When the woods said croeso.

I have a new laptop. Not only that but I have a version of word that allows me to dictate rather than my quite slow typing. I’m not using that function. I still want the slower pace of my typing.

As luck would have it, the sound on my old laptop died right at the beginning of the first lockdown. My half plan to start learning Welsh was blown out of the water but not before I’d learnt how to say ‘bore da’.

Having no sound certainly messed up zoom meetings, although I did manage with a once a week loan of a friend’s laptop for my hour’s zoom with old friends from art college. Other than that WhatsApp was my go to for video calling.

I saved up for the new laptop and waited until I could go to a store to get one. I felt I couldn’t cope with all the hassle of swopping over laptops on my own.

I’m not a shy retiring person but have found my occasional propensity to rush in where angels fear to tread has calmed down.

My best take away from the early part of the lockdown was a bluebell woods. I have never experienced such utter and beautiful deep quiet. Nothing mechanical in the sky, no cars going by, no people speaking, just the silence of a warm afternoon with the scent of a sea of bluebells carried on a gentle breeze. Sitting still and quiet on a log, nature ignored me and did what it does when not disturbed. I knew it was special and I knew I was unlikely ever to experience anything quite like it again. The world turns and it just can’t help being noisy when it does.

In the studio I’ve taken to sitting for a few moments to recall the experience of that deep quiet. In a way it could almost be a cliché, but it isn’t. I have been grateful for how those few hours in a wood did and does sustain me. I’m used to being solitary in the studio and embrace it. Yet that solitary time usually has a counter in going to places like the British Museum in London or the Pitts Rivers and Ashmolean in Oxford as well as other galleries. During lockdown those outlets where not available yet I was surprised at how much drifting back to that particular day in the woods sustained me through the sometimes feeling of isolation.

I created a body of work that I think of as my lockdown paintings but do not call them that.

What is odd for me now when lockdown is supposedly lifted is the deep quiet of that afternoon in the woods is coming back to me in an ever-stronger sense.  

New paintings in progress are on the studio walls. On occasion it’s hours before I apply the next bit of paint to the last one I applied because I’ve spent hours just looking at them.  There is a little voice in my brain that tries to tell me I’m wasting my time, it wheedles its way in with the pain and troubles of the world, it tries so hard to leave me feeling bereft and pointless but I know that little weasel and just refer it to the deep quiet of a remembered bluebell afternoon when nature said croeso (Welsh for welcome).

Light in the Studio

See the video below.

It’s December in 2020. It’s a year that so many will be glad to see the back of.  Life had already been massively disrupted before 2020 when my husband, Alberto became ill with Alzheimer’s, I cared for him and our lives changed beyond recognition. He died at home with just the two of us together in the early morning as I held his hand and sang to him. Now this year of Covid I realise what a privilege even that was when so many died without their loved ones by their side.

I didn’t get back to my old ways of working, painting still had to wait until the studio got somewhere near to being a workable space, besides I was in a fug, I seemed to function but inside wasn’t so good. Before the early warning signs of Covid began to filter through, I developed a cough that went on for ever, it led to Pneumonia. By the second anniversary of Alberto’s death I was getting slightly better but still unwell. I’m not sure to this day if I had Covid or not. Certainly I’ve had enough symptoms of what is referred to as Long-covid.

In the first lockdown I wrote three short stories. A competition got me going on that. I’m not a writer but it was good to do, it helped and it caused some considerable hilarity in the process.

Those sunny days of the first lockdown the world became quiet, I enjoyed that.

I started painting again, reminding myself that to get working you need to show up. So in an unfinished studio I showed up, even if I didn’t pick up a brush (that’s metaphorical as I often paint without brushes) I would spend some hours just being in there and looking then maybe a flurry of work that happened in ten minutes.

When I think about it that has often been the way I work. Contemplating what is already there for hours, then quick action that could be scary if it didn’t work out. For me it is the nature of making art.

So I am working. I have ups and downs. Other aspects of life are much like others, I miss family and friends, I miss going to the sea. I am worried about the health of loved ones who have to go to hospital.

I have three canvases I really want to finish before the end of the year. I’ll do it.

I love real darkness, the sort that wraps itself around you like a blanket. There is a time for that. For now I want to light the darkness so I’ve put LED lights in the studio for when I’m not in there at the end of the day. It’s amazing how mush those lights light the studio so well.

It will be the third Anniversary of Alberto’s death on 10th January. I wish he hadn’t been ill, I wish he hadn’t died. I am glad I was able to be with him when he did die. Who knew then that being able to be with a loved one would in itself be such a privilege. 

In my mind I dedicate the lights in the studio to Alberto and to all those who have died in this terrible pandemic, to those who could not be with their loved ones. May the light shine on you all.

Work in Progress

This is early stages of work in progress, one of 3. I just like to get something on a canvas I’m almost indifferent to it until this point, when it becomes a discussion/conversation we start a relationship and it becomes interesting to me. I don’t know where it will go but to date I’ve rarely been disappointed.


Broken Banks – A Story

I’m not sure if this is a story, perhaps it is, and perhaps it isn’t.

Whatever it is, I am the narrator. I’m old now. Maybe not as old as I will get, although I hope I have long  enough to do a few more things I want to do, but not long enough that I am not able to shower myself or go to the toilet alone. Perish the thought.

I view some of the following with hindsight. I am an expert ‘hindsightist’, it’s good to be an expert in something. I have no intention of telling you my name or that of my husband, it isn’t necessary.

My childhood was a lonely affair, not obvious to anyone looking in from outside but lonely nevertheless. There was trauma in it, but enough of that.

I married just after it was legally permissible to marry, to a man four years older than me who I loved. I stayed married to him for well over fifty years until he died. We were so young when we married and so many stories are contained in that marriage. Even so like my childhood this is not about our marriage.

I guess it is about our life with the Bank, or maybe not.

We each opened a bank account with a well-known National Bank. The building the Bank was housed in was old with a beautiful stained glass domed roof. It was still a fairly Victorian looking setup inside the Bank in those days. You chose a queue you hoped would move quickly, then spent what seemed like forever watching as the other queues moved faster than yours.

The simple but brilliant idea of everyone being in one queue before branching out to the first available Cashier when you got to the front of the queue hadn’t yet been thought of or if it had been thought of it hadn’t been implemented. I wish I had thought of that idea, we see it everywhere now, airports, railways, large stores, and I imagine most young people have no idea of the unfairness being in separate queues felt like, the frustration would get more intense as the time ticked away and you were meant to be someplace else. Although I suppose young people do have an idea because oddly supermarkets don’t seem to have got their heads around that idea, but I should not digress.

My husband didn’t like the idea of a joint bank accounts, we both had separate accounts, after we opened our first accounts with the Bank we chose to use through most of our married life. We were of a generation that stayed loyal to some of the institutions we used, we didn’t question enough or we were too cynical to think the alternatives were any different.

It was easy to open an account in those days, you didn’t need details like you do now, passports, utility letters and whatnot, sometimes I wonder if they are going to ask for an inside leg measurement.  Over the years when we sold and purchased another house, we had spent blood sweat and tears renovating, we didn’t have to explain why money went into our accounts or came out even more quickly.

Don’t get me going on the subject of money laundering, such rules only seem to apply to the little people, the rich and powerful still seem to know how to hide money. The only money we ever laundered was the inadvertent bank note left in the pockets of our jeans when they were washed!

We were just ordinary people with a small income and a mortgage.

In those early years we would be greeted once we got to the Cashier, it would be polite and the transaction would be completed quickly enough.

We had ambition, my husband was a hard worker, me too. We did things to improve our lot, and we wanted a better life for our children as they came along. We found ourselves asking the bank for loans for the business’s we started. Scary when I look back, our ambition was matched by our hard work but perhaps not by our knowledge. However we learnt and learnt fast, but the point is the bank took a chance on us and never lost out because of it.

There were struggles, lots of them, but we overcame. Over the years we were recognized when we went into the Bank, staff would nod hello long before we got to the cashier. We knew the bank manager by name and he knew ours. We spent time in the Manager’s office telling him what we hoped to achieve next. We would also be ‘called’ into his office when things sometimes looked precarious, but he and the Bank stuck by us.

We survived the 1970’s three day week when political and industrial trouble meant there was only power for our restaurant to open for the three consecutive days.

In time the bank moved the Manager on to another branch, we were told they didn’t like to keep managers in one place for too long. He was replaced by another manager, we formed a trust relationship with him.

The bank had an overhaul, an update that made the most of its quite fine interior.

We had a new project and didn’t even have to go into the bank, a phone call to the manager secured the funds we needed.

The bank had a complete overhaul, a fundamental change. It was made swish like the warehouses in Docklands that became smart expensive apartments. My husband and I didn’t like it much, it deliberately took away the intimacy, the privacy and made the building more important than the people who used it.

The Manager retired and was not replaced. Trust left the bank with the last Manager. Very quickly only one or two of the longer serving staff, cashiers or ‘representatives’ recognized us when we went in. It made us feel as if we were quickly being erased, and made to feel invisible.

The bank had another refit, this time removing even more cashier points, they wanted people to use internet banking so made it more difficult to continue using the bank itself.

We got so that we hated the bank, hated the impersonal manner of it, hated that it seemed to make automatons of us all both staff and customers.

I am a widow.  I receive a phone call on the landline.  I usually do not answer unless I want to bait a cold caller, although even that isn’t fun anymore. It’s no good trying to bait a robo-call. Even so I’m near the phone when it rings so I answer warily. Someone asks for me by name. They identify as being from the bank.

‘How are you doing during lockdown, we just wanted to make sure our vulnerable customers are OK’

I think to myself ‘How do you identify me as being vulnerable?  Then I realise I’m in that classification willy-nilly because I am over 70. I am amazed, I reply ‘yes I’m fine thank you.’

So ridiculous, I’m not fine.

There is a virus killing thousands and to stay safe from catching it I am in a ‘Lockdown’ decreed by a Government that does not seem to have a clue. Or it does have a clue, it also seems to have an agenda that I suddenly realise is much the same as the banks, it wants to impersonalise people.

I listen as the bank employee tells me there is a dedicated bank phone number for the vulnerable, ‘would you like to take down the number?’

I resist saying what I want to say which is, ‘No I bloody well don’t want to take down the number’, and instead reply with a polite. ‘ No thank you’.

Then comes what I understand to be the real reason for the call, ‘As you may know we are now allowed to open to the public for business However we are limiting the number of people who may come into the bank at any time, for their safety and for the safety of the staff. Did you need to come into the bank?’  I resist the urge to say I mostly use a different bank and just reply ‘No I don’t’. I sense some relief from the caller and the conversation ends politely.

I do not feel animosity towards the pleasant person who made the call on the Bank’s behalf. I do however, find animosity is growing in me like a balloon being inflated. It is toward a bank that has and is part of a cultural institution that seeks to make people less than human. Profit before all.

Anger is an emotion I’m getting used to these days, I’m angry that there is so much to be angry about.

I could bury my head in the sand, that might help but I cannot, I will not.

I see.

I see what is happening, with Government pushing ahead with an agenda that only benefits those who’s view of life is that for some to ‘win’ someone must ‘lose’.

Someone must become invisible and I think of the Bank. How it came around to being such a dehumanized institution. I am not naïve enough to think the banks were anything other than money making institutions, so I wonder why I felt at some point there was at least some humanity in there.

I watch the Government’s daily briefings, but for only a few minutes. I can only take a certain amount of each new deceit and conceit.  Other news channels are searched through in my attempt to be ‘fair’.

I still want to throw a shoe at the TV.

Then the images of a black man in America being killed by a policeman shocks me as well as the rest of the world. Police brutality is a catalyst for protests around the world. Racism overtakes the virus in the news.

I’m scared for all those who risk catching the virus in order to protest, yet I see how there is nothing other than what they do and my heart is with them.

I used to push a baby in a pram to the park when I was a young girl. The baby’s mother was a nurse. Mother and baby were black.  I recall the disgusting comments I heard directed at me and this lovely little boy in a pram. My anger started boiling then and hasn’t stopped since.

My husband was from another country in Europe and I recall punching a guy to the floor when he with a mob of drunken men behind him attempted an attack on my husband. My husband was well able to defend himself, but that day the red mist came down and I reacted. I should not be proud of that moment but I cannot lie, I am and in the same circumstance would probably do the same again.

I loathe bulling behaviour, I loathe racists and I hate hate, so I am always in the middle of a dilemma with the hate thing. I’m not in the habit of punching yet it was a time when fast action was needed.

This morning I thought about the Bank, about how I felt and how my husband felt as the Bank made those changes which made us feel less human and more a number, a commodity.

I thought of how our society has allowed all of us to become dehumanized. I remembered seeing the film called ‘A time to Kill’. The film was based on the novel by John Grisham. In the closing argument of a courtroom scene, the defendant’s lawyer describes the terrible things done to the ten year old daughter of the black man who is on trial for killing her attackers.  The lawyer takes the all-white Jury through all this and finally asks them, “now imagine she’s white.’

I am almost scared to think it about it or to speak up here in case I offend. Not offend the Bank, I care less about the Bank than it cares for me. I do care about my fellow humans, I cannot speak for them for I do not have their experiences, any more than they can speak for me for the same reason.

Yet I cannot do nothing, so I try to imagine how much more alienated both my husband and I would have felt if we had been black.  Would the Bank have taken the same chances they did with us if we had been black?

I cannot prove that it would have been different, yet I feel in my bones the answer to my own question.

It is a painful knowing but not as painful as it must feel for those who experience it.

Double standards exist and when the best of those double standards is already low something is badly wrong.

We have broken banks.

Linda Sgoluppi

The Bum Box – A Story

Alberto’s Box. This is a small wooden box. It is locked.

That’s how I began my Facebook status update in early March 2020.  I included a picture of a wooden box, then I went on:

The box was made by my late husband when he was a schoolboy. It was his private box where he would keep things he didn’t want to lose. I’ve seen inside it in the past, he would sometimes pull things out to show me. He also kept his passport in there until his memory started to go with the dementia he suffered with. The box hasn’t been opened for at least four years, if not longer, and has been near my bed since hub’s death over two years ago.

The box is the last thing for me to go through. I haven’t been ready to do it.

I thought I had the key but the key I thought belonged to the box will not turn and I am not sure it is the correct key. I don’t know if the key is just stiff, or if it’s just the wrong key. I don’t want to break the lock or the box so have to figure out a way to get it open.

In the early years of Alberto’s illness, it seemed bizarre that Facebook had become part of my personal support system. I shared some fairly intimate things as my life tumbled into its role as his Carer. Carer in those circumstances was something I felt unqualified for, didn’t want and was scared of. Hobson’s choice hardly covered the way I felt about it.

By Diagnosis-Day the Dementia journey with Alberto was already an odyssey in progress. Progress made horribly real as the Doctor presented the result of tests when the stark sound of its name assaulted our ears. I was never sure if Alberto understood the words that day, simple words that left unsaid the fact he would descend deep into an obliteration of self that is the main characteristic of the disease. Only one of us would be left behind.

FB was my tether, odd maybe but it helped me stay grounded. It tethered me to a new normal. It functioned as constraint, no plummet for me when the abyss yawned its occasional invitation to me. Who knew? Facebook as a safety harness, a substitute connection for the lifetime one I was losing daily to this cruellest of diseases.

After the March FB status update I set aside all thoughts of the box. Setting it aside wasn’t a challenge given I’d lived with both the idea and fact of it excluding me for so long. That was until, a few weeks later, when I discovered a bunch of keys at the top of a previously little used kitchen cupboard. There among the many keys on Alberto’s key ring lay the small key that would open the Box.

People often scan through updates on Facebook without noting details or if they do will quickly consign the detail to their personal ‘no need to keep’ filter. I do not assume people have read my posts and try to make each status update autonomous.  Therefore the second update about the box, in mid-April repeated and expanded on the first:

I met Alberto two weeks after my 13th birthday. We were married two weeks after my 16th birthday. Alberto was five years older than I but still so young.

While he was still at school Alberto made a wooden box. He kept his passport and other stuff in it, I always thought of it as his treasure box. The box had a key and was locked.

In time we decided I would keep the passports together so his passport was no longer in the box. In fact I know that in the box were some nude photos of me but Alberto had agreed with me that they should be destroyed after I pointed out to him that if we both died in an accident our sons would be opening the box and that is not an image you want your sons to see! (Even if I did look rather good!). Other than that I did not know what was or is in the box.

I know there will be nothing in the box that he or I would be ashamed of, Alberto was a totally honourable man, so in a way I suspect there will be a few sentimental items and maybe even some fairly boring paperwork.

For more than four years for sure I know that the box has not been opened, I know this because Alberto had Alzheimer’s and neither he nor I knew where the key to the box had gone. We had moved house and that is a great time to lose track of where things might be.

We were married for 54 years. I was his carer for the last of those years. Alberto died two years ago in January 2018, by then finding the key to his box wasn’t something he thought about.

The box has remained locked. I’ve thought about getting a locksmith to try to open it but balked at that. I did not want someone else to open it. So I decided the box would remain locked until I found the key and if I didn’t find it then it would remain locked.

By chance this week, I found a bunch of keys belonging to Alberto and instantly recognised the small key that fits the box.

I haven’t opened the box.

I know I will at some time but not until I am ready.

There were replies to this post from close friends, Facebook friends and relatives, all were kind, some deep and some that made me laugh out loud.

Childhood friend:  ’….so that epistle was just teasing?’

And again ‘…Just a suspense thriller right?

FB friend: ‘…I need box closure! 🙂

The childhood friend from above: ‘…Me too.

A fellow artist I’d met at the 2004 Olympic Art Exhibition in Athens wrote: ‘…An archive most valuable and deeply personal signifies deep bonds of love between each other Furthermore the box seems to have been made in a woodwork class note dovetail joints:

My reply was: ‘…It was indeed made in a woodwork class at school. He got an A for it, I recall he was very proud of that A. Alberto was a ‘can do’ guy, there was nothing he wouldn’t put his hand to (with me along as goffer). We did things that now, when I look back, I’m surprised we managed not to kill ourselves, but it was fun and satisfying. In a way the only thing was that Alberto worked too much, was never happy unless he was doing something.

From one of my sons: ‘…:Not right now, but when I’m out of isolation, if you want someone there when you’re ready to open it up, then Mum, you know I’m always here / there, for you !! Xxxxxx

A niece:   ‘…I’m sorry the only thing I got out of that was nude photos, you cheeky devil xxx

My response to my niece: ‘…Behave! Just remember before we were parents, grandparents and great-grandparents we were people!

Back to childhood friend: ‘… You get us all excited and then decide not to open it? Cruelty to the max.’

My reply accompanied by three laughing emoji’s was:  ‘…I never said I would tell anyone what was inside!!!

From another childhood friend ‘…..Ha us Borough girls all have risqué photos we wouldn’t want our kids to see. Shows how much passion our relationships embraced. Now Miss Marple if that was me I would have had that opened a long time ago… but it’s your choice ….don’t keep us waiting too long girl xx’

This particular friend’s reference to ‘Borough’ was to the place where we were born, a central area of town that had its heart ripped out in the 1960’s. Until then the neighbourhood produced some strong and sometimes odd characters. One, a well-known comic-book writer. However, all that is a different story. I will not digress.

Alberto might have made the box with wheels on if he had known how mobile it would become. The Box roamed from room to room during our many house renovations. It was something to stand on for extra height, or served as the stool I would park myself on while waiting instructions to lift my end of this or that joist. For a stool it had barely the bum space of the narrowest of economy airline seats, but made up for that by being as tall as a barley stalk bent in a summer breeze in our favourite field. Just the right height to perch on it served the sitting function well enough. Alberto laughed the first time I called it the Bum Box while we searched for and found it under a pile of plaster boards. The Bum Box was made of pinewood, dovetailed joints held it together, the lid hinged and only open when unlocked. There is a small keyhole at the front.

By the time Alberto died the Box’s exterior was a little battered, pretty much like we were by life. As I plonked it onto my bed to take its Facebook photograph, I mused that it was 64 years old, I’m sure I heard the echo of the Beatles singing: ‘Will you still need me, will you still feed me when I’m sixty-four?’ I’m not sure I will if and when I open it. A year and a bit into widowhood I considered giving it an overhaul, a sand and re-varnish would make it look like new. But no, each scuff, each scratch, and each dent is its history, as much a part of the Box as the dovetails Alberto made all those years ago.

Replies to my Facebook posts are kind, some are funny, and they make me laugh just as they would have made Alberto laugh. I live close to the churchyard where Alberto is buried and can see his grave from my kitchen window so I do not have to speak loudly for him to hear.

In my mind, and I suspect in the minds of the many others Alberto cooked for, Kitchen and Alberto paired together like Salt and Pepper or Peaches and Cream. Alberto cooked. His career was in catering management, but even with no formal chef training he was a great cook.

I cook but do not enjoy it that much, so now when I’m in the kitchen I’ll sometimes look across to where he lies in the earth and call across to him and ask: ‘Why aren’t you here doing the blasted cooking?’ I say to him, ‘I would love chicken stuffed with mozzarella, wrapped in prosciutto, topped with parmesan cheese; you know I can make it but, it just doesn’t come out the same as when you did it’.

Alberto cannot hear me, he died. He didn’t pass (that particular euphemism always makes me think of a car overtaking another.). He died, he died before dawn, life left him while I was holding his hand and singing an Italian lullaby to him, the lullaby Connie Francis sang in the film, Follow the Boys, we had both loved that film way back when.

Even though Alberto died I still relay news to him and in my head, hear his response. I tell him that there is a short story competition I’m thinking of entering, I add that the competition has different categories and is only for the over seventies. Wryly, I comment to him that it is probably a last chance saloon given there is no vaccine for a virus called Covid19. Oldies are dropping like flies and who knows, I might be in the next batch. I hear him chuckle just as wryly as I had, then he says go for it anyway. Many years ago Alberto encouraged me to apply for a prestigious award in my new career as a painter, I feel he is encouraging me in a similar way now, although this is not to be a new career. ‘So’, I ask, ‘are you ok with me writing about your Box?’

I ask him if he remembers the nude photos he’d taken of me and kept safely stored under lock and key in the box. I knew he had enjoyed looking at them, especially while I was away doing a Fine Art Master’s degree in Spain. Later when we got older, we talked about how we wouldn’t want our boys to come across those photos if we were to both die in a car accident, or something equally catastrophic, so we burnt them in a little ceremony that saw the end of some of our youthfulness.

We didn’t die in an accident. I heard him say you ‘were so beautiful and there were times I’d wished they were still in the box.’ Alberto always told me I was beautiful. I asked him, ‘What’s in the box now?’  He didn’t reply.

This all sounds somewhat romantic. Perhaps it is, perhaps it isn’t.

It is a dilemma, the Box was, and is Alberto’s secret place, the one place he could keep his treasures, his secrets, if he had any. Do I have the moral right to open it? Does death negate the right to privacy? I think about Franz Kafka wanting his writing destroyed at his death, and think to myself as many others have, thank goodness that instruction was ignored. However I know that Alberto was not a Kafka, he was, like me, an ordinary person.

I knew about Alberto’s first love, he told me about her, he told me she had become pregnant by someone else but he loved her and still wanted to marry her. He told me all this before we married, he told me about his ups and downs, his history. He was brought to England as a young boy of eleven. He told me how he didn’t want to leave Italy but had no choice. With those exchanges over the years almost by osmosis, his history became mine and mine, his.

We were passionate, how could it have not been? Each with a strong character, forged through respective difficult childhoods that made us both tough and determined to make things better. As a team we were what the French would call, ‘Formidable’. It was impossible for those strong characters to have gone through so many years together without mountains to climb. We climbed our mountains, stood on peaks and enjoyed the views.

In between owning and running his own businesses Alberto was General Manager of a National catering company with its head Office in Oxford. He always wanted my company and I would often go with him. When he was in meetings I would go and visit the Ashmolean or Pitt Rivers Museums. Often on these Oxford bound sunny days I’d catch a gleam in Alberto’s eye and answer with one of my own. The car would be tucked in at the edge of a wood, we’d steal into dappled greenery and make passionate, almost illicit, love. If I wanted to I could plot meadow, mountain, hill or valley locations in the UK as well as in Alberto’s native Tuscany, in Italy, where nature and the sunshine brought out our physical passion. Each location was kindred to our mountain peaks. I do not want to.

In the early stages of Alberto’s illness when it was still safe to leave him alone for a few hours, I would find different locations in the countryside to sit and draw I would be out in the countryside for as long as it took to do a drawing and to attempt to pull together the wounds in each and every one of my cells that hurt with the fear of what was happening to Alberto. Later I painted a series of paintings based on those locations. The paintings were not my usual abstracts, they were landscapes with painted coordinates of their origins, location as part of the painted surface.

I named those landscape paintings ‘Call of Nature’ mainly for my own amusement as reference to where I had needed to pee. My humour was an element of physic self-defence that would keep crept in, plus I never could break the habit of having a cuppa before I went out. Often it amuses me to play with titles for paintings. I know I could paint a series with the locations of where Alberto and I made love under the sky, our mountain peaks. It would certainly be a large number of paintings. I won’t, though. In this case I don’t think I could come up with a good enough title for them. The call of nature paintings may have to stand as monument to our loving passions.

My countryside outings came to an abrupt stop after I got home one day to discover the smoke-alarm wailing. Alberto sitting in the sitting room commented that the alarm was faulty, which was a new one on me. I checked the kitchen and just managed to get the fire that was taking hold under control before it would have been necessary to call the fire brigade. Alberto had decided to repair a countertop edging, had lit the gas hob, put the new edging near the even heat to soften it then apparently distracted, forgotten about it. It caught fire and spread to other surfaces. I knew after that we would never again reach mountain summits, we wouldn’t even be able to try for the foothills.

The key to the box is on Alberto’s keyring, as mentioned in my Facebook update it had been at the top of a kitchen cupboard. It was in a plastic container right at the back of the shelf, unlikely to have been found if the shelf had not been pressed into service to stash packets of crisps brought as my guilty secret lockdown horde.  A crisp craving led to a desperate search of the shelf which produced one lonely packet of sea salt crisps and one set of lost keys.

Finding the keys reminded me of the enormous number of keys Alberto always managed to accumulate, He could have been called a Chatelaine but Alberto was a man in such a way that I could not attach a word that refers to a female keeper of keys, no wonder JK Rowling used ‘Keeper of the Keys’ for Hogwarts.

This small old fashioned key seems to have Siren qualities, I resist .Another day, perhaps, or maybe another day is a luxury in these strange times.

It is Sunday morning and the time has come. The key doesn’t seem to have released the lid, but it has turned so I give the Box a thump, push up on the lid, and it opens. I see a carbon copy book Alberto used to hand write letters in, he never did get his head around computers. I lift the carbon book out and see below letters I sent to him from Spain, there are other things in the Box but suddenly I just cannot face it. I shut the lid quickly. It is too painful to go through today, it may be too painful to go through tomorrow. I cannot read the letters, letters penned by me to Alberto.

Our relationship was passionate, at times it was also painful, I just cannot re-visit it now. I don’t remember what we were writing about in those letters, it might have been pedestrian, loving or just too painful. In the end love.is such that I cared for this man I’d spent a lifetime with through to the illness when black humour was the only thing that kept me sane. At the end I was alone with him, held his hand in the moment and beyond of his death. Perhaps the Box needs to stay locked.

Many years ago we would go to watch the wind ripple through a Barley field off the canal towpath at the edge of our village. Good years, the weather would be kind and the barley would sway and not bend, other years the wind would be stronger and some stalks would buckle. Alberto’s eyes light up to see the barley wave at us the last time we stood together at the edge of that field. His memories had been erased by the disease yet I tried to imagine there was still something that remained, the essence of a memory that resisted its death. I thought of the times when things were good, when we might have traced the outline of each other’s face with an ear of barley, tickled nose and chin and laughed. This time Alberto soon became agitated and wanted to go. Irritation hits me first, then deep sadness that I am the only one left as keeper of our memories. It wasn’t the wind or pollen that stung my eyes as we made our way home.

Sunday Night, I note the sky is crystal clear, grab a blanket and settle outside to watch the stars. The Lyrid meteor shower comes around in April each year. I tell Alberto I hope to see some meteors, maybe pretend they are falling stars to make wishes on. Less prosaically I add, ‘it’s a bit chilly out here’ and hear him answer me in that wry way he has, ‘Not as chilly as down here! I chuckle through my tears. Stars become brighter as artificial lights are extinguished.

I had been so fearful through Alberto’s illness, his death, fears for my family, my aloneness.  Now fear stalks me in a new form, its cause a worldwide pandemic I had not imagined. My thoughts shift to the mantra I’d borrowed, ‘This too, will pass’.  For a few seconds the abyss beckons, but morphs into the long slow sigh that escapes from deep in my chest.

Earth might have drawn in a surprised and deep breath of air as we humans were locked down, now she releases it in the soft disbelief of a bequest the scourge on humanity has given her. I think of Alberto’s box, the Bum Box, it stays locked.

Albertos box - Linda Sgoluppi

The Artist, the Virus, and the Face in the Painting. A Story

A face, no head and no body, not dismembered, just never ‘membered’. Furrowed and streaked with what looked like placenta gunk, this birth fluid was paint running down a canvas. Features emerged as a quirk of the anarchic painting process, an aberration, brazenly marooned in what was planned to be a non-figurative abstract painting. The face stood its ground, refused to be dismissed. ‘Stay there then, take your chances and good luck to you!’  Cassandra knew the painting’s evolutionary process would sort it out. She always observed paint’s behaviour, it was part of a lifetime’s research project. Still talking to the canvas, ‘You just never quite know what will happen. OK, you ‘Entity’, a question, will your features survive? Or will paint suck you back into the gloopy world you escaped from? A toss-up, remain or not remain? Who knows? For sure, I won’t, until it’s finished.

‘Painting! She muttered as she monitored her own thoughts. ‘I wonder if ‘membered’ is actually a word? I don’t think it is, so how can you ‘dis’ it?

Odd things happen when you make a painting!’ Cass looked back over years of trial and error, the precise whip of arm and flick of wrist she’d perfected to make sure paint left the brush in just the right way. ‘It might look chaotic but it’s a sort of a predetermined chaos’, she told no one. ‘That trajectory to the canvas is like an Olympic Sport! It’s controlled, yet results in an inert presence that takes weeks, if not months, to grabble into something I feel has a life of its own. It is a conversation with paint that often gets me hot under the….

A woman’s loud voice ruptured the quiet. ‘From Amazon Shopping, a shipment including panty-liners is due to arrive today.’

Cass almost jumped out of her skin, ‘Oh shut up Alexa’ she yelled across the studio. ‘I must mute those notifications’, she muttered to herself. ‘I talk to myself in peace knowing I‘m alone then that hussy pipes up!

Oh well, probably time for a cup of tea and some painkillers anyway. Huh, I remember when the only thing to go with my cuppa was a biscuit’.

Cass often tried to figure out what was good about getting old. She chuckled through classic sitcoms of The Golden Girls, the newer Grace and Frankie and managed to identify just a bit too closely with some of the comic situations.

Cass’s sense of the ridiculous had sometimes irritated her mother. Cass caught echoes of her late mother’s voice, ‘Cassandra, you have a tendency towards flippancy. You need to take some things a lot more seriously!’

Cass thought back to her early years and the struggle to gather together selfhood. The awful sense of dissonance as her body morphed into a conjugation with her mind. Cass wondered if the two had ever really made it. Either her body had gone off at a tangent or her consciousness had. Cass still wasn’t sure either had ever really belonged to her. She sensed a component was missing, perhaps still flying about somewhere in the Universe calling for what it had not found.

Too young to verbalise those feelings, Cass chose to examine her name instead. She speculated about naming people before or shortly after they were born. ‘Do people grow into their names or do their names grow into them?’ Cass read that many Native American Tribes had traditions of new names through life, especially at adolescence. Descriptive names that reflected experiences or dominant characteristics. Mentally Cass renamed two adolescents she knew: ‘Joy in the morning’, and ‘Will always be a dickhead.’ ‘I guess he’d be called ‘Will’ which is probably unfair to the Williams out there.’

Her schoolteacher asked Cass to name a favourite poem after Cass read TS Eliot’s ‘The Wasteland’ out loud to the class. Disappointment had flitted across the tutor’s face when Cass had chosen Eliot’s ‘The Naming of Cats’.

Cass thought her teacher had hoped for a more sophisticated choice, had known instantly her choice meant a B grade not the A she had been on track for. Cass felt her teacher did not understand the depth of perception shown in ‘The Naming of Cats’. Besides anything else, Cass didn’t give a toss about her grades. Her mother did.

Cass wondered if her mother had given the name Cassandra much thought, or just liked the opportunity to have three ways to beckon her daughter. ‘Cass’ was the everyday call, followed by ‘Cassie’ in a louder tone if the response wasn’t quick enough. A sharp ‘Cassandra’ would tell Cass she had fallen foul of her Mother, or she had to meet someone she would rather not. If the latter, most times Cass preferred to be in trouble for one of her many misdemeanours. Her mother had always deflected the name question, even when Cass was grown, until it was too late for an answer.

Once she could read, Cass looked the name up. She loved the Public Library, spent hours there. She’d often slip into the grown-ups only section and stay hidden among the hallowed tomes. Cass wasn’t sure it wasn’t more harrowed than hallowed when she learned about human nature through stories like Hemmingway’s, The Old Man and the Fish’.

In those days ‘Silence’ was the rule, any chat would be severely frowned on. Cass loved that rule. Her mother was content for Cass to be at the Library, it freed her to give her client’s ‘readings’ or ‘sightings’ of their future.

Cass learned her namesake was a priestess of Apollo from Greek mythology. Struck by her beauty Apollo gave her the gift of prophecy. Even as a child Cass had wondered why anyone would think of prophecy as a gift. The second part of the myth made more sense to Cass when she was a grown-up. Greek Cassandra, having refused Apollo’s ‘romantic’ advances had been cursed to never having her warnings believed. ‘Typical, some low-life masquerades as a god to sexually harass and manipulate a woman. ‘Do this in exchange for a ‘favour’ if not I’ll put a curse on you.’ Between him and another god who shape-shifted into a swan to seduce Leda, they’re all a lot of tricky sods!’

Cass never knew if her name was a carefully considered choice, or not. She suspected the former given her mother’s claims of being ‘psychic’. Cass’s recollection of curious examples of her Mother’s ‘Second Sight’ were coloured by the fact her mother owned a Ouija Board and ‘Read’ tea leaves.

Her Mother’s hints about Cass’s inherited ‘gift’ got short shrift. Cass thought it was a load of old guff. Although to be fair there were curious occasions in her own life that could not be explained.

Cass’s thoughts returned to tea, ‘Might as well be in the house, painkillers are there anyway, plus, I’m not happy with the electric sockets in the studio. One of these days the electrics will get the final fix and won’t be hanging off the wall, safer to plug a kettle in!’

Transition from studio to house was a peculiar one, only across the garden, the direction she was faced demanded a mental reboot. Cass thought of the metaphysical nature of a path, a two way passage. With her back to the house, the studio beckoned with all it meant to her. With her back to the studio toward the house… Cass couldn’t complete the thought.

25 years before Cass was filmed for an Art News programme. A whole day’s footage concertinaed into less than a two minute broadcast. She remembered the interviewer and crew, a fun experience until they asked her to paint while they filmed. For Cass, painting was a solitary affair. The crew had been kind so she overcame her panic and started painting then soon became so engrossed in the process the film crew seemed to fade away. After getting the footage the interviewer said it had been uncanny as Cass had seemed to change personality in front of their eyes. The cameraman had totally concurred with that.

Cass occasionally thought about the film crew’s comments when she dropped out of paint-mode. ‘Definitely altered states, I guess the ‘hike’ from my studio to the house is a metaphor for that. I prefer the feel of the studio to the house, I prefer the feel of painting to not painting.’

While the studio was new and a contemporary design worked out with her Architect, the existing house was a bog standard early 70’s design. Developers had totally ignored the benefits of one of the finest village locations and built a standard nationwide layout plan. It never failed to irritate Cass the house windows ignored the best views across the old Glebe field to the 800 year old Church.

The move to the house had been three years before from her much loved home on the edge of the village. At least the downsize freed her of accumulated baggage. Soon after, the rent on her studio in the next village was trebled by new owners, a Property Development Company. The rent was too high for Cass.

The new home was close to the centre of the village. The road was a long cul-de-sac, with a footpath off to fields and Millennium Green. Cass got directions to it off pat, after she realised it had somehow fallen off Google Maps mapping process. It showed on the satellite images but did not marry up with an address or post code. ‘Off the High Street down a no-through road, last house bottom right.’

The south-west garden was a flipped L shape on two sides of the house, the garden on the stem of the L bordered the village brook. At night, headlights picked out garden, brook bank, and Millennium Green beyond. The Developers had not been able to fit another house on the plot because the water culvert crossed the plot at an angle. It emptied into the brook. Culvert pipes required a statutory distance be maintained from any building, so the extra space became garden. When Cass talked about her studio in the garden she knew that those who didn’t know its orientation tended to have a mental image of it being in the backyard of a typical house of its type, whereas it was actually at the front positioned in the curve of the Cul-de-sac.

Cass had felt a tear escape, ‘Damn Property Developer Company, greedy sods. I’ve got all this studio stuff to pack, move and store. I hate having to get out, this has been my all-time favourite studio. I need somewhere to work! With the situation and calls on my time it has to be at home, but not under the same roof’

It was past and Cass would not let her mind dwell on those sad times. There had been pain before, pain during, and pain after, it was a chapter in her life she preferred to let sleep.

Cass planned to alter the interior layout and add an extension to her new home and hopefully to make the most of its location. Battling through the planning process had proved stressful and far too expensive. Permissions were all in place but it was unlikely the house part would go ahead. A pity, she thought, the house would have been the light and airy equivalent of the new studio.

Tragedy had halted the project when only the studio was part complete. It had been a struggle to get even that to a stage to use. Still not finished, it was a matter of needs must when the storage facility with her studio contents was sold and vacant possession required. Cass found it stressful to have every single aspect of her life turned upside down.

If the project had been completed, studio and house would have formed a coherent whole, now the studio was a stranded oddity, but still a wonderful space to be in.

‘At least I have the studio, useful now ‘lock-down’ is a normal state. Typical, just as I start to emerge from my own crisis, a world-wide one sneaks up and takes over! My mantra, ‘This too will pass’, probably needs to change, it has an implied ‘pass to something better’ but that not always the case! The Grim Reaper is sure on a roll, busy scything away at humanity, snuck himself in under guise of Covid19! Response by authorities has been so darned varied! Some have handled the crisis far better than others, sadly we are not in the better category! Still one good thing, the world has become quiet now the main instruction globally is to stay home. I’ve stayed home and gone to work in the studio.’

With the bi-fold doors left open the studio seemed to follow Cass outside as she started towards her tea and painkillers. She stopped to watch ducks paddling upstream of the brook. The brook separated her garden from the old Glebe Field, now parkland for public use.

Cass enjoyed the ducks, their ungainliness amused her as did their eye-to-the-main-chance. ‘Sorry guys, no titbits for you’, she informed them. Cass’s eyes fixed on the water which sparkled with filtered sunlight, a definite babble seemed to get louder while other sounds faded. Cass wasn’t aware her pain and the brightness had fallen away. It seemed dark, not late night dark, gloaming dark. It didn’t register with Cass the ducks had gone, all she could see in the darkness was the strange sight of what looked decidedly like a pair of flashing dildos floating in the current. Cass wasn’t even astonished, then sound flooded her consciousness, suddenly she was back with the ducks and pain. ‘Cass you need that cuppa, and the meds,’ she told herself as she stumbled back in bright sunlight to the kitchen door. ‘How totally bizarre was that!’ she thought as she knocked back tablets with a mouthful of tea.

The doorbell rang, it was the panty-liner delivery. Social distance rules observed, the cheery delivery man left the package on the outside bench. ‘I’ll fetch it in later, unwrap it, dispose of the wrapping and be sure to wash my hands while singing a full version of Happy Birthday. Well maybe not, I prefer James Bay’s ‘Hold back the River’ chorus for my hand-washing timer!

At least the facemasks made by her old friend had their liners. Cass grinned, ‘if Kate heard me say ‘old’ friend I’d sure get it in the neck!’  Kate had passed on the idea about panty-liners for inside facemasks, they mopped up breath vapour and added a second barrier against Covid19. Her glasses always steamed up if she wore a facemask, the panty-liner idea might sort that. Cass knew that with Asthma it wasn’t good to wear a mask for too long. ‘Basically you just can’t win’, she told herself.

Shortage of facemasks and other Personal Protection Equipment (PPI) for front-line health workers had left them at terrible risk. PPI had become a scandal that that provided plenty of fodder for the Media.

Impossible to get facemasks, Kate had offered to make some from exotic fabrics she had inherited. With so many trying to make up the shortfall in masks, elastic, or lack thereof, had held things up.

With a second tea poured from her mother’s brown teapot, Cass let her mind dwell on the current situation.

‘If it’s true that everything happens faster in a crisis, I think 300,000 dead around the globe can be classified as a crisis. For sure it’s an imperative to find a way to stop the virus. Too many dead, above all we need a vaccine, the Holy Grail of our times.’

The news talked about laboratories being in research overdrive. It was claimed there was cooperation between Companies and Countries around the world. Cass was a natural cynic and didn’t think much of that claim. It appeared unlikely a vaccine would be developed quickly enough to allow the world to go back to some semblance of normal any time soon, so ‘Track and Trace’ phone Apps became the main focus of attention.

Tracing Apps helped locate anyone an infected person might have been in contact with and warn them and others they may have infected. Off the English South Coast on the Isle of White, a British ‘Test, Track and Trace App’ was trialled. The App was mired in a political quagmire because of data and privacy issues. While Tracing Apps might find anyone who had been in contact with the disease, it would require an army of tracers to follow up. So far it hadn’t gone well.

Cass wondered how Josh was doing. She thought back to their chance meeting at the complex where he worked. They had pretty much lost touch so were pleasantly surprised to bump into each other. Josh wondered what on earth Cass was doing in that particular place especially as he knew some of its history.

Now a Technology Park, it had for years been a secret research facility, had served Britain well during WW11 when bombing made it prudent to move certain research out of London to the countryside. Josh didn’t know exactly when the facility was no longer secret but the complex had opened up as a Business Park around 2009 then subsequently been renamed as a Technological Park.

Cass had been invited by the Park’s Manager to look around the grounds at her leisure and maybe get something in the café, with the proviso to call in at the Managers Office when she was ready to leave. During her tour of the complex, Cass had been shown an ex-electronics workshop that might do as her new studio.

Cass and Josh only met because he had gone outside to eat a packed lunch in the sunshine. Cass, offered a cheese sandwich, was happy to join him and catch up on each other and mutual friends.

Cass knew Josh was in IT so it was less a surprise to her than him when they bumped into each other. Both were pleased to resurrect the old platonic friendship. Cass told Josh about the studio, adding that while she had told the manager she would think about it, it wasn’t suitable. ‘I become claustrophobic if a space has no windows or views, the only natural light is from roof-lights. I’d get depressed by being so closed in, a pity as this setting is beautiful.’

Josh said ‘No windows probably because it was a secret facility at one time.’

Conversation reached a natural break, Cass turned her attention back to the maze of buildings. ‘What’s the large ‘sealed room’ in the middle? I saw people in there wearing hazmat suits and wondered what they were working on? I asked the site Manager, but only had a vague answer before she told me access to the studio was via a different, but direct door.’

Josh replied, ‘It is funny because there’s nothing ‘secret’ in there, it is supposed to be uber clean because of some electronic elements they work with. I know nothing more than that. I agree, it’s strange to see something like that in what is now just a glorified business park. It’s like an inner sanctum within the complex but what is more interesting is that there seems to be an inner, ‘inner-sanctum’ that has an airlock type door for people enter. No one talks about it but I did some heavy-duty overtime one night and noticed something when I left. The inner, less visible lab was undergoing a deep clean, I get the feeling it’s something they do fairly regularly.

They’ve let it be understood that what they do isn’t secret as such, but there is a matter of ‘Industrial Espionage’ for them to consider. They ask that people keep their distance. Not that you’d get in there easily even if you wanted to. Strange though, I overheard a conversation between the two staff, said something about making sure the ‘Chinese can’t reverse engineer ‘it’.’ I have no idea what ‘it’ was.

It’s a bit cloak and dagger, kind of funny really, if you consider I can hear conversations taking place in the passageway between the laboratory and me. There is a redundant old pipe, it works like a sound conduit, I can hear everything said as if they are next to me! Inner and outer Labs exit onto the passageway. The inner Lab guys take their cigarette breaks there. My main door is on the opposite side of the building to theirs, so I don’t think they even realise I’m there most of the time.

Lunchtime over, Cass and Josh parted with promises to keep in touch. Friendship renewed, they exchanged regular texts and often had longer chats. With lockdown there were more texts, just to check on each other. Josh had been able to continue to work at his workplace, as it was pretty much ‘social distanced’ anyway.

Sometime into Lockdown and concerned Josh might be too socially isolated, Cass called him.

Hi Josh, how’s ‘distancing’ going?’

‘I’m fine thanks, Cass, ‘I picnic lunch outside most days with Rob at a social distance and all that. He’s one of the people who works in the outer lab, the one you commented on when you viewed a studio. Rob loves maths and history as much as I do, we spend most lunchtimes discussing one, other, or both subjects.’

Cass, ‘I’m pleased to hear that Josh, keep in touch take care and stay safe.’

Life went on in the new ‘normal’ way.

The phone rang, it was Cass’s friend Sara

How she and Sara met Sara flashed through her mind. They both lived in the same village and had met in bizarre circumstances.

Sara was a Website Programmer, also a suburb Computer Hacker. Few people knew she was part of a hacker group of people who were mostly unknown to each other. The group fought a Guerrilla War against the dregs of society. Those who preyed on others and used the Dark Web as their place of business. Sara had explained some of the reasons it was known as the dark web. It was part of the internet not visible to search engines. It was used mostly for nefarious activities and some really horrible ones. Sara explained that Dark Web Guerrillas fought against those types, also against corrupt governments and regimes, ‘OUT’ed Global Corporations who flouted International Law, money laundered or generally damaged the environment. The hackers were taking the fight to heart of the Dark Web arena.

Cass grabbed her mug of tea and sat down to answer, ‘Hi Sara, good to hear from you, how are things?

‘Hi Cass, Hope you have time for a chat, just checking in with you, hope you aren’t up to anything I wouldn’t do!

‘Well that gives me plenty of latitude! Cass snorted. They both chuckled.

Cass said, ‘I was thinking about how we met. Sure was a strange malarkey, some story! I’m relieved to know someone like you is fighting on the side of right.’

‘Bless you, Cass. So, what are you doing?

‘Usual stuff, painting and what not. Buying a few bits on line.’

Sara, ‘Me too, buying that is, not painting. It’s pathetic really, for my relaxation away from the computer I’ve taken to perusing those ‘Everyday Solution’ type magazines that have everything for the house, garden, disabled and more. I seem to get a new magazine in the post every week, and I’ve bought a few quite pathetic things.

Cass chortled, ‘Ok, I’ll tell you my last pathetic purchase, and then you tell me yours! I spent £1.85 for four stickers with house number and street name on for my wheelie bins! My bins might go out more than I do, but they will be identified and sent home for breaking lockdown rules if they go too far!

After she finished laughing, Sara said, ‘Well, as it’s ‘fess’ up time I have to tell you that the magazines I mentioned have quite a range of things in them, hosepipes to tyre pumps, gadgets to peel eggs and other weird and wonderful stuff. However there has been an addition to their range in the last couple of weeks and I nearly spilled my coffee over the magazine when I saw it on the inside back page. It’s a remote control magenta coloured dildo….

Cass sputtered her tea as she burst out loud laughing, ‘OK, you won that one!

Sara was also laughing, ‘I haven’t finished yet,

Cass interrupted her, ‘No, too much information,’ and went back into peels of laugher.

Sara, ‘Stop it! I said I haven’t finished, it’s what is known as a ‘rabbit’, not only is it bright pink but it has a remote control, it changes colour, flashes, and vibrates of course!

Cass was in hysterics and had given up trying to drink her tea. ‘I’m NOT going to ask why you bought it…..’ Cass suddenly stopped laughing and noticed goose-bumps on her arms.

‘Cass? What’s the matter?

‘Nothing, I…

Cass’s phone buzzed showing call incoming, she saw it was Josh on WhatsApp, unusual time for Josh to call, ‘Sara I have a call I should answer, can I get back to you later?

Sara, ‘Of course Hon, take care.’

Josh rushed straight in, ‘Cass, I have to talk to you’.

‘I’m listening’, Cass replied.

‘No, I mean face to face. Please don’t ask questions, but I have to see you, I’m asking a lot but could you come somewhere near the complex? Not to it, I don’t want to be seen with anyone, but near enough so I’m not noticed. I take walks often so if I saunter off site it will only look like I’m just going for a stroll.

Cass, ‘It is risky because of lockdown, I shouldn’t really drive anywhere but if it’s as urgent as you are making it sound, then yes. How about near the farm lake, back of the woods. I can park off-road and make my way through the woods and you only have to cross the road from the complex to access a track to the lake. Will that work for you?  We keep apart though, as I’m not willing to take that risk, especially after all these weeks in Lockdown’.

‘Yes and yes’ Josh agreed, ‘I know exactly where you mean, I have walked there before. It is a good, private place’, Josh sounded strained. They arranged a time for the next day and Josh rang off. Cass felt anxious about him.

Cass often talked out loud to herself, ‘I don’t care if talking to yourself seems eccentric, so what! I might not dye my hair purple, but I quite like not being bothered what other people think of my eccentricities. Now that’s a benefit to getting old!

‘I’m worried about Josh, Cass spoke quietly to herself. I’ll have to park as unobtrusively as possible. I’ll take the sketchbook with the drawings I did two years ago in those woods. That enormous tree fungus was amazing. It’s a good job I didn’t date the sketches.

Enough of the out-loud talking to yourself woman, your ‘lock-down’ will be in a padded cell at this rate!’

Cass thought about the slightly eased lockdown rules. They allowed people to go for short drives to exercise in their own areas, as long as the exercise was for a longer time than the car journey. ‘Pfft, good luck with that’, Cass said out loud.

As cover for her return home, she would carry a large pharmacy bag from the car, Assumptions would be made that she had been to the doctor or the Pharmacy.

Going to the doctor’s surgery was a no-no as far as Cass was concerned, ‘Not likely if I can help it, not with that vicious virus about’, she thought. ‘These plans to meet with Josh are probably overkill but so what! Unlikely but if some officious busybody challenges me for being there instead of at home during lockdown, it’s a feasible excuse if this rendezvous turns out to be more than I bargain for!’

The next day was sunny.

I’m being followed, Josh said. I wasn’t sure until yesterday.’

‘Here we go again’, Cass whispered under her breath, thinking about events that brought her into contact with Sara and a group of others. Cass had been an unintended, if minor, participant in an operation related to covid19. It had put a spanner in the works of a malevolent programme cooked-up by a faction within Government.

Cass took in Josh’s expression, ‘What on earth is going on? You look terrible, I saw you coming but didn’t see anyone following you’.

’Not followed right now but when I go home from work and again in the morning, I’m followed to work and if I go to the supermarket.’

Cass drew breath, ‘But why, what’s going on?’

Josh, ‘You remember I mentioned Rob to you? He works in the lab you saw. He’s mentioned to me a couple of times he thought something odd was happening in the inner lab. Rob started to get even more suspicious about it after we heard a conversation from my workshop.

Rob was officially out to lunch but it rained that day. He doesn’t like the on-site café so he came to my workshop with his packed lunch. We heard a conversation. Someone said something was ready except for one small test to complete. They wanted ‘it’ moved from Oxford to somewhere safe with a minimum containment level 3. We heard one of the regular Lab guys say no one in the complex knew the inner lab was level 3 specification. The other guy added, ‘That’s why the lab was hidden within another lab, like hiding a tree in a wood. Except that now we know. You too.

Remember I told you how easy it is to hear what is said in the passage because of the old pipe?’ Cass nodded. Rob continued, ‘We both instinctively remained quiet, if we heard them they might hear us. We heard another conversation between one of the guys who’d just been talking and someone we didn’t know. This conversation was even more interesting, and scary. Obviously unaware they were overheard, because they went on to say that even though the Government financed the vaccine against the virus, it had to be kept secret.’

Cass interrupted, ‘Well that’s understandable, it has to be tested and all the other palaver.’

Josh stopped her, ‘Wait, I haven’t finished yet, there is more. These guys went on to discuss things we just didn’t understand, something about new vaccines being DNA or RNA based instead of how they used to be. To be honest I looked it up but most of it went over my head.

I think they were saying there is one more minor step to complete. Something easy because they already have what they need from a Government Research Facility. Easy to guess the name of that one. However they intended to pull the rug from under the University Research Facility that did the development work…

It’s sort of odd though, because it sounded like they’ve done some testing on monkeys already. Seems the researchers were getting excited by the fact they were near the finish and would ‘win’ the race to get a vaccine. A story was concocted to discredit the main R&D guy, he’s now relocated, with the offer of keeping his reputation and pay-rate as long as he signed the Official Secrets Act. I have doubts about whether that was a genuine Official Secrets Document, but there’s nothing I can do about that. The lab itself has been offered what seems to be a more lucrative Government R&D contract. Now, the vaccine is going to be brought to the complex to be finished and they expected it to be ready for the off in a week’s time.

They mentioned a precursor to this latest version of the vaccine had been tested on unsuspecting people. It had enough success so they intend to skip the rigorous testing a vaccine would normally be subject to. Even so, it was what they said next that stunned Rob and really scared both of us.

Turns out the other guy in the conversation was a Government Advisor. More to the point it seems there is a situation within the Government, similar to the lab within a lab at the complex, only it’s a Government within Government that is acting independently and puling too many strings.

Cass felt nauseous, she already knew because of her previous experience with Sara and friends, there was a rotten faction hiding within Government.

Josh got to the part he knew would upset Cass most. ‘To cut a long story short the gist is that tax-papers money was used to develop the vaccine but the ‘Government’ or whoever they are, is going to make it available only to certain social groups. Not groups you might want to see it go to. They are happy to let Herd Immunity take out more of the population, including their opponents and such like, well, especially their opponents! After that they want to sell it to regimes that you, me and Rob would consider extreme.

This is the most dangerous thing since the last world war and more. This virus isn’t going away, it knows no borders so they will be able to control the politics of the whole world. The real killer is that the vaccine may have to be renewed periodically to ensure people stay safe.

They know the vaccine might be copied eventually even if protected by a patent, but by then their dirty work will have changed the world to the way they want it. For sure there are plenty of rogue elements in the UK and USA not to mention Russia and China who are more interested in the control it gives them than in just selling it…’

Cass said, ‘Stop, at least for a minute and let me think about this’

‘I know it’s tough, Cass, but just let me finish telling you about the rest of that lunchtime. Both Rob and I knew instinctively we had to be careful, they must not know we had heard anything. We’d both looked at each other early on and put a finger to our lips to indicate quiet. When the guys in the passageway moved on a bit, Rob and I agreed Rob should go back to work and look as if he was just coming back from the café. I just kept my head down.

As luck had it, coming from the direction of the cafe Rob heard an official looking driver replying to a call for the car. Rob said the driver answered in a completely obsequious way so Rob knew it was someone ‘of importance’. The driver said ‘Yes sir’, then mentioned the Official’s name when he asked if he should go to the front or rear entrance. It confirmed for Rob it was the head honcho Government Advisor. Rob knew instantly who we had heard talking in the passageway’.

‘Now you’ve scared me Josh. How is it that these people are operating inside the Government with such impunity? I’m not only frightened, I’m also bloody furious! Why are being followed, Josh?’

‘I think it’s a general precaution for anyone near the inner complex. Rob thinks the same. We’ve been very careful. I hope cautious enough! Although oddly, Rob is asked to run errands for work at just the times we would normally have lunch together. That might just be coincidence or to get him out of the way generally, rather than to stop him lunching with me. However he did manage to slip in to see me one afternoon when no one was watching. We stuffed the pipe with rags before we spoke quietly.

Rob has turned out to be pretty good at looking like he minds his own business at the same time minding other’s business. The people in the inner-inner-sanctum/facility pretty much don’t see him, and certainly not as a threat. Apart from the fact he’s furious at how often they get lax with the containment aspect of the facility but says nothing, it means he has been able to keep an eye on what is going on.

Cass interjected, ‘I guess the people who work in what amounts to a clandestine operation aren’t necessarily the most conscientious type of people.’

‘Cass what I’m telling you sounds fantastic even to my ears, yet you are taking me seriously. Thank you for that, but also what do you think about it?

‘No details my friend,’ Cass thought he might not believe the story if she told it. ‘The fact is I trust you. I also have good reason to believe what you say. Rogue factions within the Government are not only straight-up corrupt but also criminally insane. Don’t ask, I can’t tell you!’

Josh said, ‘OK I won’t ask, but it is good to have someone to share this with. However, I’m not sure what to do. If I try to get some publicity for it I suspect something might happen to me and possibly to Rob’.

Cass agreed. ‘I don’t think you would get through to the right people easily. Some sections of the news are controlled by the very people that are involved.’

Josh looked crestfallen.

Cass said ‘Courage my friend.’ Look, there is already controversy about big business controlling vaccines that can stop a pandemic. In particular businesses that get taxpayers money to help develop vital medications. They still claim costs are so high they have to sell at extortionate rates so most people cannot benefit from it. Arguments are rife about this in the UK, even more in the USA. It makes me think about Klaus Fuchs.’

Josh’s eyebrows raised in a question.

Cass replied, ‘Fuchs passed secrets from the Manhattan Project to the Soviet Union. Some claim his actions were just cunning self-interest, I do not believe that. I’m sure he believed if the balance of ‘mutual destruction’ was equal, it would likely prevent any destruction. Fuchs was prosecuted and convicted for being a spy, yet in reality he was deeply opposed to war and acted on his conscience. You’ve probably seen the film Dr Strangelove which pretty much comes out of that idea.

Anyway, I believe a vaccine as vital for a disease so dangerous to humanity needs to be universally available. In which case we are looking to stop this particular faction from winning. We need to get samples and/or the accompanying data out to other places so it can somehow be passed around the world. Not a tall order!

Josh looked at Cass with a mix of consternation and awe, ‘You sound like you’ve already decided to do something?

‘Of course I have sweetie, we can’t just sit back and leave things to the Egomaniac Elitists can we! I know someone who can, and I’m sure will, help.

I think the most difficult thing though, is getting our mitts on the vaccine and formula. Whatever happens I don’t want to see you or Rob in danger, but I don’t see any other way than Rob being the one to get what we need. You said that the guys working in the lab are lax at times, that’s going to be key. It can only work if we get a sample and ideally, the data.

Cass said, ‘It will only be necessary for the Government Cabal to hush things up if we succeed. Look at how they close ranks to protect their own, even when evidence of wrong-doing is blatant. They will not want any of this to come out. That will, hopefully, protect us to a degree, but only so long as we don’t get caught in the process.

Look time is getting on, you should go back to work. If you get a chance, talk to Rob and ask him if he feels it’s feasible to get the sample and copy of the data. I can’t tell him how to do that, but would suggest that if he does manage to take a phial, he replaces it with a lookalike just so it isn’t noticed too quickly. If the guys in the inner lab are as lax as Rob thinks, there is a chance they won’t even know anything has gone.

If and when anyone starts to investigate, it might be assumed one of the guys in the lab did something. Quite honestly I don’t care what happens to them, considering they are willing to aid this appalling fraud, scam, coup, call it what you like! Who knows, if it starts to unravel for them, they might want to dismantle the inner lab anyway. It will be a case of deniability.

’It is not going to be easy Cass. I need to talk to Rob, how do you and I communicate, especially if Rob does get the sample and data?

Cass had an answer. ‘A friend told me that WhatsApp messages are encrypted to a high degree, so we could use it, but only when we absolutely have to. Even so we need a code of some sort. If Rob gets the sample the message will need to be very specific.’

Cass thought about it for a few seconds, ‘I know, just say, ‘Face in the painting’, that can be the code, then if I need to pass on info without it being obvious I can include it on my Blog site. I have a face in one of my ‘non-figurative’ abstract paintings, so I can write about it. The Blog site can be googled for anyone that needs to find it, so we might as well use it.

You do understand Josh, this is all going to have to happen very quickly, if it is going to happen at all, are you OK with that?

Josh nodded, ‘Yes and I know I speak for Rob too. To take the sample from the lab is one thing, but how do I get it to you? Rob will need to pass it to me ASAP as he’s bound to be a suspect if they realise the sample has gone. Plus, the sample should be kept cool, an insulated sandwich box would likely be the first thing searched if the alarm is raised’.

An image flashed into Cass’s mind, she shook her head to clear it. ‘We will sort that. Both of you be careful. You’d better go back now, then let’s see if we can stop the bastards.’

Cass was sure Sara would wade in. Sara hated corruption, especially hidden inside what should be democratic Government, and this diabolical plan had to be stopped.

Cass wasn’t disappointed, with Sara on the opposite bank of the brook, they quietly worked through all sort of scenarios, and finally had a plan.

‘You are amazing, Sara, and what’s more you are funny too! This situation is serious but you still manage to make me laugh! What is it with you and clandestine stuff? When all this is over, however it turns out, remind me to tell you about something to do with my mother and Second Sight.’ Sara’s eyebrows lifted but she knew Cass wouldn’t tell her until the time was right.

‘I’m just glad I have access to great people on the Dark Web, it’s bad enough so many scumbags use it for bad reasons. I love turning tables on them in the same space they operate in!

Sara became very serious, ‘I’ll have feed-back very quickly so we will know how best to send the formula out around the world, also the best place to get the sample to. The sample is likely to be the most difficult part of the venture’.

‘I know but we can succeed now we have a plan.’

Sara grinned, ‘Well part of it is definitely amusing, who would have thought!

Cass knew what Sara was referring to.

‘You know just how risky this is, Cass? We laugh at some things, it’s all a bit of an adventure but while these people are ruthless cowards, they are dangerous ruthless cowards and would probably do anything to stop us.’

‘I do know and my main worry is you Sara, and the others, but then you know one of my favourite quotes?’

‘Yes I know.’ They spoke together: “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing”. Cass added, ‘and women! I’ve been thinking about the whole shebang. We are such an unlikely bunch, they tend to be so arrogant. Narcissistic megalomaniacs don’t see ordinary people as capable of thinking or acting against them. I think their attention will be on other groups rather than the likes of you and me. That helps us. Little do they know! However, we will not underestimate them.

Sara, ‘Part of our plan is so whacky, it wouldn’t be believed anyway, so here goes nothing! It’s going to be more than one bottle of Prosecco if we pull this off my girl!’

Cass laughed, ‘My ‘girl’ indeed!

Cass put a cryptic message on her blog site. It was for Josh to rendezvous with her the next day, same place, same time as before. Josh had checked the site daily. Cass just hoped Josh could make it.

‘Cass, good to see you!’

‘You too Josh. How are things? How’s Rob?’

‘Rob’s doing better than I am, he has a really cool head on his shoulders. I’m anxious and not able to concentrate on my work enough, but all in all I manage. I was about to contact you when I saw your message. Rob let me know he thinks he’s worked out how to get the phial and data. He thinks he can do it at about 11.30 tomorrow morning, there’s some sort of meeting in another part of the complex. It has happened before and they’ve been startlingly cavalier about security. It’s a perfect time as far as we are concerned, I take my lunchtime walk quite early.

It is also good for Rob, he has been asked to deliver something to a Medical Centre at lunchtime. That’s great, it will be natural for him to be gone when they get back from the meeting. Hopefully they just won’t think about it. Mind you, he is concerned that the sample be kept cool once he gets it to me. He won’t have it for more than a few minutes so it should be fine until then.’

Cass raised her eyebrows and grinned, ‘I suspect I’m going to make you blush now. My friend came up with this one, although perhaps I shouldn’t put it in those terms!’

‘What are you on about? Josh had no idea what was about to see the light of day. ’What the F..’

‘Don’t say it!, Cass said, chocking back laughter as she further unwrapped the brand new magenta pink dildos Sara had given her. ‘OK, serious stuff now. Several reasons for this, no matter how outlandish it might seem.’

Josh sputtered, ‘This I can’t wait to hear!’

‘Be serious, Cass said. ‘These um, items have excellent insulation properties. They have space where a battery normally goes. The space is big enough for a phial to be hidden. I’m not going to tell you more about the plan than that.

I know there are two ‘items’, I can’t tell you the reason for that either, you have to take on trust that it’s necessary. When Rob gives you the phial you need to bubble wrap it, put it straight in the empty battery compartment. The two then go together in that pretty silk bag, just like a present! There were two remote controls, but you are only to have one which will need to go in the silk bag with the rest. Again, don’t ask! Wrap the whole thing in plastic to protect the bag.

You go for a walk at your usual time, but turn off before the lake, walk along the back of the wood until you get to the far end. Someone with a hoodie and a facemask will be waiting to take the package. You put the bag on the ground, then just go back and carry on as usual.’

Josh said, ‘But’, Cass jumped in, ‘No ‘buts’, Josh, there can be no buts about this, it is set up and will work if we do not deviate from the plan. Let’s face it, anyone asking to look at those too closely are going to seem a bit pervy.  A perfect cover would be to say it’s a present for a ‘locked-down’ girlfriend! Not that it’s really anyone else’s business. It would sure cover any nervousness you might display if someone did demand to see what you’ve got! Most of us wouldn’t want to discuss that sort of gift with a stranger, not as giver or receiver!

We are setting this up as best we can. It is better things are on a need to know basis, for your sake as well as others. We also want as little risk from physical closeness with each other as possible. All we need now to set things in motion is for Rob to succeed. When he does, you send me a short WhatsApp message saying, ‘Painted face’.

There was silence for a minute while both Cass and Josh tried to get their heads around the enormity of what they were about to do.

‘OK?’ Cass got a responding nod from Josh. ‘I’d love to give you a friendly hug but we can’t, so a virtual one for now. ‘Let’s hope the gods are on our side.’

‘You too Cass.’

‘One last thing, Josh’


‘Don’t be tempted to play with the flasher/vibrator control, we don’t want a dead battery!’ Cass laughed as she walked away.

Sara’s arrangement for Jan to collect the package from Josh worked perfectly.

The last step in the operation was going to be the riskiest one. Sara said the sample would need to be left with Cass.  Sara, needed to be at her computer while the formula data was released to Countries around the world via the Dark Web. It would also go to the more ethical news organizations, they would undoubtedly break the story about the new vaccine.

Someone would collect the sample, until then Cass would have to keep it in her fridge preferably still inside its ‘shield’, the less it was handled the safer it would be.

‘You are kidding me, said Cass, ‘Imagine seeing that every time the fridge door is opened!

‘No one can come into your house with the lockdown rules so what’s the problem?’ Sara tried not to laugh as she said it. ‘While we’re at it I should remind you to have that wide fishing net of yours to hand.’

My fishing net! I thought you were kidding about that.

‘Not kidding.’ For Jan’s safety we cannot let her pass the package to you, even though we think no one is watching, physically or via electronic surveillance, we just cannot take the risk. Your house isn’t one that people pass on their way somewhere so here’s what is going to happen….

Jan taught at a primary school in a village not far from the complex. A few children were still at school, those classed as ‘at risk’ and those of ‘front-line staff’. Jan had the perfect cover to be in the right area.

The package was collected. Jan fixed the two items together with plastic ties soon after pick-up.

At the brook each end of the parapet had street signs each with a different name. What looked like the same street, changed name at the brook. Long Lane became Toll End, although strictly speaking it was all Long Lane, Cass wasn’t going to get her head in that particular maze. The package needed to go in the brook on the Toll End side to avoid a mini weir where it might get stuck. It was going to be a risky enough voyage without starting off in tricky waters. Cass had passed on instructions for the drop into the brook, including time of launch.

Cass whispered to herself, ‘Please go smoothly, I can’t contemplate a rescue mission for a couple of dildos!’

Jan was relieved the village remained as lock-down quiet as it had through the last weeks. She took the contents out of the bag and heard the splash as they hit the water. She used the remote control twice on light function to check it was floating freely and was relieved not to need the vibrate function to jog it free from weeds.

As darkness deepened, Cass wielded the net ready for her night fishing. She grinned when she thought of what Sara had said about the ‘rabbit carrier’ they would use for the vaccine phial.

‘Well, the advert did say its “waterproof design inspires exciting adventures outside of the bedroom.”

Cass, ‘Yes, however, I don’t think what we are doing with it is quite what they meant!

In the echo chamber of her mind, Cass once more heard her mother’s comment, ‘‘Oh Cassandra, you always have a tendency towards flippancy. You need to take some things a lot more seriously!’ ‘I told you second sight is inherited’.

Thinking of the now-not-so-bizarre vision of the dildos floating down the brook, Cass whispered back to her long gone Mother, ‘Yes mum, you did, but no matter how serious the reason for it, even you would have to see the slightly farcical side of this caper!’ Cass thought she heard her mother chuckle.

Cass thought it about time to start checking with the remote, Sara had only tested it in the bath. ‘This could be fun, I hope I can net it! Cass muttered to herself, ‘I can’t believe this hair-brained scheme seems to be working! She pressed the remote flash function, colourful flashes showed her the ‘package’ was very close but caught on a silted-up bank. Hitting the vibration button a few times freed it to head downstream. Cass left flasher and vibrate function on as she positioned herself to fish the package out of the water, not an easy task given the terraced bank her side of the brook. She knew she had netted it when the long handle of the net started to vibrate. Cass asked herself, ‘Did the earth move for you? ‘Stum, she scolded herself, this is serious!’

With the dildos safely tucked behind her Friday night supermarket curry in the fridge, Cass logged onto her blog site and posted her pre-prepared article and a picture of the abstract painting with its face. As she pressed ‘publish’ she felt slightly nauseous. It was vital this worked.

Sara had waited for the coded message inside the article. Now all Cass could do was, wait, which seemed endless.

WhatsApp message from Sara. “Hi Cass, someone wants to buy your painting, suggest you arrange to wrap it tonight. Pickup tomorrow morning. Transfer payment to your bank, I gave details.”

Cass thought, ‘Nothing is secure, of course Sara had her bank details.’ “Hope you don’t mind, very safe! Your groceries will be delivered at nine in the morning, painting collected at same time. Quick exchange, other groceries to be delivered elsewhere. Please ensure ‘’everything’ is ready for collection, x”

The van driver was wearing a facemask, baseball type cap and pretty much standard delivery clothes. ‘Keep calm’, Cass said to herself, after she recognized the person behind the mask. ‘Sara sure does know people.

‘Wow, the groceries might be a cover, but what a cover! Happy as I am with the cheaper supermarkets, these didn’t come from one! I enjoy a good champagne, and someone sure did their homework on the whisky. Single malt. Oh my Gawd! Not only my favourite whisky from Skye but a 25 Year Old one! I’m happy when I can afford the ten year old, but this is just amazing!’

A short time after the drop and pickup, Sara sent her another text. “Hadn’t been part of plan for painting sale but ‘someone’ really wanted it. Same person wanted the groceries to be special. Enjoy and keep an eye on the news tomorrow, ‘Foreign’ Press first as the UK ‘lags’ with some news.”

Much later Cass spoke to her glass, ‘You are a lesser single malt but perfectly palatable,’ as she drank. ‘I’ll wait ‘til everything is in place and everyone safe before I open that special bottle’.  Cass thought about the risks everyone had taken, her fingers were crossed.

Next day another WhatsApp from Sara, “Bingo”. Cass watched a report on an Arab English- Language news channel. It stated that there had been a breakthrough in a Covid19 vaccine. Soon similar stories were popping up on all the channels. Most were cautious, but then it seemed the whole world’s news feeds were alight. Testing would begin immediately.

Cass answered her phone, ‘I know WhatsApp is supposed to be safe Josh but.’

Josh cut in, ‘Cass, it’s OK, things have happened here. Rob is fine, I’m fine. I don’t know how your friend did it but Rob had help to send the data out from one of the Lab guy’s computer. When the ‘wots-it’ hit the fan it looked like the Lab guy had sent it.

I know that part from Rob, but here’s the best bit! Seems one of the Lab guys knew most of what was planned for the vaccine and had decided on a bit of side business of his own. He had arranged to sell the vaccine and data to a mafia-like consortium. He took a phial and may have passed it on, but left an empty space where the phial should have been. Turns out the phial was the one Rob had replaced, which did not contain the vaccine!

He managed to pass on the phial but was rumbled too late by the security people Rob and I have been dodging. Of course then news started to trickle out about a new vaccine.

I heard via the pipe from the passage. It was assumed the vaccine got out through the Lab guy, his computer was checked and surprise, surprise!

With the cat out of the bag the ‘security’ guys vanished into thin air. The Lab guy hadn’t heard the news and was on the phone in the passage. He seemed surprised he wasn’t going to get paid. Two reasons, one was the vaccine data was everywhere for anyone to use and the second was that the sample he’d passed on was something like sugar water! The would-be buyers were not happy the Lab guy tried to rip them off, not only did he not get paid, he must have decided to get the hell out of Dodge! He’s gone!

Cass sent a group message. I salute you brave people. When safe, we will open a special whisky and raise a toast to those who fight for Right, and I’ll tell you a story. Love you guys.

Messages back. You too!

A few days later, a well-known philanthropist was being ‘remotely’ interviewed about the extraordinary news of the Covid19 vaccine being available for everyone around the world. In the background, Cass caught a glimpse of a face, no head and no body.

Others also saw the painting. Cass was surprised by many enquiries. Some so keen to buy they viewed on-line, paid her immediately and would wait to arrange collection after lockdown lifted. It meant maybe the studio and house project could be completed. Cass thought, ‘it’s an ill wind.’

Cass thought about her name. Cassandra had fore-sight, or second-sight, Cass thought that maybe it as not only about future, it was about something you ‘saw’ before it existed in the real world and was called Imagination.

Linda Sgoluppi

Face In the Painting -Terra Acrylic On Canvas 150 x 150 cms Linda Sgoluppi


The Culling of Lady Paddox. A Story

The Lady’s gaze was so steady it might have been unseeing.  Across Hoarestone Brook, known simply as The Brook, Lady B. Paddox’s blue-grey eyes rested on what had been the Glebe field. This field bordered a path next to the 800 year old Parish Church and Churchyard.

Acrid smoke from yet another wet bonfire hung in what had been the clearest air of the Lady’s lifetime. In the gloaming, shadows flitted from tree to tree on the bank opposite. If she had foresight she might have noticed the body float past her.

People were stuck in their homes in a lockdown never seen before in modern Britain. They were not alone, a world-wide pandemic meant most countries were in some form of Lockdown. An invisible, nasty, little bastard of a virus had managed to achieve a clean air environment in a matter of weeks, whereas all the climate warnings of years had failed.

Lady Paddox was not what many people expected of someone with her title, she did not care about the expectations of others. Of indeterminate age, her strangeness was pretty much taken at face value. However, she might have cared about something that seemed stranger than she was. At the start of the lockdown there had been a regular pattern of lone elderly people taking their ‘permitted’ once-a-day exercise over the Lady’s section of the old Glebe Field. Now, a few weeks after lockdown began, not one of those people were taking the air.

Glebe fields were traditional parcels of land close to a church and were part of a clergyman’s benefice to help provide income. This glebe field had not been used for its intended purpose for a long time.

The field had changed function to become Parkland when it was included in a deal to provide the Church with much needed extra burial land. The Glebe field was swapped for the portion of Millennium Green that was subsequently fenced in to join the rest of the Churchyard. The Glebe was then opened up as green space.

With this deal the Millennium Green gained a longer border with the brook, it also straddled the two-person wide footpath that led from village centre across the brook foot bridge to Church Lane. The addition to the Millennium Green meant the parkland now connected to the church car park, a convenience appreciated by those from the top end of the village. It was used a lot by those who drove and parked to take their exercise, especially the less able-bodied, given that the hill up the village was deceptively steep.

Access to the brook in the new part of the Green was down a slope originally made for sheep and cattle to drink, now it allowed children and dogs to splash about in the water. This benign shallow brook would completely change character when heavy rain and run-off sent murky, raging waters down its steep Dutch-style flood resistant banks.

Lady Paddox, was known to those closest to her as Lady P. Those closest to her knew she was not an indoors type, claustrophobia could so easily threaten her, therefore Lady P. spent an inordinate amount of time outside. On clear nights she would often be found stargazing while laid out on a garden sun-lounger.

Lady P. had been present during a conversation about Government ‘advice’ to the elderly. As that conversation ebbed and flowed comments were made about the dribbles of information leaking out from a less than half-decent Administration. Consensus had it the Government’s Ministers looked like the proverbial rabbits caught in headlights. That same Government liked to claim its dealings as being transparent, a claim believed only by those wearing blinkers.

Older people, those defined by the National Health Service as anyone over the age of 65, were told they were more likely to become severely ill if they caught ‘Coronavirus’ or Covid19 as the name became more specific

To pinpoint when the real message filtered through is difficult. It was a brutal message, sinister in content and so blatant it was almost invisible. People recognized the PM’s ‘Take it on the Chin’ comment for what it was but the underlying intent still wasn’t as clear as it should have been. Interviewed on a popular morning TV programme the Prime Minister blustered in his usual manner as he replied to a question about the delay in preventive measures to stop widespread contagion of the virus:

          ‘Is the delay essentially trying to spread this out so it doesn’t all happen at once and overwhelm the NHS, and that you can actually delay it into perhaps the summer when it’s a little bit quieter and the ordinary flu might have died down a wee bit, is that what you’re doing?’ The Prime Minister’s reply was: ‘Well it’s a very, very important question, and that’s where a lot of the debate has been and one of the theories is, that perhaps you could take it on the chin, take it all in one go and allow the disease, as it were, to move through the population, without taking as many draconian measures’

After more bluster he went on:

          ‘But I think it would be better if we take all the measures that we can now to stop the peak of the disease being as difficult for the NHS as it might be, I think there are things that we may be able to do.’

A National newspaper and erstwhile supporter of the political party in power, reported on what was said to be the key advisor’s opinion to the Prime Minister. It leaked out that in a private meeting the advisor had suggested the Government’s response as

“…herd immunity, protect the economy, and if that means some pensioners die, too bad.”

No one was surprised when those comments were later denied. The Advisor, an unelected denizen in the Power Executive was widely reviled and despised for his views, even to the  point where was described as an ‘evil genius’.

Slowly, too slowly, the elderly, then other vulnerable groups were ‘locked down’. More sluggishly, so was the rest of the country.

The true aim of the edict started to filter through, there was no room in the hospitals for those who were old or with pre-existing conditions if they were infected with the virus. In addition to the limited hospital bed capacity, more problematic was the severe shortage of the ventilators, vital for the treatment of the respiratory symptoms of the illness.

People over sixty-five understood that if they became ill with the virus or any illness during that period they should not go to Accident & Emergency Departments or to their Local Doctor’s Surgery. Mixed messages from the Government not to call on those services, because they were so overwhelmed left older people with the simple message that they should not call on medical services for help.

Old people had, by definition, been around a long time and more than understood what was being touted. They also understood that in calling a phone number as advised by the Government, someone would go through a tick list before telling them just to stay home.

The conversation Lady P. had been privy to included four women and three men. All lived in the village. Each had separate lives that rarely overlapped other than the walk each took to exercise their dog or themselves. In the beginning it had been by coincidence they would intersect at the access to the brook. Conversations had slowly struck up while dogs paddled or retrieved sticks tossed into the water. From there it had become a daily ritual to rendezvous and chat about current affairs.

Initially the group hadn’t really specified what they did for their day-jobs. Their collective skills were diverse, some acquired through career training, others through leisure time interests. They were perfectly happy for Lady P. to be present, a de facto member of their group, not least because she resided on the opposite side of the brook and by default was always there, more importantly they knew she was the soul of discretion.

Sometimes village gossip slipped in to their conversations. However, Sara, Melanie, Gwen, Jan, Peter, Jamie, Joe and Tony were fair people and each shared of virtue of integrity, which was probably part of what had drawn them together in the first place. If gossip did pop up it was always tempered with a fair picking through of what was likely to be true, and what was not. Plus, they recognized when it was none of their business even if some of the gossip made them laugh out loud. After all, they did have the flaws of ordinary people, if they erred it was usually on the side of kindness, even if some break away comments came out a tad cutting.

They did not laugh, out loud or otherwise, the day Sara told them exactly what she did for a living. Sara was a Website Programmer, her occupation did not surprise anyone in the group. What did surprise them was when she admitted not only her skill for programming but that she was rather good at computer hacking. This revelation was followed swiftly by another that at first left the group in stunned silence.

Sara said she had hacked into the local doctor’s surgery computer to renew a medication for very old neighbour who was having trouble getting her repeat prescription. Her neighbour had no idea of how computers or the Web worked and the phone lines to the surgery were always busy. By pure fluke, Sara had come across a Government Departmental email informing the surgery that elderly people living alone were to be placed in care homes ‘for their own protection’. This process was to be completed as quietly as possible to, ‘avoid unnecessary distress to those being transferred’. It was noted it would be preferable if this were done calmly and quietly avoiding ‘intrusion of the Press’ which might ‘upset the elderly’. The email had anticipated that some elderly would chose to move in with friends or family instead, this was not to be countenanced as it would ‘put them or others at risk.’ The email also stated that no one was to move in with the single pensioners. It did not elaborate on why it was not to be allowed, details for this would be released later.

Silence was broken by a collective snort of derision at what they had just heard. Contagion and death rates in Care Homes was one of the most appalling situations the UK had seen. Even if residents were taken to hospital they were quickly sent back, usually to die. Mostly they were not sent to hospital in the first place. Deaths from the virus outside of hospitals were not recorded in the death count, a situation that helped an incompetent Government appear to have the death toll under control. Deaths in Care Homes were not just confined to residents, staff were not supplied with adequate personal protection equipment (PPE) and many had died.

As the initial hubbub of shock quietened down Sara delivered a second and much more shocking piece of information. She asked the other members of the group if they had heard of the Dark Web. Most had, Gwen had not. Sara explained the Dark Web as part of the internet that isn’t visible to search engines. It was mostly used for nefarious activities and some very horrible ones. Sara had become part of a hacker group, each mostly unknown to the other, who fought a guerrilla war against the dregs of society. Those who preyed on others and used the Dark Web as their place of business. It started to dawn on the group that Sara must be extremely good at what she did. Sara went on to also explain that the Dark Web was also used by some to fight against corrupt governments and regimes to OUT Global Corporations who flouted International Law, money laundered or generally damaged the environment.

It was difficult to see which member of the group was most shocked by these revelations, but the final bit of information left them all dumbstruck.

Sara said that one of her fellow Dark Web colleagues had found a deeply buried email from inside the Government. The email showed that certain elements within the Government wanted to drastically cut the Pension and Health Care costs to help recoup some of the fiscal damage of the ‘Socialist’ measures it had been forced to introduce because of the Covid19 virus. It was known it would not be possible to cut pension payments, after all this was money the people receiving pensions had paid for all of their lives. There would be uproar if such an attempt were made. However, when a pensioner died…

Sara made it clear that the Guerrilla-Hacker Group did not yet know if the people driving this policy within the Government was a rogue autonomous Ultra Right-Wing faction or, if it was actually Official Government Policy. Sara’s opinion of the Government’s utterly shambolic, political and ideologically driven response to the Pandemic, meant she would not be surprised either way.

Melanie had spoken up first: ‘Look this is a lot to take in, maybe we should tell each other a bit more about ourselves now that Sara has taken us into her confidence. As it happens I’m a community care supervisor for a charity, the Charity mainly gives advice on finance to the elderly. I’ve been home working because the office was small and had to close for distancing purposes’.

Gwen: ‘I’m in sales, at a builder’s merchants, I’ve been furloughed which as you know means the Government pays 80% of my salary up to a cap of £2500 which leaves me short to pay my bills.’

Jan, ‘I’m a Primary School teacher but not in this village. Currently I work two days a week to cover vulnerable children, and the children of front line workers who still attend school under Lockdown Rules. Basically I’m job-sharing so that two of us can continue to work.

Peter: ‘Embarrassing, but here goes, I’m an Estate Agent, currently furloughed.’

Jamie: ‘Painter and Decorator, and sometime Chippy. I’m paid more for painting than for carpentry so I prefer the decorating. I work on new developments, my site is closed, so I’m furloughed’.

Joe, ‘Pub Landlord, pubs had to close, end of. I’m still waiting for what appears to be a hypothetical payment from the Government to help keep my business afloat’.

Finally, Tony: ‘Sports Therapist, no sports no need for therapy, although I am in the process of making a video to show how to avoid sports injuries in the first place, but that won’t keep me afloat financially.’

Sara, ‘Wow. So, are we going to do anything, and if we are, what?’

Tony ‘I’m not sure. Our options are limited, is this supposed to happen all over the country?’

Sara replied, ‘Yes, from what I could gather, but done in stages. Our area is to be the first.’

Jamie, ‘Well I don’t know about you but I have no intention of my mother, or anyone else being ‘forced’ into a care home. Just what are our options?’

Melanie, ‘Well the obvious thing is that we have to get the National and International Press onto this. The problem with that, is it will take time and evidence to convince them it’s a story worth pursuing. By then it will be too late for many of the people they intend to ‘kidnap!’

Tony, ‘I can’t believe we are having this conversation but then who would have thought just a few weeks ago we would be in a situation with thousands dying!’

Peter, ‘One thing is for sure we do not have time on our side. Let’s say we work on getting the story out, but in the meantime we have to prevent people being taken from their homes’.

Joe and Jamie spoke at the same time: ‘How do we do that?’

Jan, ‘Look we have a few days, let’s think on this and meet again later.’

Sara agreed and said, ‘Yes, that will give us all a chance to come up with ideas, then we meet back here as usual so nothing irregular stands out about our behaviour. We can exchange numbers at some point but, I recommend we try not to use technology to correspond on this situation, I know how easy it is for it to be insecure! ‘.

They met again the next morning.

Joe spoke up first: ‘I’ve been thinking the only way we can keep the single old folk safe until the Government is stopped, is to hide them so they can’t be got at.’

Gwen, ‘Sounds good, but where would you propose hiding them? They would need a comfortable place to be, not be noticed, have to be fed and watered etc.  Even if only for a week or two for the truth to be properly circulated, it would be quite something to keep them hidden.  In addition we would have to convince the elderly they are in danger and we want to help them’.

Jamie, ‘I’ve racked my brain until it hurts and the only place I’ve thought we could hide them is on the development site where I’ve been working. The problem is, there is security in place, not enough houses are ready, it’s five miles away and it’s going to be noticed if people are there, so all in all I’ve dismissed my own idea as not feasible’.

Gwen, ‘I’ve been trying to figure just how many people actually live alone, we have to have an idea of that before we sort out somewhere for them to hide’.

Melanie, ‘I can answer that, I was given a list with that information on a few weeks ago. Of course, there are quite a lot of pensioners in the village, but not that many living completely alone. If we can stop the Government’s plans with this category, they will not dare to try it with others, at least not for quite some time and by then hopefully not at all! The list has 31 on it that normally live alone. I asked around discretely and found that at least six of those went to stay with family in other parts of the country before lockdown started. Five moved in with family who live locally, so that makes about twenty left living alone in the village.’

Joe, ‘It doesn’t sound as if it is even worth the Government trying such a trick for that number of people, but then I guess if you multiply that by all the villages in England it amounts to quite a number.’

Jan, ‘Funny, but I wondered about that. So last night I did a very rough estimate of how many it might amount to, by chance I used just the number you’ve come up with for this village. This is a very rough estimate so please don’t quote me on it, but outside the towns it could amount to 374,400. That is only the start, they could move on to other categories. Potentially, we are looking at a crime that I just cannot get my head around, and of course they could dispute it, gaslight people into accepting it wasn’t done to harm anyone! I’m so bloody furious.

Tony, ‘Look I was thinking about where to hide twenty people, it isn’t easy. I walked home via the Canal yesterday and was hardly aware I was counting narrowboats tied up along the towpath. Seems people who own them and some of the hire companies moored them there for the duration of the lockdown. One or two are lived in but the rest are empty. I counted twenty five altogether. There’s only one ‘Community’ policeman to cover the village and he only goes along the Towpath occasionally. There are Covid19 signs saying only local people to use the path so not many go that way. We would have the problem of the couple of permanent residents figuring something was amiss, but other than that it might work.’

Melanie, ‘OK, so two main problems to overcome. How will the disappearance of twenty people be explained, and how do we get them into the narrowboats? It is bound to be a crime of some sort, even though we know it is for the greater good! With any luck only the crime will only be trespass! How do we actually do it, get twenty old people onto boats? I can’t say I’m any good at breaking locks. I am quite good at communicating with older people, and think I could explain to them our concerns and fears for them. I think they could be convinced to hide for a couple of weeks. One thing for sure, older people are not stupid. The Government would do well to remember that.

Jamie, ’No problem with getting in the boats, I can deal with that, and do it with no visible sign of entry. I’m can lock-pick, it was my hobby as a kid, but if we have to break one or two to get in we can always replace them later on if need be.

More detailed plans about logistics were made. Once they figured out how they would get food and other necessities to those they would hide, they agreed to start the underground operation the next day.

Their plan-making conversation had included how to cover the disappearance of twenty people suddenly missing from home. Sara pointed out the people were going to go ‘missing’ anyway. All they would need to do was misdirect, possibly by somehow letting it be known the Government had already relocated the old ones to Care Homes for the duration of the lockdown. She also pointed out that the Government internal workings were so disorganized it would likely take them at least two weeks to figure out they had lost the people on their Pilot Scheme List.

Jan voiced a concern, ‘We are all for this, but I can think of some in the village who would not believe either the threat or what we are trying to do about it. The risk is if anyone like that figures out what we are doing, they could expose us, and the people we are trying to help will still be in danger. I can think of one thoroughly nasty piece of work who shall remain nameless but would love to put the boot in. In the short term we need to be very careful. It might also be that our Oldies will have their phones and could be tracked’.

Sara said, ‘I can sort the phone problem, they can keep them if certain features are disabled, I can arrange for that to be done.’

Tony, ‘I know exactly who you mean and agree, he would do anything to make himself important no matter who got hurt in the process. We can only do our best, things are bound to pop up that we haven’t planned for but we’ve got to do this, so let’s do what we can and deal with anything else as it crops up’.

Lady P. had remained silent, the group did not feel uncomfortable about that.

Plans started to be put into practise that same day, were completed two days later with the group surprised at how smoothly things had gone. Sara’s Dark Web colleagues had waited for her to give them the all clear. Clues began to be circulated worldwide as to what might be occurring in England. At the start, The Government blanked, then batted away the first questions being asked.

In the following days, as the light began to fade, individuals from the group parked their cars discretely spaced out in the Church car park. They followed the brook, flitted from tree to tree until sure the coast was clear then diverted to the path that led up to the canal and were able to get food and supplies to the folk on the boats. It was a circuitous route but safer than going directly to the main canal access.

To the huge relief of the Underground Group, the two permanent narrowboat residents had been eager to lend their support and even offered to cover any inadvertent sound or water movement the Hidden Ones might make. Those two permanent residents took their role as a solemn trust. They increased outside activities to cover their guard duty. If anyone ventured along the towpath, either guard might stop fishing and change to a new favourite pastime of throwing a large magnet tied to a cord into the canal. If asked they were ready to say they were searching for lost keys or whatever metal objects they managed to haul up, either way the activity made waves. Just for fun they took to throwing in metal objects to see if they could locate and retrieve them. Bizarrely, one of the two kept his bagpipes to hand. Played them very badly only when strangers appeared on the towpath, it guaranteed few hung around for their ears to be assaulted in that manner.

Lady P. did not reside alone, although for sure she rarely interacted with the people she shared a home with. Conversations tended not to include her and she rarely got involved in house or garden activities. Lady P. could have seemed imperious but that wasn’t the reason for the situation she found herself in. All in all the household understood her, and there was no friction.

Lady P. had been sunbathing while a raised garden bed had been constructed from scaffold planks left behind after a painting studio was built. The raised bed was to help make growing vegetables easier, no bending necessary. However during its construction someone quipped that that it looked like a coffin, the name stuck and rather than ‘raised bed’ it was now always referred to as The Coffin.

The Underground continued with their regular open meet-ups even while still maintaining social distancing rules. They had decided it would be the easiest way to communicate safely and would not show a change in behaviour.

Tony looked worried. ‘I’m worried about something, it seems that nasty piece of work we were concerned about is being true to type. Seriously, I do wonder if he isn’t a Government stool-pigeon. OK, I know that’s a bit far-fetched but boy he could be turning into a big problem for us. He’s been asking about some of the people who have gone ‘missing’. We know he would support any faction in the Government wanting to get rid of the old, the disabled, the foreigners, Uncle Tom Cobly an’ all. I used to hear him spouting off in the pub. When it was open,’ he added ruefully.

Joe, ‘Me too, he’s the village bigot, and he’s a sleaze ball. I’ve seen him leering at the girls. His wife seems pretty cowed by him, I feel sorry for her. No wonder she looks relieved when he sometimes doesn’t come home for the odd night or two after a pub crawl.’

Joe, ‘I think he’s managed to find one pub that IS open by the back door, even though pubs were ordered to close. Makes me angry that some think rules don’t apply to them. We are all struggling financially and worried that our businesses will go down the pan! He must get desperate, I’ve seen him take a swig from a flask he carries. Not being able to pub crawl must be getting to him.’

Tony, ‘At the moment he’s not getting anywhere, but he seems to think something is going on and I suspect he will be on the prowl’.

The group mulled over what had been said and came to the same conclusion as Tony, all they could do was to be extra careful.

Dark Web guerrilla activity was now in full spate. News agencies across the world were looking at the Westminster Government in incredulity. Journalists were trying to find locations where people were missing, not an easy task in Lockdown conditions.

People in the Village assumed the folk missing from their streets had gone to stay with friends or relatives. The Government at first ignored any questions related to the subject, then as allegations grew, flatly denied them. The element in the Government responsible for the diabolical plan was in a bind, they could not find the people they had intended to move and were not sure if another department had done it. So far they had at least managed to keep the Pilot Scheme Location away from the news hounds.

The Underground had made their open meeting later than usual. Their meeting had to fit in with other responsibilities. In the gathering dusk to mull over the latest situation, they didn’t notice someone standing a bit further down in the brook. Perfectly concealed by the cow-parsley growing on the bank, the man stood in the water close to the steel girder that supported and protected a sewer pipe across the brook. The man heard every bit of the conversation, and was already puffed up with the idea he could blackmail each and every one of the group with something to do with their activities. The missing folk would still get put in Care Homes, he didn’t care what happened to them. He figured that if he did it carefully, he might also manage to get a paid by the political party that wanted the story buried.

In his excitement the man stumbled and splashed a little. Not one of the group heard him, but one of their dogs did. The dog sprinted into The Brook, saw something and started barking furiously. In his attempt to remain undiscovered the man turned towards the sewer pipe, didn’t realise the brook was a good bit deeper at that point, lost his footing, fell heavily and smashed his head on the girder.

Still observing their social-distance, The Underground went to see what the commotion was.

At first they couldn’t see anything. Five minutes passed before they located a bundle. It was someone face down in the water.  A man, who they dragged through the more shallow water to the base of the access slope, shone a light on his face and realised who it was. There could be no doubt that he was dead, nothing was going to revive him, although reluctant because of the virus, they did try.

Melanie had her phone out, had pressed the first of three 9’s for emergency when her finger hovered above the number ready for the second and third press, she looked up at the others for what seemed an eternity but was only seconds.

Joe, ‘Wait’. The others were shaking their heads imperceptibly.

Peter voiced what they had all started to think, ‘If we call the police or an ambulance we are going to have a real job explaining what has happened here’. Slight nods of agreement met this statement.

Gwen, trying not to let the rising hysteria she felt show, ‘We can’t just leave him here, it would be the same as calling the emergency services!’

Jan, ‘It’s happened and it wasn’t our doing but we have to find a solution, we can’t let our old people down now, so we have to think of something.’

Tony looked across the brook to where Lady P. was still gazing into the gloaming. He shuddered to think she always seemed to be there but it gave him an idea. ‘Look we have to hide the body quickly for now, time’s not on our side. How about we put it in that new garden bed thing that is still empty? I’m sure Lady P. won’t mind, there’s a pile of soil waiting to go in, we can cover him with it then sort out a better solution tomorrow?’

No one had a better idea, so they dragged the body across the brook to Lady P’s garden. It was seriously heavy and difficult work. A half metre high step to get out of the water and onto the lower part of the bank left them grunting, by the time they’d negotiated the railway-sleeper steps up to the level part of the garden, each understood the true meaning of dead-weight.

No one could face just shoving the man into the ‘coffin’ without wrapping the body first. Each of them were already feeling conflicted about what they were doing. Plus, on a practical level, he was going to have to be moved again and no one fancied the idea of seeing him with soil stuck in his eyes, nose, mouth and ears.

A street lamp leaked enough light onto the garden and brook for them to see. Some scraggy olive trees provided a half-hearted division between front drive and back garden. The tree roots were becoming pot-bound in the grower’s pots they’d arrived in three years ago. The smaller pots stood dejected in the soil-less larger pots for which they were destined.

Good soil was in short supply. The trees might struggle to survive without it, but their thick Olive tree trunks managed to supply a modicum of privacy for the burial.

Artificial grass had been laid in three strips near the studio. They looked more like rugs than the grass they were supposed to mimic. Laid two years before as a temporary mud-free access to the new building, real grass had grown through in patches and made it a struggle to pull free. They had decided to use it to wrap the body. Team effort got the body wrapped and in place. Jamie commented that if it wasn’t so stressful they could have laughed at how farcical it was.

Sara found a spade resting up against the studio wall, it was used by three of them in turn to top up the raised bed. Work had halted for a time when Gwen thought she saw someone walking on the Green. They stood still in the shadows of the olive trees in the hope they were camouflaged enough.

Wet, physically and mentally exhausted, they agreed to meet the next day with any ideas they had for what to do next.

They met in the afternoon. Strain was showing, the events of the night before, keeping up the supply line to the Hidden Ones and coming up with excuses to their own families for their longer absences, was taking its toll. They still felt they were doing the right thing, but now it felt sort of squalid.

Melanie, ‘I think I have a solution to our immediate problem. There is to be a funeral in the Church tomorrow followed by burial in the Churchyard. The old gent died of natural causes but with Lockdown only immediate family are allowed to go. The couple were originally from Scotland. The few relatives they have, are aged and still live in Scotland so will not be able to come. His wife, well I should say Widow, is frail, so the burial will be a quick affair. The grave is a deep one, so the couple can be back together one day. The grave digger is really busy so he is going to dig the grave later on today and leave it ready for the service tomorrow.’

No one needed the rest of Melanie’s idea to be spelled out.

Joe, ‘How are we going to get him over there? We can’t risk taking him around the front in a wheelbarrow which is the dry way. Putting him in a car is not an option, too many downsides’

Peter ’Take him back across the brook then?

Across the brook it would have to be. More details were discussed and before they parted had identified a wheelbarrow in Lady P’s garden they could use. It would be needed, it was too far from the other side of the brook to drag or carry the body to the grave.

Two or three members of the group noted the ominous sky as they made their separate ways home. It looked like the sunny days might be interrupted. Lockdown had so far coincided with unseasonal, warm and dry weather.

Large raindrops began to splat on drives, pavements and garden furniture. Thunder in the distance promised a fair downpour. Fair it wasn’t, once started it seemed to want to make up for the all the sunny dry weeks of lockdown.

The Underground Group found the clay soil in the coffin was wet and decidedly claggy. Wet made everything heavier and the body seemed to be no exception. All felt spooked, but with a silent determination did what was necessary. It took longer than anticipated. Fear of being caught with a dead body was amplified when they realized just how high the brook was running. The body bumped down Lady P’s garden steps OK, but getting it across to the other side meant it had to be held onto tightly to get across the rapidly rising the water. Each Group member was fast running out of the adrenaline that had sustained them at the start.

The heavens had opened, so Joe had to speak quite loudly, ‘We’ll have to unroll the grass. It’s making him too difficult to move! The others agreed, but as they unrolled the shroud, the brook demonstrated the mean side of its character. Run-off and heavy rain combined to make the brook more like a white water rafting centre than the lethargic drool it had been for months.

They couldn’t hold on to the body, it broke lose, water caught it and washed it downstream, but only as far as the girder that had done the dirty deed.

‘Bugger’, Joe said, ‘he’s ended up where he started!’

Tony thought Joe had been restrained with his expletive. They’d got back to the bank, it was now impossible for them to be in the water, they also risked being swept away.

Joe said, ‘We’re in trouble now, we can’t get at him, he’ll be stuck there for someone to find, just where we didn’t want him found!’

‘Wait’. Gwen remembered something she had learnt the year before. A couple of Environmental Agency guys had been checking the brook during a short break in the heavy rains. Flooding had caused problems all over the country and the brook levels rose and fell from day to day.  Gwen had asked what would happen about the accumulation of debris caught at the pipe, fearing it would create a water back-up. One of the guys told her it wasn’t a problem as the larger debris would be carried over the pipe when the water rose higher and if the water went down the debris went under it. The debris only stuck when the water was level with the pipe.

Tony, ‘So, in theory our man could go further downstream if it rains more?’

Gwen, ‘In theory he could end up in The Wash!’

The Wash was nearly ninety miles away where the tributary waters of the River Nene emptied into the sea. Improbable as this ‘theory’ was the thought that their immediate problem could go that far away lightened the mood.

Peter, ‘We don’t need the body to go that far. Just a short way will be far enough before someone finds it. If it gets over the pipe and through the culvert under the road it will be closer to the Cross Keys and away from the Green.

Gwen, ‘That could work, he often drank at The Keys before going home half-cut. It’s closed during Lockdown but people might think he’d tried to see if they were doing a Back Door opening. Finding it wasn’t he might have knocked back the whisky from his flask! I could smell whisky on his breath when we tried to resuscitate him.’

It seemed odd for each of them to be praying to the Rain Gods. Rain wasn’t something you had to hope or pray for in England, it always managed to arrive uninvited, unwanted and with predictable regularity. If only it had been a normal British Bank holiday, rain always seemed to want to join in the holiday fun. The Underground gave up any hope of getting their burden to the grave they’d planned for it. With the body making a break for freedom there was no need to worry about the grave being empty or otherwise. The legitimate incumbent would not have to share for now. One of the members of the Underground managed to rescue the fake grass after it caught on a low hanging branch, it was now back on the garden, albeit with no real grass growing through.

Torrential rain was the best sound any of them could remember as each lay in bed that night.

No news surfaced about the body the next day. What did break as lead story on all channels was about old people in Care Homes. It seemed the country had woken up to the appalling situation.

Death rates in Care Homes, or as some wag called them, Don’t Care Homes, seemed criminally high, but those numbers were not included in the official Covid19 death count. Official denials, obfuscation, and attempted misdirection was sickening for members of The Underground Group and others to hear. The Front Line Carers in the Care Homes were doing an excellent job, but at great risk to themselves. The Government policy seemed to have abandoned the staff as well as the residents in that sector.

It wasn’t clear where the ideas about how to treat older people had come from but many could guess. The good thing was that The Underground’s strategy had been successful. It was clear that any Government plans there had been for old people would now have to change. This was a massive relief for each and every member of the Underground Group, a relief that wasn’t to last long.

Plans were made to return the Hidden Ones to their homes the next day, as well as to tidy the boats and relock them.

As far as they knew, to all intents and purposes, the body was still making its way to The Wash.

Melanie, ‘Look, I know we said tomorrow for us to move the Hidden Ones, but I’d feel a lot better if they were back in their own homes sooner. Is there any way we could move them today? To be honest I’m feeling so nervous about you-know-who being found. We’ve done well to social distance ourselves through everything we’ve done, even in the water and after, but if the police suddenly arrive it will be difficult to explain being seen out so much, especially with old ones who we aren’t related to.’

Peter, ‘You may be right, it’s not easy making sure they are OK on the boats, I’m happy to do it this afternoon if it suits the rest of you. Hopefully now the rain has eased off, it will stay dry enough to get them back without drowning them. Whoops, I didn’t quite mean that to sound….’

The plan was to escort each of their charges individually to help respect the social-distance rules. Personal belongings would be hidden under a few provisions in supermarket shopping bags.

The rest of the group agreed. The Operation was completed without a hitch, although it had taken some time to beg and convince the Hidden Ones to say nothing to anyone, at least for a few weeks. If anything, they were asked to say they had been taken to a Care Home for a while. The Underground Group and the Hidden Ones had quite liked the irony of turning that lie against those who had used Care Homes for their ‘Population Culling’ plans.

The hidden Ones were surprised and pleased to find their mobile phones seemed to start working perfectly after they arrived home.

The Underground knew that even with social distancing, eight of them near the same spot might be pushing their luck, still they had agreed to a ‘chance’ meet at the usual place once the Hidden Ones were all safely home.

Jan began the conversation, ‘I was stopped by a colleague for a chat on the way here. She asked if I’d heard the police are looking for a village man who is missing. Apparently the man’s wife reported him missing after he was gone for longer than usual. I managed to stay straight faced and said I hadn’t heard.  My colleague went on about other village ‘chat’, she seemed set to talk forever, so I was about to make my escape when she mentioned her neighbour. Seems some days ago he’d been out for a late walk on the Millennium Green and saw something odd in the garden where ‘that Lady Paddox is’. He said it almost looked like a body being buried, but then there was nothing, so he thought he was ‘just seeing things’. He made the comment to his neighbour that lockdown was obviously getting to him!

Restrained groans came from each of them, a sort of herd panic seemed to be bubbling up.

Stop! Sara pulled them all up with her sharp tone. ‘There is one thing left for us to do. We do it then remember that what has happened has saved countless lives. We are not responsible for the ‘other’ thing that happened, our ‘crime’ is in not reporting it. But… we must remember that that there is a Moral Law as well as a Criminal one and sometimes they part.’

Tony, ‘Yes I agree but why do I feel so bad about all this?’ There was no reply.

Two days later a body was found in the brook. It was behind and a good bit downstream from The Cross Keys. More Police were seen in village than had been seen for a long time. The local Village Facebook page lit up with condolences to the widow, even though she had never been seen on social media. Privately, many of those offering their condolences who actually knew her, thought it was a blessing in disguise for her. There was also speculation, not least as to how he had got into the brook. The FB page Admins shut off all posts once the speculation went too far.

A call was made to the police.

A Police Team arrived at Lady P’s garden, asked for permission to dig out the raised garden bed. Lady P’s companions saw no reason to demand a search warrant and permission was given. There was some excited activity when the Police shovel stuck something lumpy near the bottom. A red woollen glove stuck out from what looked like artificial grass. The grass was pulled back far enough to uncover a face. Blue eyes still gazing, definitely unseeing, Lady B. Paddox was revealed.

The police were not amused. Lady P, resurrected, was laid out on a sun lounger.

It was gently pointed out that what happened to Lady Paddox was no business of the Police.  However, to keep relations good and to satisfy their curiosity, they were told it had been decided by Lady P’s minions that she had amused the village long enough. She had been created from what was available at the beginning of Lockdown, hence her rather odd red woollen ‘hands’. She had done her ‘Lockdown Duty’. It was time for her to be culled.

The reason for her burial was explained. Because of movement restrictions. It had been impossible to buy loamy soil for the new raised bed. As a temporary solution it was decided to use the limited amount of rather inferior soil left after construction of the studio. To help fill it, Lady P. would occupy some of the space and was put in at the base. A win-win situation as she had to be disposed of and the recycling centres were closed. However, now she had been dug up it was felt she should resume her place overlooking the Millennium green. The Police were informed they could check on her authenticity on her own Facebook Page that had been signed up from her first appearance in the village.

Sometime later the news leaked out about the man in the brook. He had consumed a lot of whisky and it was concluded he had slipped into the brook during a particularly heavy storm.

The foreign press did not let go of their story, which was still being fed from the Dark Web.

The Westminster Government was seen to be looking for scapegoats.

Each member of the Underground continued to grapple with their part in not reporting the ‘mishap’ and would go on doing so.

‘Underground’ would pop up in other areas with other people if Government forgot, or ignored its democratic principles and behaved outside of its remit.

Something new had happened in this ordinary English village during the lockdown, some people had stopped taking ‘good’ for granted. They learned that ‘Good’ and ‘Right’ need to be protected and sometimes it was the action of ordinary people who did the protecting.

As for Lady Brooke Paddox, the Lady is back where she started, with her blue-grey gaze fixed firmly on the 800 year old Village Church.

Linda Sgoluppi


Lady Paddox

A competition and Lock-down activity

What a few years the last few have been. Not easy ones for sure.

I have written before about the painful years of caring for my husband through Alzheimer’s, his death and some of the aftermath.

Whatever I may or may not have seen coming after all that it certainly wasn’t the Covid19 Pandemic that drastically changed life for everyone.

Lock-down was a word I associated with movies about prisons, it sure wasn’t that the world would ‘Lock-down’.

The world became quiet. Nature went into a delighted shock and burst through showing us that if we humans vanished overnight completely, she, nature would just go on.

We haven’t vanished and it has become noisy again.

While Lockdown was quiet other things happened. People found ways to do things they would not have done.

Still trying to work through my own grieving it seemed as if instead of me being out of step with the world, the world had sort of slowed down enough to join me. It felt strange but in an odd way comforting.

My night anxiety levels went up even more for all the pain I knew so many were struggling with. I had held my husband’s hand and sang to him as he slipped away. So many could not have that last goodbye. Night was when the anxiety monster came for me.

Then I saw a competition for the Lock down period. It was billed as: ‘The national creative arts competition for older people stuck at home because of Coronavirus’ and was open to anyone over the age of 70 (later lowered to 65 when the deadline was extended).

The King Lear Prizes competition had different categories including Poetry, Solo Musical Composition, Short Drama, Art, and Short Story.

The rules stated that:

‘Entrants must not have had their work published before in a ‘paid for’ book, magazine or other format, or be a professional in the category that they are entering (except the Chairman’s Prize – see below). People who have self-published but have not been published as above are eligible to enter.’

Here’s a list of I’s

I wrote 4 short ‘stories’ and submitted them to the competition.

I am not a writer, I am a painter.

I admired authors before but now I admire them even more.

I learned a lot.

I started painting again.

While in progress, story-writing saw off the night monsters. I was so occupied in solving problems I had given the characters night panic attacks were curtailed.

I hadn’t intended to write anything until I saw the competition, it just sparked the idea that I could have a go, and it was fun. There have been so much laughter about how to get from one point to another even when the underlying theme is serious.

Now the competition is closed an email arrived suggesting the work created for it is shared by the participants, so I have decided to share on my blog site.

The stories are not posted in the order I wrote them.