no prediction of a atality in the offing. He had simply said something as they chanced upon each other at the bleeping traffic-lights, or pelican-crossing as perhaps it was called in recognition of the noise which emanated from the poles on either side of the road up at the Dials. He had now slowed to the pace of her leg, which moved with the gait of a toy soldier, hindered as it was by the plaster which clung upon it and was shielded from graffiti-hungry vandals by a sheath of grey plastic.
      And now, across the café, there issued from the espresso machine a triangle of steam as if it had just come to a halt after a long journey and given a sigh.
     “Here you are,” said the waitress when, after juggling and swivelling the handles of a filter, brought two cups to their table, from which she then wiped the thin sludge remained before she scooping from the tray a plate with a muffin upon it.
      “I shouldn’t,” said Mary, “not with me like this. A plaster isn’t like doing weights.”
      She leant forward, pulled at the crinkled paper and cracked the muffin into sections before using one of them to mop up the released butter and demolished its roof-like crust with her teeth, then pulled back with her a brief flash of tongue the android eye of a currant lest it drop earthwards.
      “And the stupid thing is”, she continued, “that I wasn’t even coming back but was going out, turned to go up the steps and twisted it somehow.”
      The rain renewed its patter against the window, blown there by the wind from the west which came along the main road and made a gesture of turning up this pedestrianised, cobble-laid stretch which ran northwards, away from the sea which lay to the other side of a tall terrace more stately at the upper levels than along the illuminated parade of shop names which filled those premises which opened upon the pavement.
    “Guess this is the time of year, if one’s going to do anything so stupid.” She licked a finger and buried it in the handle. “This is good.”
     She stretched out the ailing, healing leg, and rested it on the stool which matched their seats, art-deco in shape if not age.
     “And you can be sure that somebody will mention Rear Window.”
    “They have - and that is set in a hot summer. No story if they’d all been cooped up, windows shut. But from my place, it would all have to be told through the passing feet.”
They had parted at the Dials, by the launderette. Parted, so it seemed to him, even if their journey from the lights had been three minutes. Parted, there was an emphasis to the word, not that she had looked back to notice his eyes rest a while upon her rear, which would take more than one muffin to turn awry.
     It was the same pair of jeans, cut to the knees, which rested between them now.
     “You, you get to work all right?”
     “Across the hallway. I’m in graphic design - you know, layouts.”
     “I talk to the Mac.”
    “Apple dangle the next version in front of you all the time, the Carrot more like, and lash you with a cry of ‘upgrade’.”
    “And at the end of the lash is yet another sort of new socket. But, thank God for the flat screen, made all the difference in my place.”
    He did not mention that it had more than crossed his mind that he could shift things about a bit and get a valve amplifier; had he said so, there may have been no time for her to continue, as she did so: “trouble is, I’ve only a shower, it’s the very devil like this...”
      “I can well imagine.”
    He hadn’t meant it to sound like that, and perhaps it didn’t. At any rate, she continued, “somebody called it the Anne Frank room. Very poor taste. For some reason it stuck. You see, I’d had some shelves built across the door, you’d never know what was behind.”
      “Now you say it, I’m surprised more people don’t do it.”
She shook back her brown hair, drawing some of it behind an ear, and licked muffin residue from a finger.
      “Sure I’m not interrupting your reading?”
      “No, not at all.” He pointed to The Magic Mountain, a cotton marker sewn into its top edge, and fraying at the protruding end. “They’ve all waited quite a while as it is in that sanitorium.”
      “I wonder if anybody told him that the title sounded like something by Enid Blyton?”
     He might have added some more, but in that moment’s banter she looked around as the door opened: a man, with a hood over his head, his body padded out by the anorak about him.
      The anorak dripped as he came towards them, glasses misty.
      “I wasn’t expecting you so soon...”
     “Got here quicker than I expected. Those gas works have finished, but I’m double-parked, thought you couldn’t go far in this rain.”
      From the other side of the glass came the flashing of hazard-lamps while Mary drank back the coffee and, as she put down the cup, nudged back a fingertip to point out, “this is John.”
      “Hi,” nodded Mike. “Nice to see you.”
      “Okay.” Mary held out an arm, and, as John leant forward, Mike reached down to ease her from the chair, gain balance, press a hand upon the table and begin a shuffle to the doorway that made a three-legged race look like a pas de deux.
      From somewhere in him came the call, “give my regards to Miss Frank!”
      She looked back with a smile, “ssh! Don’t give the game away!”
    And, as they went through the door, he turned to pick up the Blyton - the Mann - and, on opening it, took the marker, laid it between two pages an optimistic distance ahead. Before reading some more of it, he kept the stout volume to his left as, breathing deeply, he hunched over, towards the plate and circled across it with his fingertips to relieve the surface of those flecks and crumbs which she had left behind.
      He brought them to his lips, and wiped his tongue across all that remained.









     “Fuckin' wanker!”
      The air of the sunny street was rent by the phrase which, although hissed in much the style of an enraged cat, was as distinct as could be expected from a man who, alone at a table outside a pub, had worked – or idled – his way through much of the wine bottle set at an angle in the bucket before him.
      “Who on earth is that?” asked my mother a few paces later. “It's hardly the stuff of genteel Hove, it is?”
      We glanced back, and received a further glower. Beneath a shock of undulating white hair, roughly combed, was a glowing head whose flesh had been pushed this way and that as if lately worked from within – puppet-like - by a set of fingers determined to hasten outward decay. In the process the eyes had become hooded, lips curled inwards and chin descending as the neck folded into contours.
      All of which was in some contrast to a discreetly striped jacket from whose chest pocket sprang a triangle of handkerchief chosen to blend with a bow-tie of medium heft.
      “That's Crackers,” I said as we went into the café.
      “It sounded as if he was speaking to you. Have you upset him?”
      “Who hasn't? I think he's shameless. A part of Hove past marooned in Hove present. Somebody introduced me to him in passing a few years ago, and I soon realised that he is one of those people who latch onto somebody 'new' as an opportunity to repeat the stories of which everybody else has grown tired. I took a swift dislike to him.”
      “Why was that? Weren't you being harsh?”
      We sat down.
     “No, definitely not. Before long he had launched into a saga, the upshot which is that, some decades ago, he'd been what is known here as a 'knocker-boy' – they go from door to door, finding out who might have some choice items and be in fraught circumstances, feign friendship and, either there and then or a little later inveigle their way into the house, accept an offer of tea, then chat and, with a sordidly practised skill – devilry – turn towards the china, glassware, pictures around them. A casually informed remark leads the owner to think that here is somebody with good interests at heart, a man with a handkerchief in his top pocket and a bow-tie... You can guess the rest. A few fivers down – and rather more twenty-quid notes picked up a few days later. I reeled in shock not only at hearing about this but the glee with which he spoke about these suckers. I didn't say anything but felt very glad to be out in the night air soon after, purged of that.”
     “Ah, so why should that make him snarl in such an awful way?”
    “I thought no more of it, though I used to see him sitting around like this, sometimes with people, and you could sense that he was spinning the yarns, another re-telling of the glory days, as he saw them. An old, shabby Hove.
     “Anyway, come the Election, I was busy round the clock, up and down staircases, plying basement steps at twilight – a necessary mania, as I called it. You never knew what delight a leaflet might inspire, what a chance word with a dog was likely to bring. It was a kaleidoscope of experience, and if some people just wanted to close the door, there were far more who were willing to talk, as if they had been waiting to do so.
      “But one evening it was getting late – not that late, but late in terms of knocking on doors. It was dusk – crepuscule! -, and I wanted to unburden myself of the bag of leaflets or newspapers – as I recall, the handle had snapped and I was clutching it under one arm. I pushed open a gate, went down some steps, which made it all the darker, and was outside a basement flat. The door was open, so I pushed it, thought perhaps it was the outer one to a couple of flats – you'd be surprised how many people can fit into the basement of a once-grand building.
      “But it was one flat, dark, and gave of an air of somewhere that had not been fully treated after a flood. I dropped down the newspaper and, out of consideration, called out that the door was open (you'd be surprised how many people even leave their keys in the lock outside), and then, in the gloaming, I saw him, further in, amidst plates, clothes. He was in a chair, in baggy underwear and a vest, his feet in a washing-up bowl.
      “I said, 'here is a newspaper', put it down, and retreated from something that struck me as being a scene in a Southern gothic tale – one without the gun to hand, though I have no doubt that had there been, I would have sensed some bullets make their shaky way in my direction.
     “You couldn't make it up, I came back up to the pavement, blinking at the twilight and boggling at the turns that life can take when you go out and about.”
      “Well, it's certainly something to dine out on...”
      “On the contrary. I did not mention it to anybody. Seemed to me that – I don't know – there was some hideous justice in it all, that would-be suave air a front for a life gone wrong, the price paid for swindling. But not so long ago I heard from somebody who knows him that time and again he had recounted the story of how I how burst into his place and found him in that degraded state. Not only was it my kindness taken amiss but he himself then broadcast the fact.
       “I am still trying to understand it. What you think?”





                                                           THE REDUCED AISLE


In those days, few had thought of it as such but no doubt about it now. On the landing the light switch’s inch-thick plastic plunger had been ecological, ahead of its time, and was now often ahead of her progress. What’s more, for years, the bulb had given only semblance of guidance for about as long as it took her to turn the corner - at the shared, sometimes vocal bathroo -, and reach the hallway.
      Where the light switch went out this morning with that ping, a gasp as if no longer able to hold in its breath.
      Brio came with realising that through the doorway’s stained glass - a many-hued, bird-filled survivor from the days when this had been a house for a family and its servants - there came sunlight low in the sky. Its long journey across space ended upon an array of leaflets. Nobody had yet bothered to scoop these up and put them in the wicker basket which was their last resting place pending a return to earth.
      The mat, if not the sub-divided house, was changing. She had noticed a trend for some of these to eschew the glossy paper and garish photographs which made the fast food look even less palatable. Now there were matt paper and elegant typography, an air of the antique, as the timeless attempted to persuade a fast-changing world to peruse the litany of social-media sites listed, discreetly, at the foot of the page.
      “Hand crafted.” So it was, whether candles or pizza. Logburners. And more, here it was again: home cleaning, gutter clearing, garage doors, New Forest holidays, and then it was with a gulp that she let her eyes rest a while upon one which promoted - another new trend, this - a Wedding Fayre at a large civic hall.
      She held the cards above the basket, kept one in her hand and looked down at it. A simple card that could entail the outlay of thousands of pounds. She shook her head, pulled open the door and went out into the bright winter’s day. Even the chill upon her face brought a measure of hope.
      An emblem of this, her life had started to change with the motorised buggy tethered to a post at the foot of the steps, which she took slowly.
     That was the hardest part. Now on firmer ground, she unzipped the plastic tent which adorned the vehicle - a covering which resembled that of the cheap miniature greenhouse fixed in place nearby after being blown over.
      With a sigh which eased her lungs, she bent over to get inside the cabin, and dropped the leaflet in the basket behind the seat. That is how she regarded it, a cabin for the voyage south. So many come to this, a return to the pram which had once been her domain, something which bounced on its springs until conversion, planks and all, into a go-kart. Days depicted in black and white which she remembered as colour.
      What would they all, shouting safely in those streets, have made of this vehicle? She turned the ignition switch, unhooked the brake with continuing difficulty. and pressed the throttle. We have lift-off.
      She steered it towards the pavement, felt the familiar bumps, the clomps as she rode across the triangular, sometimes clattering tiles of the Victorian pathway and drove towards the sun.
      It was always good to get out, away from the room, comfortable enough as she had tried to make it these many years. She was lucky, she had not repined, there was the Library, halts on the way - including the café - when she encountered those she knew one way or another, and you never could tell what yellow-stickered bargains there might be in the supermarket for those unfussed by cowardly sell-by dates.
      Of course, it could all have been far different.
      A jolt on the kerb, but she was now over that, upon a slight incline, the vehicle gave its assured hum. Had she not been enclosed, the wind might even have streamed her hair backwards as it did in the revelry of youth.
      Ah! Yes! Life then could be far bolder than the fixed proclamations upon tattoos nowadays. Why ink out a view of life? She had tried to lived it. And, only the other day, she had seen a girl in black shorts, beneath whose matching stockings was inked, on one thigh, “Westbury”; and on the other “Ales”.
      She never ceased to marvel at the quiddity of the human spirit.
      Another bobbled drop in the kerb was in sight - and, in that second, as the slope of this road met another, down that one came a pink scooter, propelled by a young girl in a bobble-hat, whose upper part was an animal’s face. Out of sight was somebody, a mother who called, “Annabel!” And yet the scooter increased in speed beneath the sun, and in that instant there was the choice between her trying to brake or to swerve before hitting the child.
      Her hands moved quickly, one upon the other, as she had once done upon the crackling dodgems at the Palace Pier; the vehicle lurched across another slab, caught a root - slid towards the kerb.
      The Wedding Fayre leaflet flapped in front of her.
      A blink, a gasp, and there came to mind, in this moment, that evening, after the Theatre Royal - a play which duly petered out at Guildford - when she and Hermione had been asked along by their dates to a small place which went by the name of a supper club on Middle Street. One of those places where the maître d’s jacket was out of with kilter the food which, in effect, supplemented or attempted to justify the champagne served at a series of small tables, each covered by a white cloth.
And, yes, upon a stage scarcely bigger than the tables, there had been a singer, her breasts pushed upwards by a dress as she provided a tribute to the recently-departed Billie Holiday.
      “Lover man, oh where can you be?”
      On the face of it, all a tacky scene, aspiration far outstripping reality.
     As she said at the time, that was Brighton for you, “but I’m from Hove!”
    This banter had caught the ear of a tall man as he walked back to another table. He smiled, paused, looked down.
      “So you’re from across the border? What brings you to this sink of iniquity?”
      She had blushed, and then smiled when grasping that he was not offended but bemused.
      “I like to see how the other tenth lives.”
     She never knew where the phrase came from, let alone its statistical basis, whether indeed it meant anything at all, but it was another one to make him chuckle before walking on.
      Did she realise it at the time, her date - cursed with what some said was the unfortunate name of Nigel - had frowned at this thirty-second exchange.
    Perhaps he had reason to do so. A few days afterwards, she had been walking along the Promenade, west of the Peace Statue, when there came into sight the man from the supper club.
      “Well! Who is it but Miss Hove who hoves into view!”
     He smiled, and she blushed a greeting as he then said, “I don’t think we have been properly introduced. I’m Marcus.”
     He held out his hand, which she took and confessed to being one of those who carried Miss Temple’s name across further generations.
      “‘Sparkle!’ That is what her mother told her to do. Do you?”
     “Er...” She did not know how to match that, but, before long, sparkle she did after that afternoon’s invitation to be “so bold as to cross the border again and have tea at the Bedford”.
       Ah, the Georgian building that was the Bedford, gone the way of so much of life. Arson.
       It was not there, though, that they got to know each other better but the Royal Albion. Suffice to say, one does not dwell on the details, but sparkle she did, with a man who knew everything about the way in which to bring about more glittering spirits than she had ever known.
       She had afterwards looked out at the waves lapping on the pebbled shore and felt at one, with... she could not articulate it and there was no need to do.
      Cinemas, concerts, drives in the country, and then he invited her to his flat, inland at Kemp Town.
      “This is one of her last discs, the voice is gone, but I love it - and it reminds me of the evening I first saw you, Shirley.”
      They had sat back upon the white sofa, arms around shoulders, hands clutched between thighs.    

       And so it was upon many an evening, the two of them, nobody else, until he asked whether she could consider marrying him.
       “Of course!”
      The words came from her without effort but exuded a ready smile of delight, even gathering into a full-on plosive of “Marcus!” as she sank her full lips into his thinner mouth.
       Only after this, as events moved towards the great day, did matters take another turn.
      “We’re going out for a drive!”
       And a drive it certainly was, in the sunlight, above the cliffs, via an inn, and a little to the north, down a lane, past a clump of trees, and the sports car slowed to go along the crunching driveway which curved in front of a fine Georgian building which quite possibly had been a Rectory.
       “What’s this, Marcus?”
       “Mine, ours.”
       “I don’t understand.”
       “I didn’t want to show you before, I’ve had it a while.”
     Her exclamation covered a multitude of emotions which she would spend some time in evaluating.
        For now, they went along one side, to a garden which stretched down to the river. Where she said that she had arranged for the wedding dress.
        “Take me by surprise in it.”
      With which they had gone inside the house - and it was soon after that she had been been strolling on the Promenade when she met Hermione again.
       “And how are you getting on, Shirley? Not seen much of you lately.”
       “Fine!” And she gave a summary of everything which had distracted her. “I’m so happy to have got the dress!”
        “Why not?”
        “Aren’t you being a little hasty?”
        “Well, I must say, that’s nice of you! You’re spiteful, jealous, I know it.”
        “Hardly, not me. I’ve got principles.”
        “And just what do you mean by that, might I ask?”
        “You know that he has been in gaol?”
        “Probably not the worst of crimes, but it makes you wonder what his sources are. I think you can always get part of your money back on the dress if you’re lucky. Still, it’s your choice.”

And it had been. The vehicle now turned towards the ground, less smoothly than any sports car, her head’s thud upon the ground not eased by the plastic sheeting upon where much of the blood soon collected.
       Times were when she wondered if she... if she..
       Her eyes closed as the young girl exclaimed, “Mummy!”
       A word by which, despite all hopes, she had never been addressed.












Sylvia Court never wore headphones but music often played in her head. She sometimes hummed along to these remembered staves – stretches of them going back to childhood. And now, after leaving the cafeĢ, she pulled the scarf tighter, almost too tight, around her neck and patted at the fold which the long, red coat – its wool studded by nut-like brown buttons - could still make across her stomach.

These past months she had come to feel as if, a foolish shoplifter, she were transporting a concealed box. Walking at a clip past the wheelie-bins and through the lowering dusk of an alleyway which led from that cobbled, pedestrianised street, she reached the rear gate of the Church. This brought her into a world which was, of an instant, far from the municipal thoroughfare where, beneath its zig-zagging, catenary Christmas lights, she had gone into a record shop half an hour earlier and asked the fellow sat behind the counter for the box-set of John Dowland's lute music which she had seen in the window. “Having a party, are you?” he'd asked as he scarcely disguised the effort of easing himself from the chair to grope along the shelves in quest of the discs that had caught her eye.

She had smiled a laugh but did not say that, for her, the music would be the making of Christmas Day; even, for them - her half-formed companion. It had always seemed strange that her sister, who had herself recently given birth, should have accorded music scant space in life. This could have proved the solace that she had needed in the sadness which became apparent in the days afterwards: an affliction which had not been apparent upon the array of technology which is now part of the process.

As for herself, she had thought that, true, the conception might be as quick, but it generally takes longer to write a book than to produce a child. Although there are similar agonies, apparent pauses, doubts and marvels along the way, the embryo gets on with it; a book needs continual, active nurture, exhilaration vying with grim sickness. For a while she had the idea of elaborating this into one of those being-pregnant articles without which newspapers seem unable to go to press; multi-tasking has its limits, however, and that sickness - wretching dawns - supplants many aspirations, so much so that even today's train ride did not allow her time for lucrative frippery.

Nothing sensational, nothing shameful now about an unmarried mother-to-be. And yet to write about it would be to broach too much, bring too many questions which she could do without. That was something upon which and her sister had least been able to agree when their news became apparent, tangible. No, she was alone with this, away from home, on a circuit which had taken her to and fro, around and about, in a linkage of public transport and hired cars, her quest an increasingly urgent one to complete a chronicle of notable gravestones for an illustrated book. The Christmas market meets the Easter mindset, as the photographer, Philip, had put it during one of the days, some time ago, when they had again coincided, awkwardly. Not that the light would have been suitable for it now. Her schedule was as out of kilter as her body-clock. Nausea had gripped her, she had needed to sit down, but there should be time yet to consult the vicar.

The hum of traffic on the road was muted by the elegant hulk of a church which was palpably medieval despite that Victorian urge to titivate. Vandalism or evolution? Those who took an interest in such matters would never be in agreement about building which, largely flint, had something of a modest castle about it. The tower would have been ideal for aiming arrows at any posses of Frenchmen rash enough to head inland from the beach. In the centuries through which it had stood there, terraces of varying heights had gradually filled the fields across which it could once have been seen from afar.

Such is architecture's continuing paradox that some of these - five- storey houses of distinct, outward magnificence - were now divided into modest abodes, even reduced to bedsits dependent upon shared bathrooms and intermittent heating; meanwhile, their status was supplanted by other terraces which, formerly artisans' dwellings were now coveted by those who plied more sedentary work and hired builders to improve structures which had never been intended to survive so many decades. Their centenary was marked by skips in the road, recycling boxes on the pavement and a return of childhood's scooter.

Nobody, though, would ever countenance such improvements to the final homes of those who had once inhabitated those very buildings. No, here they were in perpetuity: from simple slabs to elaborate, moss-provoking elongations of the coffins beneath, these reliquaries had with the centuries come to lean to and fro; it was as if in revolt against the regimentation with which they began while the first mourners stood alongside and gazed upon those they had known, clasped, shared a bed through a shivering night as the insatiable sea crashed on the pebbles, drawing them to and fro while and the wind, having relented, again gathered strength in the west.

The lights of the main road gleamed rather than shone, and so the churchyard felt a retreat as twilight moved apace.

Beneath a high, flint wall to the north, much of the greensward was given to small memorials above interred ashes. To one side of these was a bench beside a series of communal food-composting bins – man and nature at one in decomposition. On the bench sat a row of men of fluctuating pallor as they huddled in padded jackets and woolly hats while being addressed, even perhaps lectured, by one who stood in front of them and emphasised particular points with a downward thrust of a beer can.

Decried by some, no doubt, they appeared harmless enough to her – a modest community – as she walked along a pathway and took in more rows of tombs, one or two of which were surrounded by rusted railings. Many inscriptions were now illegible: the solid etching, a craftsman's work, had been eaten by time and mould. That echo of life on earth rang but faintly as it blurred into further dust.

In the middle of the churchyard stood a tomb of pillared, pink granite, a cross rising above a square whose serried ranks – on four sides – chronicled several family members of almost two centuries ago. It was an unusual structure to stand here, some of its indelible record only found by pushing aside the grass at its edge.

Sylvia could now take Philip's point that, in daylight, it would make a notable image, a contrast with the faded grandeur nearby.

She crouched down to look more closely at the black lettering, and it was as if that instant had once again carried her across time. The sedulity of a historian's being is suffused, made meaningful by the imagination.



He had been long survived by his father. Even then it must have been vexing for a parent to bid farewell to somebody witnessed upon or – more likely – soon after puling entry into this world.

At that moment there was a presence behind her.

She gave a slight gasp, looked behind her, upwards. Not close but a few feet away was the man, his padded jacket further bulging at its grey pockets, who had been standing in front of the bench. The others were now moving in shuffledom along the pathway to the road and out sight, but he had evidently hung back, no breath on the chill air. “Hello.” She was the one to speak, she knew not why. “You've not chosen the best day to come here.” “No, I was just looking before going to meet the vicar.” “That tomb. I guess it's home to them all again.” “Home? I'm not sure if that's a cheerful or gloomy take upon it, er...” “Geoff.” “Geoff. I mean the tomb as home.” “I suppose some regard it as a staging post to somewhere else.” This was not a conversation she had expected to have here, and so late in the day. His manner, his poise – glimpsed by the bench – had that measure, that assertion which made it curiously hard, even rude, to find the words with which to disentangle oneself as the branches swayed and their leaves flapped upon the roof of the lych-gate.

You're from round here?” She found herself uttering words which could only provoke some discourse.

I went away for a while, but I came back. Many of us do. Drawn to it. Felt as if it would be treachery to leave for good. Realised that one afternoon in London. Wonder though where I'd be now if I'd stayed there. You can't always control fate, that's what it means, it has so many forces on its side. Still can't think I'm not going back to my house, I'm staying at a hostel. It's all right, don't get me wrong - warm, a bed, but, you know, any of us nowadays is but a step, a payment away from penury. The billiard balls hit one another, and you end up plummeting into the net. I guess that's an elaborate way of saying she left me, it cracked me up, the shock, and you can only drift for a few months, it catches up with you, and it all goes... but it'll be all right, it's getting better. Still here – unlike this lot!”

His arm described a semi-circle of the dead and it was almost as if, in that gesture, he then crouched down to pull her to her feet.

Thank you.”

Not at all. I often think about all the people who walk past this tomb, they don't even stop to study it.”

It's striking enough, though, nobody can miss that.”

True, but it's more than that. Life and death all bundled up in so many ways.”

This tomb?”

Yes, I heard about it in my family but the story's never been written down – I did look once in the Library along the road but not see any trace of it. It was a strange family, dominated by the father. His mood was likely to change at any moment – he would go from amiable to silent, and then erupt from that with a roar, lurching round the room and screaming in the faces of his wife, children, servants. Obviously a troubled man. But nobody dared speak of it then. He had these ideas, obsessions, one of them that his son should join the Army. Anybody could see that the boy was far from suited to it but the father had contacts, pressure was brought to bear – a miserable thing, and, as you can see, he died, was killed. That terrible fog descended upon Inkerman, the allied forces saw off the Russians, but he was one of our casualties amidst all that. Whether he was hit by the enemy or stumbled to fatal concussion, we shall never know. But he lived on.”

“I'm sorry?”

The sisters. They died together. The dates – the year – suggest as much, look, 1855 and it was in all probability on Christmas Day, a year after their brother's death, amidst such grief. In fact it was a suicide pact – away from home. They had fled the place soon after he had gone abroad with the Regiment. They went to London, merged with the crowd – as far as you can do if you're pregnant – both pregnant.”

But, how...”

The usual way. Except in this case, well, to cut to it, in their adversity, the sisters had shared their brother's bed. So far as we know, he never heard about this, he was dead, as I say, soon after reaching Inkerman. They gave birth a month or two apart, and one of the children – both sons – was what would now be called challenged, very much so. They could not cope, he was put away. This perhaps sped him to an early end. A terrible time, unimaginable. And it was not long after that they were found dead together, with the other child crying in a cot beside them. They had spared him. The family had them brought back here, and the boy was brought up as an apparent cousin.”

Is he on the tomb? I can't see anything obvious.”

No. Quite what became of him, I never heard. Perhaps an opening was found in the Colonies. There have always been ways and means of tamping down scandal. And who knows if the family ever knew the full extent of that?”

And if I were to describe any of this in my book...”

I'm sorry? They knew about omerta in the nineteenth century, but there was always a way that things would get out even if they tried to keep a lid on it” - he pointed to the ground - “literally so, you might say.”

Sylvia looked at the gravestone. It had taken on a new tone, she did not wish to linger beside it, time was pressing upon her all the more, and she had to meet the vicar, Mr. Sharnall.

Thank you, I'm sorry, but I have just realized I am late – it's all been very interesting, thank you.” She found it as hard to express gratitude as the irritation which she now felt.

Ah, I didn't realise, excuse me.”

With which there came along the pathway a huddled figure. He had a pipe between his lips, and beneath his arm a music score was in danger of spilling from its folder.

There he is, your Mr. Sharnall. Well, I'll bid you good evening, and a happy Christmas, Miss - “


Scarcely had she said the word than she held out her hand to the man – his courtesy and exterior less at odds than they had at first appeared – but as hers slipped into his, she felt nothing more than the gust of his hurrying away, towards the road, leaving her to be just in time to push back the heavy door as it came to a close behind the vicar.

Inside the church all was still, much as it had been for centuries, except for a spinning rack of leaflets which urged upon the congregation the terrible fate of so many elsewhere on Earth, descendants of Empire whose masters had returned home to be commemorated in marble upon the walls around her.

She walked quickly along the stone floor. “Mr. Sharnall!” The vicar looked round with a scowl and a flourish of his robe. “Yes?” His tone was imbued more with irritation than providing a causeway between Mankind and its Maker.

“I'm Sylvia Court, I wrote...”

“Oh, yes. I was expecting you earlier.” He spoke in a tone that made her half-expect him to declare that he was a busy man.

“I'm sorry, I - “ She made a gesticulation to suggest that her swelling

stomach was a source of general disorganisation. If Mr. Sharnall intuited anything from that, it did not show but only hastened his explanation: “I really do not have any time right now. I've given myself this half-hour or so to run through a piece I am playing tomorrow. There is no other time to be at the organ, there's choir practice later.”

I'm sorry, I can wait.”

Well, I should be glad of that, and - “ his tone relented “ - it might be nice to have an audience. You know Bach's Goldberg Variations?”

Of course.” In that instant several memories jostled in her mind, some of which she would not care to describe to this cantankerous prelate.

It's a touchstone of Western civilization. Though I am sorry to say that some have not been as enthusiastic about this arrangement of it for the organ as I should have liked, though of course that might be down to Mrs. McCracken's handling of the publicity department.”

He paused, as if to admit that he had given way to temptation by apprising a stranger of details about local administrative frailties.

I should be glad of the rest, a real treat to hear it. I was talking in the graveyard...”

Ah, the graveyard. I'm glad to say that I've had some luck at last with the Council and the Police – what a rigmarole that was – getting rid of, I should say, moved on, all those, frankly, drunkards who used to sit there all day, preoccupied with their yarns and fantasies, utter shysters. Not been here for a while now, what with a nasty incident.”

Sylvia frowned did not like to provoke Mr. Sharnall into further irritation by asking for any elaboration but followed his gesture of taking a seat in a pew, and in the minute or two that it took him to climb to the organ loft she reflected upon the perennial, sometimes traversed, gulf between mankind's bile and its ability to summon beauty from a few physical objects – for what is a piano but a combination of percussion and strings?

The Aria which sets Bach's work in motion ran through her head, soon supplanted by a well-nigh roar, or so it seemed to her, as the organ turned its own variation upon that delicate succession of notes which brought that unfading relish which is life itself.

No doubt about it, Mr. Sharnall was an accomplished player, doubtless wasted upon the team charged with persuading the populace to avail themselves of such entertainment. Even so, at first she was almost repulsed by this take upon so familiar a work. A few minutes in, however, a reflective passage drew her into all that would follow, a work for which the composer was paid with a golden goblet which held a thousand gold coins. Humour, heartache, all commingle, and she closed her eyes – perhaps there was something in the apocryphal story that it had been composed to alleviate Count Kaiserling's insomnia. No, this was much more than that, it brought one into another place, far from a building in which the chill air did battle with the glow of electric heaters hung from the rafters while, outside, some had sat on a bench in defiance of the law.

She frowned again, looked at her hand, and then let her mind return to the music. Understand that it is a dance, even in this form, and so much makes sense. Everything is a dance, those standing up to take one's hand and lead one further, at a different pace, their turns becoming one's own until – and on, and on, with it one's own take upon life, that very pulse of the opening.

Once more, she rested her hands upon her stomach. Was all this being heard within? Eyes open now, she looked towards the roof, and again down as the organ reached that adagio, half a dozen variations from the end. This moment always has one pause, linger; the still centre.

Quite possibly the moment at which her child had come into being.

And, within a few minutes, there came a voice humming through the church.

It's so long since I was last with you, come closer, come closer, come closer!”

She fell forwards, away from the pew as she opened her eyes but saw nobody, only heard those words finding their way on the air, the folk song from which the variation had derived. “Come closer, come closer...” The organist played on, undistracted, and for one moment she wondered whether Mr Sharnall was given to such utterances as those with which Glenn Gould augmented many a piece.

But no, she looked along the aisle, and saw lips move. Her own formed themselves into “Philip!” He came towards her, past her, he was there but intangible, only saying cabbages and turnips drove me away, had my mother cooked meat I'd have opted to stay” - another folk song flowed into the swell of the organ and filled the space around them.

She reached out but there was nobody to grasp. On her feet, she stumbled, the building now a dizzying circle, the stones themselves amplifying his words: “a resemblance I grant you that, but I'm far older than Philip, I've known this place far longer, it drew me back then, and it will continue to do so.”

And now, she ran towards the door, his arms reached out for her, and in that instant the hand of Bewick, gnarled in battle and missing part of a finger, was able to meet the other at her neck, there squeezing firmly without leaving a trace as the organist played on.

As the Goldberg Variations returned to their opening aria, commotion permeated the entrance, some of the choir holding out their arms to keep others back from a woman whose stockings had been wrought asunder in her fall in the minutes since one of them, a doctor, had arrived with his mind on singing but now knelt down to say, “there's no hope for her, she's gone but we might be able to save the child.”

His request for an ambulance “and quick!” was now being met by the siren which pierced the tranquility of the graveyard.