Tag Archives: Steve Foreman

Blood Sport

I had known from the early days that my wife Fiona was not of the “huntin’, shootin’ ‘n’ fishin’ set”; and, although I did not hunt, I was pragmatic enough to know that country sports were part and parcel of life in rural England. However, we had decided long ago to “agree to disagree” about so-called blood sports, and it was not until 2001 when I agreed to be the Editor of the local Hunt Association’s monthly journal, “Hounds &  Hunters”, that I had anything remotely to do with the sport. Fiona had accepted this part-time appointment of mine for sake of community spirit and our status in the town, and had agreed, reluctantly, to accompany me to the annual Hunt Ball, to which she and I were always invited.  However, beyond that acquiescence, the subject was taboo and kept as much as possible out of our conversation.

+++++Therefore, on a balmy evening in July of 2003, when I casually informed Fiona that we had been asked to attend a Hunt Association extraordinary fund-raiser the coming week, I was not really surprised at her reaction.

+++++“The Hunt?” She asked. “Again! Do we really have to go, darling?”

+++++“I say Fi!” I replied; turning from the drinks cabinet to face her. “You know how lavish they make those things; champers, glorious buffet, string quartet, everyone dressed up to the eyeballs… you’ll love it!”

+++++“I don’t know, Harry. They all seem such frightful snobs!”

+++++“That’s just not true, Fiona.” I replied; thinking to myself that not a few folk would probably refer to us likewise. “Many ordinary folk are involved in the hunt these days; not just the snobs and nobs! Come on, when we attended the Hunt Ball last year, you met people from all walks of life!”

+++++“Yes, I agree, darling. But even so, I didn’t really enjoy the company of any of them.”

+++++“Oh Fiona!” I said with a chuckle, “Now who’s being a snob!” I walked over to her, glass of sherry in hand.

+++++“What are they raising funds for?” She asked. “For goodness sake… they don’t exactly have huge overheads!” She reached up and took the glass I offered. Fiona was a slim, elegant woman of forty-nine to whom I had been married for seven years.

+++++“That’s not true.” I returned. “What about all the foxhounds; their kenneling and feeding… not to mention breeding? That must cost a bob or two. Then there are the horses.” I took a sip of my third single malt of the evening, satisfied with my answer.

+++++“The horses are privately owned and stabled, as you well know.” Fiona retorted. “But as far as the care of poor dogs is concerned, the Master of Hounds has always managed in the past. What has changed now? What is this fundraising all about?”

+++++I cleared my throat and sat down in the armchair opposite my wife. The leather cushions squeaked in protest as my slightly overweight frame settled in. “Well, from what I was told by one of the Committee who called by yesterday to drop in some photos for the magazine,” I explained, “they need to set up some sort of protection unit, to defend themselves and the hounds from the HSA… the bloody Hunt Saboteurs Association and the thugs that belong to it.”

+++++“A protection unit? This is all just too silly!” She shook her head in exasperation. “What about all the hunt followers and hangers-on? Can’t they simply find volunteers from among those people?”

+++++“Not of sufficient calibre, apparently. According to Police reports there seems to be some pretty professional help behind the saboteurs these days. These bloody hooligans are getting more efficient, organised and more dangerous every season! And none of them seem to be locals. Some that have been arrested for criminal damage or whatever were found to have come from as far away as London.”

+++++I took another sip of Scotch before continuing. “It seems they are no longer content to simply disrupt the hunt by their presence in numbers; blowing hunting horns to confuse the hounds and trying to rescue the fox or whatever. No, they are actually attacking riders and hunt followers. You know yourself that on one hunt last season three riders were dragged off their steeds and beaten. And so the Hunt Association has voted and elected to recruit and train a proper team to get out there on the ground before and during the actual chase to prevent this harassment. They will call it the ‘Hunt Protection Unit’ or HPU for short.”

+++++Fiona scoffed at this in a short burst of laughter. “And so the funds they wish to raise are to pay the salaries of a small, private army.” She raised her voice. “Is that it? Ye gods!”

+++++“Oh come on Fi!” I exclaimed, surprised that my wife was reacting so vehemently. “I wouldn’t go as far as to say that!”

+++++“Well, I would say that!” Fiona exclaimed in answer, as she rose from her armchair and strode towards me. “Don’t forget, darling, I know just what an army looks like!” She reached down and plucked the glass from my hand. “Now, take yourself through to the dining room.” She ordered, with only the faintest of smiles. “Supper is ready!”

+++++It is true… Fiona did know what an army looked like. We had met each other ten years earlier when both serving in Her Majesty’s Armed Forces; she as a surveillance operative in Military Intelligence and I as a full Colonel in the Household Cavalry… although at the time we were both working in anonymous offices in Whitehall. We were immediately attracted to each other and fell, if you will excuse the cliché, madly in love. Shortly after that, we both decided to resign from the services in order to get married and pursue civilian careers. Fiona now ran from an office in the nearby market town of Ashbeck a small but successful company that specialised in surveillance and counter-surveillance electronics and hardware, and I, having in my last few years in the Army studied for and earned a degree in journalism at Open University, was ensconced as the full time Editor-in-Chief and military consultant of “Soldiering Monthly” magazine, based in London, to where I commuted daily by train. Editing the “Hounds & Hunters” was merely a part time ‘hobby’.

+++++I strolled through to the dining room, where supper had been laid. I smiled at my wife, who was pouring wine from a carafe into two glasses. She did not smile back. Fiona was tall, with long blonde hair framing high cheekbones, and with a nose just large enough to prevent her from being beautiful. Considering Fiona was trained in the martial art of Krav Maga, in which she had become expert while seconded to an Israeli Commando Unit for one year, it would take a man braver or more stupid than I to bring this flaw to her attention.

***

+++++“I hope you will give this bash a good write up, Harry!” Boomed Sir Arthur Moreton, the Chairman of the Hunt Association Committee, as he leaned around me to pluck another glass of champagne from the silver tray of a passing waiter. “We need some good publicity if we are to rally the troops in our favour. Got to stamp out these bloody HSA hooligans!” He shouted, before taking a good slurp of bubbly from the glass and popping a thin sliver of smoked salmon into his mouth.

+++++“Of course, Arthur, you know I will.” I took a sip of my champagne. He long ago had asked me to drop the “Sir” when we were speaking together. “Good turnout here, though.” I continued. “You think you will raise a substantial amount from the members present?”

+++++The Master of the Hunt; another of his salubrious titles, pushed into his mouth a quail egg balanced upon a tiny, mayonnaise-covered wedge of toast. “Mmm; pretty sure we will.” Arthur mumbled, as he chewed the dainty morsel, before wiping an errant crumb from the corner of his full lips and smoothing his handlebar moustache. “But we will drum up some more cash from other sources too!” He roared; drowning out the classical tones of the string quartet playing softly in the corner of the village hall. “Your article will reach a broader membership, and I am meeting the Chief Constable on Friday, so will have a quiet word in his shell-like!”

+++++I felt at that moment instant pity for the Chief copper if Sir Arthur was to have any sort of word in the fellow’s ear with anything like the volume with which he now addressed me.

+++++A former Ambassador at some minor posting in Asia, Sir Arthur Moreton had the distinction of being the local stipendiary Magistrate, as well as a staunch Rotarian and the Chairman of the Chamber of Commerce. One might say he was a pillar of the community, in every sense of the word. If anyone could drum up support, it would be Sir Arthur.

***

+++++“Cheers, Harry,” Sir Arthur boomed, handing me a glass of single malt. It was three weeks after the fundraiser and I was ensconced in a leather armchair in the sitting room of Dunstan Manor. “I asked to see you for two reasons.” He dropped into an armchair opposite. “One; to let you know that the Treasurer, Simon Appleby informed me this very morning that between the fund raiser and your article in the magazine this month we have raised more than ten thousand pounds!” He raised his glass.

+++++I covered my surprise at hearing of such a large amount, leaned forward and clinked my glass against his. “Congratulations, Arthur!” I settled back into my chair, not really knowing why he chose to inform me of this event. After all, I was not a bona-fide member; merely the part-time editor of their journal.

+++++“So, Arthur.” I decided to show some interest. “How do you propose to spend it; I mean, how will you put it to good use?”

+++++“That’s where I need your help once more” He closed one eye and sighted over his glass at me, as if taking aim.

+++++I frowned at him. “How do you mean?”

+++++“That brings me to the second reason for this little chat,” he said. “With all your previous military experience and contacts, do you think you could find a trusty fellow who would be willing, for a small fee of, say, five thousand pounds, to spend a month or so recruiting and training up a team of fifteen or twenty souls to take care of these saboteurs if they cause trouble again?”

+++++“I don’t know, Arthur,” I replied hesitantly. “I am not a mercenary recruiter, for goodness sake!” I added, in a stronger tone.

+++++“No, no! Harry!” He protested. “I don’t want you to get your hands dirty.  No weapons, obviously. Just find someone who could train them in woodland tactics, physical intervention and crowd control, or whatever you Army-types call those sort of things. What say you?”

+++++I took a long swallow of Scotch. “I am not sure. I will need time to think about this, Arthur.” I paused in thought, pondering over his request. “Give me a day or two to mull it over, will you?”

+++++“Fine!” He boomed, standing up. “Let me know your decision day after tomorrow.”

+++++I also stood, drained my glass and placed it on the table. Sir Arthur showed me to the door. I turned to face him. “Sir Arthur,” I said, formally for a change. “If I assist you in this, we must have a clear understanding on two points. And they are not negotiable.”

+++++He nodded. “Go ahead…”

+++++“Point one.” I held up in front of his ruddy face a straight finger, “At no time, before, during or after anything that occurs with this matter must my name be mentioned to anyone – especially my wife, Fiona – as being even remotely involved. Fiona must never know we have even discussed this! Agreed?”

+++++“It’ll be our secret. You have my word!” He replied, clapping a hand on my shoulder.

+++++“And, point two.” I raised a second finger in a Victory salute. “My involvement, if I agree to become involved at all, is to simply source a trainer with suitable experience. After introductions, I hand him or her over to you and the Association and will have nothing further to do with the person, the payment, the methods of training or operation, or anything to do with the so-called ‘HPU’. I want to be one hundred percent clear on this. Agreed?”

+++++“Again, you have my word!” Sir Arthur Moreton thrust out his hand and we shook on it, as gentlemen do.

***

+++++At one time in my Army career, I had the good fortune to work alongside some chaps from the UK Special Forces. When I held the rank of Lieutenant Colonel, I was the Commanding Officer of the Blues and Royals; who at that time were posted on ceremonial duty at Horse Guards Parade and Buckingham Palace in London. During this period I naturally met the security team from the Royal Protection Squad. Among these specially trained men and women – a mix of armed Metropolitan Police officers and Special Forces personnel – I got to know Jock, a senior NCO with the Special Air Service Regiment (SAS). Although from different backgrounds, education and rank, we got on like a house on fire. Sometime later, when I was promoted to full Colonel, I left the Regiment in care of the new CO – it was now stationed as an armoured reconnaissance unit in West Germany – and was posted to Whitehall as a Staff Officer. Jock and a few of his team from Hereford, now working on black ops for MI6, often passed through London when assigned certain tasks, and Jock would sometimes pop into my office for a cup of tea –  or a glass of Scotch.

+++++Even after leaving the Army I kept in touch with Jock, somewhat infrequently, and once or twice when he was visiting town invited him to join me for lunch at my club in Kensington. I was therefore aware that Jock, now 55 years old, had several years ago left 22 SAS, and for some time had been engaged in security contracting or advisory work in Africa and the Middle East. I also knew that he had recently returned to the UK from Oman and had quit freelance soldiering for good. It was his sage intention, so he told me, to make way for the younger, fitter types who were coming out of the Army and looking for work in the private sector. Jock was an obvious choice for trainer of the so-called HPU.

+++++When I managed to get Jock on the phone, after our enthusiastic greetings and small talk, I outlined the task at hand and the reasons for it. I mentioned he would be offered five thousand pounds for one month’s work, told him that he would be supplied with an old Land Rover for transport, and that all his expenses would be covered.

+++++Jock agreed, saying that it would be something interesting for him to do. He was bored, he lamented, with gardening, taking his Labrador for long walks, and having the occasional pint in one of the SAS watering holes in Hereford. Of course, I didn’t believe that was all that occupied his time! We made arrangements that Jock would come down in about one weeks’ time.

+++++I telephoned Sir Arthur and gave him my response and the news. He was delighted, and let me know by the volume of his voice in the receiver how much so. About a week later, somewhat ambiguous advertisements appeared in the local newspapers, on the noticeboards of the local pubs, in the village hall and in the window of the Post Office, inviting candidates to apply for a position as a Security Support Officer with duties in and around the county. Full training would be offered. There was a short list of required criteria; age parameters, minimum height, level of fitness, etc. but no address or company name… just an anonymous phone number; Jock’s mobile.

***

+++++On the day of his arrival, I met Jock at Dunstan Halt; the tiny and quaint railway station set on the outskirts of town. We shook hands firmly and I gave him a quick once over. He hadn’t changed much since last seeing him: still sporting a horseshoe moustache and long sideburns, a Rolex Submariner watch on his left wrist, and dressed in a green bomber jacket, blue jeans and brown leather hiking boots. He hoisted a military Bergen into the rear of my Range Rover and jumped into the front passenger seat. I climbed in the driver’s side and reversed the car out of the station car park. From there, as I ferried him to the Woldview Cottage B&B and after swapping trivial news, I briefed him on some details of how the hunt is organised.

+++++At one point, he asked, “You don’t hunt, though, do you, Sir?” He couldn’t break old ingrained military habits, despite the fact we had known each other for so many years.

+++++“No, and neither does Fiona; she vehemently detests blood sports.  But, because of my involvement as editor of the hunt magazine, I have learned all about it.”

+++++Jock had never met my wife, but of course knew from our long association that I was married.

+++++“Where does it all start from?” Jock asked. “The actual hunt, I mean.”

+++++“Typically, the meet, as the gathering is properly called, usually takes place in the local pub car park,” I said, “or in the communal area behind the village hall; although it can happen on private land, such as at Dunstan Manor, which is known as a lawn meet. This first meet of the season will be at the village pub, appropriately named the ‘Fox and Hounds’… a very common pub name in rural Britain, as I am sure you know, Jock.”

+++++“Been in a few!” Jock laughed, and then added, more seriously, “Any weapons around… guns, I mean?”

+++++“Well, farmers around here are allowed to have shotguns, if licensed… as do a few poachers, no doubt.” I answered. “But I’ve never heard of any turning up at the hunt.”

+++++“I won’t need this then.” Jock lifted one side of his bomber jacket and patted a 9mm Browning automatic pistol stuffed into a shoulder holster. He smiled at the look of shock on my face. “It’s okay, Sir. I am allowed to carry. I’m still on the books at Six… and what with continuing death threats from our ‘friends’ from over the water… you know what I mean.”

+++++I did know what he meant. The Provisional IRA hated the SAS… a hate that stretched far beyond the treacherous handshakes of the Good Friday Peace Agreement of 1998. Still, I was shocked to see Jock so armed. I certainly hoped he would not need to use it.

+++++We arrived at Woldview Cottage B&B where Sir Arthur and the Hunt Treasurer, Simon Appleby had booked a room for Jock and were waiting to meet him. I had warned Jock in advance about Sir Arthur’s brusque and pompous manner, but he had dealt with worse in his military career and was not worried. Introductions quickly over, and leaving the conspirators nursing their drinks in the small living room ‘Resident’s Bar’ of Woldview Cottage I went home; feeling quite guilty about the subterfuge and hiding these events from Fiona.

***

+++++Although I rarely arrived home from London before six-thirty in the weekday evenings, Fiona was invariably there to meet me in the living room with a drink before supper. Of course, there were occasions when she had to work late at her office or to meet with clients and would let me know in advance, but these incidents were few and far between. So I was surprised but not unduly concerned to find her absent when I arrived home one evening, with no message or call to explain her lateness. When she eventually came breezing through the front door at eight-thirty, however, I asked, “Darling! You are very late. Is everything okay?”

+++++“Yes, Harry,” she leaned forward and, slightly breathlessly, pecked me on the cheek. “I had a last minute visit from a new client who wants me to fix him up with CCTV. He kept me talking for ages!”

+++++She threw her jacket over the back of a chair, “Let me fix supper quickly!”

+++++“No Fi. I have made pasta and salad. It is ready to eat as soon you have freshened up!”

+++++“Thanks, darling. I won’t be a mo!” She disappeared upstairs and I could hear the shower running.

+++++Over supper, Fiona explained that the new client had several business properties, one of which housed sensitive information. “He wants a complete audit carried out, with recommendations for cameras, monitors, and biometric access control… the works.” She poured us both a glass of white wine. “That’s great, Fi!” I exclaimed. “A very good contract by the sounds of it.”

+++++“Yes, darling.” Fiona toyed with her pasta, not looking at me. “But, the site is miles away, on the other side of Norwich. And he wants me to personally carry out the audit and be on the ground every day to oversee the installation and whatever.” She glanced up briefly from her food. “I will be working late most evenings for quite some time, I am afraid.”

+++++“That’s fine, Fi.” I encouraged, “I will manage to get supper ready most evenings… if not, we will dine out at the pub!” I poured more wine. We clinked glasses in a toast, and drank to the new contract and to each other’s health.

***

+++++True to her word, Fiona was late home every workday evening for the next six or seven weeks. Most times she arrived looking quiet tired and pale.

+++++“I say, Fi!” I had to remark one Friday evening, seeing her almost crawl into the living room. “You look really worn out. Come on, off with that jacket,” I said, helping her shrug off her green wax cotton Barbour. “These late evenings and long drives home are really taking their toll. Let me get you a brandy.”

+++++I returned quickly from the drinks cabinet and passed her the balloon.

+++++“Thanks, darling!” She said, sinking down into the armchair and putting her feet up on a footstool. “It is rather tiring, I must admit. But will be worth all the effort in the end.” She smiled, somewhat solemnly.

***

+++++Sir Arthur had given me the date for the first hunt of the season, well in time for it to be publicised in the forthcoming journal. The journal went out on time, and all the members – and, of course, the Hunt Saboteurs Association, which had spies everywhere – were, therefore, informed well in advance.

+++++I had purposely kept away from and out of contact with Jock, leaving him and the Hunt Committee to organise and train the whole HPU thing. As far as I was aware, Fiona had no idea what was going on, and, as she arrived home worn out almost every evening, probably did not care. She never even mentioned the subject.

***

+++++The day before the hunt, Sir Arthur informed me that Jock had reported to him that the HPU boys were as ready as they would ever be. He had heard from some informers that the HSA were going to be out in force too, and he wanted me there to cover the event for the journal. I protested, at first, but Arthur insisted, and told me to bring my camera along, as well. “I want full coverage of this, Harry. Photos and a good write-up. There may be some bloody tabloid journos there too, usually are at the first hunt, looking for a bloody sensational scoop; so I want our side of the story to be told straight and true!”

+++++The day of the hunt dawned cold, grey and misty. Steaming breath from both humans and horses plumed and billowed in the chill air of the pub car park, as the landlord and a few helpers passed between the mounted riders handing out the traditional pre-hunt “Stirrup Cup”.

+++++After the bracing drinks, the hunt set off along Lower Dyke Lane, heading for Ten Acres Meadow, and the large area of natural deciduous woodland that bordered it. This would be the covert from where the foxes would be flushed out. Mounted hunt followers, identified by their black tunics, rode along behind the riders dressed in scarlet. The chaotic clip-clop of twenty or so trotting horses echoed in the still morning air. Cars formed a slow-moving tail behind the horses… appearing not unlike a funeral procession.

+++++Mist hung in dank rafts in the hollows of the meadow and lay thick and swirling upon the ground in the woods. I walked briskly across the grass to the edge of the woodland. There, among the trees, I could see shadowy figures moving in the dim light; the HPU. They were all dressed in matching olive drab coveralls and carrying Tonfa PR24 riot batons. I spotted Jock, dressed in a camo smock, moving around giving orders and directions.

+++++Suddenly, I heard yells of derision and the discordant blowing of horns. The saboteurs had arrived; making their noisy way across the meadow from the 52-seater coach parked in the lane on the other side of the fields. Most of them were wearing ski masks for anonymity and were dressed in army-surplus jackets or green parkas with the hoods pulled over their heads. To my dismay I saw that several were carrying sticks or pick-axe handles.

+++++A loud baying and yelping announced the arrival of the foxhounds, as several kennel masters released the dogs from trailers and horse boxes. The horses moved restlessly beneath the riders, snorting and whinnying in the cold air, sensing they would soon be at the gallop.

+++++A loud cry from the approaching saboteurs echoed across the misty field: “Murdering scumbag snobs!” This was taken up by laughter and hoots and yells from the rest of the mob. The saboteurs drew near, weaving their way along the edge of the woodland. Some split off, disappearing among the trees. The HPU took up defensive positions between them and the riders. The hounds had already entered the woods and were trying to scent and put up a fox. The line of saboteurs bristled and shifted with pent up tension, as other were rampaging through the woodland, trying to confuse the hounds and scare the foxes to earth.

+++++“Moreton! You fucking snob asshole!” Someone shouted aggressively; loud above the general din.

+++++Sir Arthur Moreton, hearing his name called, turned in his saddle to face towards the voice.

+++++“Who the bloody hell said that?” He roared.

+++++I watched with horror, as a short, stocky figure carrying a 12-gauge double-barrel shotgun ran forward from the rear of the mob, pointing the gun skyward, intending, I presume, to fire a warning shot or give some sort of signal to the rest of them. He tripped on a hidden tree root and fell forward; as he hit the ground, one barrel discharged its shot in a loud and resounding bang, and with a scream of pain Sir Arthur fell from his horse.  At the loud report of the gunshot, Jock’s muscle memory must have kicked in. From the corner of my eye I saw him draw the 9mm pistol from under his jacket and spin around to face the shooter.

+++++At that very same moment, another member of the HSA, anonymous in a black ski mask, leapt forward and with an angry, high-pitched scream wrestled the shotgun away from the fallen shooter’s grasp.

+++++Jock crouched, firing two shots in quick succession. The person now holding the weapon dropped like a stone, and, as he hit the ground, the second shotgun cartridge discharged. I felt as if someone had smashed my shoulder with a sledge hammer! I was spun around in a spray of my own blood, crashing into Arthur’s steed before slumping to the earth next to him and passing out.

***

+++++When I regained consciousness, with considerable pain in my shoulder and a splitting headache, I slowly opened my eyes and was surprised to find myself in a hospital bed; my shoulder heavily bandaged and my arm in a sling. I closed my eyes again, trying to recall what had happened.

+++++“You’re alive then, Sir?” came a familiar voice. I looked up, and there stood my old friend, Jock; standing there awkwardly with a bag of grapes in his hands.

+++++“Hello, Jock. Barely alive, by the aches and pains I am feeling. Jesus! What the fuck happened? How is Sir Arthur?”

+++++“He’ll live too… unfortunately; pompous old bastard.” Jock smiled.

+++++I chuckled, then winced in pain once more. I heard a moan from one side and gingerly turned my head, expecting to see Arthur lying there all bandaged up like me.  Instead, in bed just six feet away from me, lay my wife, Fiona!

+++++“What the hell’s going on here?” I gasped the questions, propping myself up on one good elbow.

+++++“Sir,” Jock drew near. “I am sorry to say that I shot your wife in the legs… twice.”

+++++“What the fuck are you talking about, Jock?” I yelled.

+++++In the bed next to me, Fiona stirred again.

+++++“This’ll be a shock to you, I am afraid.” Jock nodded towards my wife. “It was Fiona who grabbed the shotgun from that idiot.  She told me earlier, before the drugs sent her to sleep, that she wasn’t intending to use it, but was snatching it away from the bloke in anger, because she had ordered that there was to be no guns. You see, Fiona is a leading member and the tactical trainer of the HSA” Jock confirmed. “Has been for quite some time, apparently.”

THE COLLECTOR

Mr Henry James Franklin and Miss Martha Emma Sparrow were married in the summer of 1946, in the small town of Ashton-over-Hill in the county of Suffolk. During the next forty years of marriage they were almost inseparable.

+++++When they first met, Martha was the only daughter of a local Stipendiary Magistrate, and Henry had been a junior administrator with the FCO; later, as he grew in seniority, Henry became an Attaché and was sent on temporary diplomatic missions to developing countries; assisting the Ambassador with areas of finance or intervention. This work naturally required frequent overseas travel. Even when Henry was asked by his government to go to work in a hot, dusty region in some far-flung Asian country, Martha would accompany him. If the mission was short term and unaccompanied, and the government was only paying for Henry to go, then Martha would pay all her own expenses to accompany him. The only time he went alone was if it was a very short visit of three days or less, where Martha would not have time to enjoy and explore the place, indulging in her passion for collecting old or valuable artefacts. India, Africa, Eastern Europe, Pacific Islands, The Far East, and The Middle East… their travels were diverse and seemingly endless.

+++++Martha came from “old money” and her passion did not impact on Henry’s relatively low salary. It was a passion in which Henry shared, but of which had little knowledge. Martha was the one who before the trip would research a country’s history and heritage and decide on the type of items for which that the country was renowned. Martha was the one who would then search the bazaars, markets and curio shops for such items… things that were beyond the pocket and shrewdness of the usual tourists and bargain hunters. In some Pacific Island she would seek out fine examples of scrimshaw carvings; she would cast an amateur but expert eye over the bases of delicate statuettes in Hong Kong or Taiwan; in Kinshasa or Nairobi her fingers would run gently over the grain and texture of ebony masks; her eyes could pick out fake from real; and she had the grit to beat down traders who were treating her as an ignorant tourist looking for souvenirs.

+++++Over the years, her collections grew; fine paintings and tapestries filled the walls of their big old country house; inherited from Martha’s father, when the ageing Magistrate passed away from a heart attack; while, somewhat fittingly, seated on the Bench and just moments after sentencing a criminal to ten years in prison.

+++++The house was large and rambling, set in its own grounds. Wonderful carpets from Tabriz and Istanbul covered the floors; oak bookcases held, among leather-bound first editions, various gold and bronze artefacts; knick-knack shelves and mantelpieces displayed delicate porcelain figurines and pieces of ancient jewellery, silver and gold; carved tribal masks hung on the curving walls of the staircase; Zanzibar trunks made for exotic coffee and bedside tables upon which stood old brass lamps and silver candlesticks; intricately worked samovars stood on occasional tables in the library and lounge. The place was a virtual museum of travels around the world. The total monetary value of these collections was either unknown or forgotten; the value was aesthetic and sentimental and no price could be put upon that.

+++++Henry loved his work and travel, and Martha loved to be with him and build on her collections. The only thing missing from their lives was a child. Martha was forever unable to bear children.

+++++In 1986, while working in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, Henry died from a bad and late-diagnosed case of malaria. 60-year-old Martha returned to England, to Ashton-over-Hill and to the Manor, and after a respectable period of grieving became very active in The Woman’s Institute and various other community or local charitable ventures. However, her lessening agility and failing eyesight gradually restricted her activities and she became more and more confined to home; relying on a daily help to do the housekeeping and cooking.

***

+++++“Bobby, it is four thirty.” His mother called from the kitchen, where she was peeling potatoes. “Get yourself over to the Manor to read for Missus Martha, there’s a good lad!”

+++++Twelve-year-old Bobby Garfield begrudgingly put aside his toy Corgi cars and stood up from where he had been playing on the living room carpet; his shoulders hunched in reluctance. “Okay, mum.” he sighed, walking slowly to the front door.

+++++“Be back by six thirty, love” his mum continued. “I am making sausage and mash for supper.”

+++++The boy left the two-bedroom rented council house where he and his single mum lived, walked across the empty field at the back of the scruffy council estate, passed through the ancient village of Ashton-over-Hill and walked down Upper Dyke Lane to Ashton Manor; one of two big old country houses that stood within the town’s boundaries.

+++++Bobby had to go to the Manor three times a week to read newspapers to the blind and wheelchair-bound Mrs Martha Franklin. It was a chore he did not enjoy; the old woman was nice enough to him, but he didn’t like being hugged and kissed by her every visit. She smelled of soap, lavender and old age, and her horny, arthritic old hands dug into his back like claws when she squeezed him in a hug.

+++++Bobby would let himself in the back door with spare key that the daily help, Edna Johnson always placed under a planter after she left work each day. He would make his way to the library, where Mrs Martha would be sitting in her usual place in a large, high-backed wheelchair; her white cane resting against the arm.

+++++“Hello Missus Martha.” He would call out from the doorway, announcing his arrival.

+++++“Hello, Bobby!” The old woman would say, turning her unseeing eyes towards the doorway. From very early on she had learned to recognise his voice, and her acute hearing compensated for her blindness. “How are you today?”

+++++“Fine, Missus Martha,” He would answer, sounding as cheerful as possible.

+++++From a side table where Edna had left them, he would take the two folded and pressed newspapers – the previous day’s and that day’s – and, sitting in an ancient leather armchair opposite the old woman, would read them in date order from front page to back, If there was something that did not interest her, Martha would tut, tut, wave a wrinkled, blue-veined hand and say simply, “Skip that!” This was not a frequent event, as she liked to know what was going on in the wide world and loved news from the places to which she and Henry had travelled. In any case, she had little else to occupy her time in the long, lonely evenings. She even let Bobby read the sports pages in an effort to extend his visits.

+++++The reading usually took about forty minutes to an hour, after which Bobby would stand, reluctantly go to the old lady for a hug and a kiss, and to say goodbye.

+++++“You are a good boy, Bobby!” She would say the same thing each visit. “Thank you for reading so well.  Help yourself to a chocolate from the box over there.” She waved vaguely in the direction of a side table. “See you on Wednesday.”

+++++“Bye, Missus Martha.” Bobby would reply. After taking his treat and leaving the library, he would wander secretly around the house. His eyes cast about in wonder. The place was packed with ornaments and antiques; statues and carvings; gold candlesticks and bronze lamp-stands; brass telescopes and ships’ compasses; jewelled boxes and polished trunks, and hung with paintings and tapestries. It was a virtual museum. Sometimes he would even sneak upstairs; creeping up the carpeted stairway alongside the electronic chair lift that ran up one wall. He opened the door of the first upstairs room. It was used as a storeroom for many of Martha’s collections that were not displayed around the mansion Bobby gazed into the storeroom and was amazed at the amount of stuff in it. He found Martha’s bedroom along the corridor. It was fairly small and delicate, very lacy and feminine.

+++++Downstairs, Martha, her acute hearing tracking Bobby’s secretive movements, smiled contentedly. She was happy that the young boy showed such interest in her collections. She never mentioned to Bobby that she knew of his explorations, but sometimes after reading she would ask him to fetch an item from somewhere in the library or lounge, and tell him of the history and about the country from where it came.

+++++He never once thought of taking anything from the house.

+++++Bobby had no idea why his mum had made this arrangement with Martha Franklin. He also did not know that Mrs Martha paid his mum five pounds for each visit. It was a welcome addition to her income; she worked every day in the local garden centre, including Saturdays, but even so, the money was hardly enough for a single parent to survive.

+++++Martha had met Mrs Garfield several times when shopping in the garden centre; gardening was another of Martha’s passions, and ‘Roots ‘n’ Shoots’ was a favourite venue to shop for bulbs, potted shrubs and gardening paraphernalia. On a few occasions, on Saturdays, Bobby had been there with his mum and Martha had always made a fuss of the young boy. This, of course, was before her failing eyesight had diminished into legal blindness and her general frailness prevented her going out as often as she would have liked.  One day, several weeks after Martha’s blindness and disability had taken their final toll and she had become virtually housebound, she asked Edna to go find Mrs Garfield at the garden centre and invite her to come to the Manor to discuss a little proposal.

+++++Her curiosity aroused, Joan accepted the invitation, and over cups of Earl Grey tea and wafer biscuits, she and Martha made the arrangement for Bobby to come and read to her several times a week.

***

+++++The readings continued for three years. Martha Franklin became even more frail and dependent on home help. She refused, however, to go to a care home. Bobby was now a teenager of 15 years, with teenage needs that could hardly be satisfied in the poor council estate of Ashton Vale where he lived and where there was nothing for a young boy to do once he had outgrown his childhood toys. Immigrants fleeing war zones and humanitarian abuses had slowly moved into some of the houses over the past couple of years… families from Eastern Europe with teenage children the same age as Bobby; low income families, many unemployed and relying on government payouts from the Department of Work and Pensions. With little to occupy their free time and with little money in their pockets, the teenagers began to hang around the street at night, forming little cliques or gangs and dominating certain “corners” as their own turf. Harmless enough at first, with only the occasional complaints from residents about excessive noise, littering or small cases of criminal damage. But, later, drugs slowly entered the council estate; weed and acid tabs to begin with; then  came cocaine… much of it smuggled in from Europe. Petty crime increased in the village and surrounding areas; shoplifting; stolen cars; criminal damage; muggings and other assaults. A scourge of criminality and abusive behaviour that plagued many similar areas of Britain. Bobby became friends with several of the new youths, and although being in the same boat as them, he respected his mother’s wishes and continued to visit Mrs Martha three evenings a week. However, there was one other thing that persuaded him more than his mother to continue the arrangement; Mrs Martha had, commencing on Bobby’s fifteenth birthday, begun to pay the boy some pocket money. Five pounds per week was a lot of cash to a teenage schoolboy from a single parent family with little spare money. But, the money was no longer spent on Corgi toys or Star Wars figures… the emerging teenager Bobby had been led by his new friends into the world of illegal substances and was attracted by the profits that could be made from reselling drugs. Unfortunately, he also became a ‘user’.

***

+++++“Are you sure about this, Bobby?” Janeck asked. “How do you know about it all?”

+++++“When I was a kid,” Bobby replied, “my mum made me go to the house to read the newspaper to the old girl. She is blind, you see? The old woman, I mean… not my mum. I had to do that crap three times a week after school until last year when I reached eighteen. I told my mum and Martha that I was no longer a little kid and had better things to do with my time. Martha was unhappy but understanding, and my mum was really pissed off for some reason. But I stuck to my guns.”

+++++“Well, at eighteen we can do what the fuck we like, right?” Janeck asked.

+++++“That’s what I told my mum… but I didn’t swear!” Bobby said, laughing “Anyway,” he continued, “I had loads of chances to look around the place. Of course, I didn’t know what any of the stuff was worth, but I remember the place was packed. There was loads of ornaments everywhere, china figurines on the mantelpiece, little statues and carvings in every corner; some a gold colour, others a sort of white, like bone. I guess those were probably ivory. There was all sorts of expensive looking stuff.”

+++++“But, are you sure they are valuable?” his pal asked

+++++“Yeah, Janeck. Everyone in town knows the old girl is rich, so I don’t reckon she would fill her house with cheap shit! She and her late husband travelled a lot when they were younger. He was some sort of diplomat; always working in exotic places around the world, before he popped his clogs in Africa. It’s how they collected all the antiques and stuff. I saw things that looked made of gold and silver, some things encrusted in jewels or gems, old swords and sabres on the walls, oil paintings, you know, that sort of thing.”

+++++Janeck frowned, “Any cash there, you reckon?” He asked. Cash and drugs were the only currencies Janeck and Bobby normally dealt with.

+++++“I dunno. Maybe, but I never saw any laying around,” Bobby replied. “I guess she didn’t need cash. She had food delivered from the grocery shop in town almost daily. I was there once in the daytime and saw her housekeeper just sign for it at the back door. I imagine she had an account or something.”

+++++“Look, Bobby,” Janeck said. “It’s a bit fucking risky, especially if there is no cash.” Janeck was already known to the police for shoplifting and petty theft. He didn’t want to get involved in stolen property that could be traceable.

+++++“But the place is packed with valuables, I tell ya!” Bobby protested. “Small stuff, easy to shift and sell somewhere far away from here where no-one will know us. Fuck me! It’s a treasure trove. We will make a real killing! Loads of cash to buy more coke!”

+++++“Okay, okay! I get it, alright?” Janeck threw up his hands in defeat. “So when are we gonna do it?”

***

+++++Martha Franklin’s health had deteriorated even more since the days when Bobby read to her. She now had a full-time registered carer named Rosemary Perkins living in the house, but the daily help continued to come to clean the vast place and help prepare meals. Edna’s long habit of leaving the spare key under the planter at the back door had not altered one bit.

+++++Martha, now spending more and more time in bed, had asked Rosemary to move her into the larger storeroom where there was more room for the nursing equipment, oxygen bottles and medical trolley containing medications, etc. The many trunks, boxes and valuable items from the storeroom, with the combined help of Edna and Rosemary, now changed places with Martha.

+++++At the end of each day, after dinner and after Rosemary had bathed Martha, medicated her and and put her to bed, she would retire exhausted to her own room and watch TV for an hour or so before going to sleep herself.

***

+++++Bobby and Janeck, their bravery fuelled by the lines of cocaine they had just snorted, entered the grounds of the Manor, walked carefully and quietly up the garden path that ran along the left side the house and around to the back door. Bobby tilted the planter and slid out a key that was so familiar to him. The two youths entered the house and immediately pulled ski masks over their heads. Both switched on small penlight torches and then crept through to the lounge; unfolding large zip-up nylon bags that had been concealed under their jackets. Bobby swept his torchlight around the familiar surroundings.

+++++As they wandered around, the youths indiscriminately picked up various small, valuable-looking objects and placed them carefully in their swag bags, but there was not enough portable stuff to satisfy the two thieves.

+++++“Let’s go upstairs,” whispered Bobby. “There is a large storeroom up there.”

+++++The two followed Bobby’s torch beam into the hallway and up the carpeted staircase. Janeck tried to lift a couple of tribal masks from the walls, but they seemed to be screwed into place rather than hung. He swore angrily under his breath. Reaching the landing, Bobby walked up to the door almost opposite that he knew to be the storeroom. He turned the handle and slowly pushed open the door, shining the torch around; under the ski mask a frown appeared upon his face. Suddenly, the torch beam lit upon an occupied bed.

+++++Martha Franklin sat up, holding the duvet under her chin with both hands. “Rosemary?” she asked, “Whatever’s the matter?”

+++++“Oh shit, Janeck!” Bobby exclaimed. “She must’ve changed rooms!”

+++++“Bobby? Bobby Franklin?” Martha asked, panic entering into her voice. “What on earth are you doing here in the middle of the night?” Her voice raised into a weak squeal. “What’s going on?”

+++++“For fuck’s sake, Bobby!” Janeck hissed. “The blind old bitch has recognised your voice!”

+++++“He-lp!” Martha screamed, her voice cracking. Before she could scream again, Bobby ran to the bed and clamped a hand over Martha’s mouth and pushed her head back onto the pillow. Martha was too frail to struggle, but Bobby could feel her mouth moving as she tried to mumble something. He turned to face his fellow thief; “What the fuck are we gonna do, Janeck?” He asked in a loud voice, beginning to panic. “She knows who I am!”

+++++Bobby glanced down at the struggling old woman. He could see her spittle oozing through his gloved fingers. Martha tried to speak, but he clamped his hand down firmer. “Stay quiet, Missus Martha, please!” Bobby hissed.

+++++“Martha?” A new voice came from the open door, followed by a short scream. Janeck spun around in time to see Rosemary Perkins heading for the stairs.

+++++Janeck dropped his torch, leapt out of the doorway and tried to grab Rosemary’s flapping nightgown from behind. He fumbled the grab and his lunge pushed her forward; she stumbled, hit the chair lift, spun around and fell backwards, cartwheeling down the stairs.

+++++Back in the bedroom, Martha had gone limp under Bobby’s firm restraint. He let go of Martha’s head and she lay lifeless on the pillow.

+++++“Oh shit!” Bobby whispered, staring down at the dead woman’s face, as he backed away. “Janeck! We’ve gotta get the fuck out of here!”

+++++Janeck came back into the room and picked up his dropped torch; shining it onto the scene at the bed. “Oh Christ, Bobby! Is she dead?”

+++++“Yeah, let’s get out of here now!”

+++++The two thieves hurried from the room and down the stairs, stepping over the unmoving form of Rosemary Perkins laying sprawled on the hallway floor.

***

+++++“Look, Bobby” Janeck said, grabbing Bobby’s lapels in both fists to get his attention. They were sitting on a bench in a small park on the outskirts of the village. “I don’t know if that other bitch is dead or not, but if she’s not, she don’t know who we are. We was wearing ski masks. She can’t identify us… and there’s no fingerprints ‘cos we was wearing gloves.”

+++++“But fuck me, Janeck. I killed Missus Martha!” Bobby was almost in tears.

+++++“The old bitch is dead. We can’t change that.” Janeck released his friend’s jacket and sat back. “No-one to tell tales. We’re clear.”

+++++Rosemary Perkins was not dead, however; she had been knocked unconscious in the fall. A broken arm and several huge bruises, plus a mild concussion, were the only injuries she sustained. When she came around, she crawled first to the hallway phone and dialled 999 to call the police. Then, dragging herself to her feet, she limped painfully upstairs to discover the dead body of Martha Franklin.

***

+++++Rosemary, being a professional carer, had from day one at the Manor installed a baby alarm system between her bedroom and Martha’s. It was one of those devices whereby, if a baby in its crib cried or called out, the sound would be transmitted from the nursery to speakers positioned in the parent’s bedroom or other rooms in the house. Rosemary had installed the same system for a similar purpose; if Martha awoke in the night and felt ill or needed something, she could call out to Rosemary, who had a receiver speaker on the bedside table of her adjoining room, turned up to full volume. Rosemary had been sleeping lightly the night of the murder and the voices from Martha’s bedroom had immediately roused her. She had clearly heard the name “Bobby Garfield” being spoken by Martha through the medium of the baby alarm.

+++++Bobby Garfield and Janeck Kalenov were both arrested the next day. After a month held in remand while the case against them was formulated, they were tried in Ipswich Crown Court. Being over eighteen years old, they were tried as adults. The baby alarm evidence given by Rosemary Perkins, Edna’s testimony as to the hidden spare key being used to enter the house, and Martha’s DNA from the saliva found on Bobby’s glove… it was all concrete and conclusive. Both of the boys were found guilty of murder, aggravated assault and attempted robbery. Each was sentenced to a total of 40 years in prison, with no possibility of parole.

***

+++++Mrs Martha Franklin’s lawyer, Mr Crispin Longfellow, who was also the appointed Trustee of her Estate, was tasked with managing and disposing of the property according to Martha’s Last Will and Testament, drawn up by him only the previous year.

+++++Two months after Martha Franklin’s death, the lawyer sent out letters to all the named beneficiaries, inviting them to attend Ashton Manor for the reading of Martha’s Will,

+++++On the day of the reading, almost all those invited assembled, with a mixture of curiosity and excitement, in the library of the Manor. Mr Crispin Longfellow was seated behind the late Henry Franklin’s antique desk. Martha’s Will; a formidable document, many pages long, was on the desk in front of him. It contained many beneficiaries; but there were no living relatives named.

+++++After an explanation of the proceedings and a formal introduction to the Will, Mr Longfellow began reading from the document; relating Martha’s wishes in the first person, as written.

+++++“To the Ashton-over-Hill Women’s Institute, I bequeath one thousand pounds; to the RSPCA, I bequeath one thousand pounds, to the local Hee-Haw Donkey Sanctuary, I bequeath one thousand pounds, to the RNLI, I bequeath three thousand pounds”…The lawyer continued in this vein for several minutes, listing beneficiary after beneficiary and the amount to be bequeathed… before he looked up from the desk and cleared his throat.  There was a pregnant pause in the room.

+++++“To Mrs Joan Garfield of Ashton Vale, I bequeath two hundred and fifty thousand pounds.” There was a collective gasp from those present in the Library. Joan’s jaw dropped in shock. The lawyer peered around the audience over the top of his half-moon glasses, commanding silence. His gaze settled upon Joan. “This money shall be used, under my trustee’s management,” He continued,” to build a Youth Club and Community Centre on the field to the rear of the Ashton Vale council estate. The field has long formed part of my Estate and the Land Title Deed is in possession of my lawyer, Mr Crispin Longfellow. I further request that Mrs Joan Garfield, if she is willing, be appointed Manager of the Club, once built, with a salary of two thousand pounds per month, paid from my Estate, for the first two years of operation.” Joan was, fortunately, speechless. All eyes in the room were upon her, as she wiped away her tears.

+++++The lawyer continued. “As to my property and possessions, I bequeath to the Help the Aged charity shop in Ashton town all my personal clothing, linen, kitchenware, and other such usable and saleable items as listed in Addendum One to this Will.” The manager of the charity shop, present in the Library, was overjoyed. She smiled until her grin reached her ears.

+++++“I bequeath the house and gardens known as Ashton Manor and its entire contents and collections, as listed in Addendum Two, to the care and management of the National Trust.” The NT representative, already forewarned and standing at the rear of the room, nodded his approval.

+++++“And finally,” said Mr Longfellow, looking up once more and, with a very solemn look upon his face, gazing around the room at all those there present, “I bequeath one hundred pieces of fine, portable property – as listed in Addendum Three, and valued in total for insurance purposes by the auctioneering house of Thurman and Levi of Ipswich at five hundred and seventy five thousand pounds – to my good young friend and sometime reading companion, Bobby Garfield.”

THE END