Happy Valentine’s Day 2020

It’s almost Valentine’s Day and I intended to write a story for you. However, the plot bunny grew to stupid proportions and necessitated quite a bit of research so will not be ready for publication for some time. By the time I realised that, it was getting too late to write anything else. So, as I was about to add pdf versions of some of my work to my free fiction page I decided that would have to be my Valentine gift to you this year. People who have been following my posts for some time will be familiar with the works but at least can now download to read at their convenience and on any device. So I’ll post now for the sake of my Australian friends. Click on the free stuff tab and download anything you want to read, re-read or share! Enjoy!

Of ties and lawn mowers: a free fic for Friday.

The grass was covered in frost, slivers of white delicately outlining each blade. He could hear the crunch of steps on the gravel drive and the murmur of voices from the bar. It was early, but nobody would care to play until the sun broke through. Better to remain snug and dry indoors with a stiff drink as medicine against the cold. That created problems.

He’d asked Johnson to step into his office this morning. He’d intended to try a little innuendo, see how the fellow reacted. But if he showed interest, today wouldn’t be any good at all. The club would be full of members, all over the place, dammit. And what was he going to say to the man, after all? He could hardly pretend to give instructions about cutting the greens in this weather. The young groundsman would know quite well there was something up. Trouble was, he should never have taken him on. Should have realised at the interview that the man’s robust physique and black curls would just prey on his mind. Maybe not his mind. Prey on him, anyway.

Should have employed that older applicant with the stooped back and wall eye. Nothing for it, he’d have to leave a message postponing their intended chat. Say he’d had to go out unexpectedly. But then he’d have to go. Look bad if he was seen lurking in the bar with a drink rather than in his office where he’d said he’d be. He sighed and picked up his car keys. Perhaps no message after all. Just leave, and pretend he’d forgotten, later. Such a lot of fuss and deception.

Why did it have to be so difficult? Why couldn’t he just wink at the fellow and buy him a drink, put a hand on his shoulder, or even his thigh? He’d do that like a shot if he was a woman. If Johnson was a woman, rather. And he knew all about modern manners – no harassing the women staff, no harassing the staff altogether. But then how did a chap get to know if there was a possibility of anything? And he was old school, dammit, and wanted to make it all clear from the start. Straight. Well, not straight. Even the language was against him. Johnson crossed the car park in front of the windows and was heading towards the door that led to the offices. The manager fled, precipitately, muttering as he did, and passed the groundsman with his face averted.

*****

Johnson watched Harris get into his car and roar off into the cold morning. Funny, he could have sworn he’d been due to see him in the office. Odd guy. Good-looking. As in really really good looking. But cold rather than hot. Not old, but so old-fashioned and stiff. And never even a word for him as they passed in the doorway. Oh well, there was nothing that could usefully be done outside today. Whatever the manager wanted could wait till he came back and deigned to tell him about it.

Meanwhile, he’d been told he could use the bar as if he was a member. He’d have a look. You never knew, there might be some talent. Unlikely, but worth checking out. Most of the members were middle-aged and dull; probably straight as ramrods, too – like the manager. But it might be fun to drop a hint here and there, raise some of those middle -class eyebrows. Probably more than his job was worth though. So just a drink. Then he’d get on with stripping down, oiling and sharpening the mower. Dammit, he could have done with some entertainment today. He stripped off his heavy work gloves and headed further into the clubhouse.

*****

When Harris got back, he still felt out of sorts. He had driven around aimlessly, stopped at a pub with an odd name he couldn’t remember for a kind of ploughman’s lunch that wasn’t a patch on what they served at the club, and then decided he would have to return after all. There was a lot of office work to do. He sighed as he took off his jacket and rolled up his sleeves. Then he glanced out of the window and felt rewarded, excited even. Johnson was doing things to the mower. Esoteric things like taking it to pieces and putting it together again. Harris had no idea about mowers other than that they were expensive and were needed to cut grass. He did, however, have plenty of ideas about the groundsman.

Whatever he was doing, the task necessitated Johnson bending over the machine, his taut arse, splendid in its denim coating, directly visible to Harris, almost like an invitation. But it couldn’t be. Could it? The man must know the direction of the manager’s office window. But if he was concentrating on his work… Of course, he bloody well ought to be concentrating on his work. That’s why he was employed in the first place.

Except that if that was all that had been required, the older man might have been a better choice. Harris swallowed convulsively.

*****

That was the moment Johnson straightened and looked over his shoulder. He usually dealt with the machine just here, hoping against hope. But not really hoping, just daydreaming. Building castles in the air populated by older guys who were good looking. And he shouldn’t daydream. Not with the functionality of the club machinery at stake. He always wondered whether Harris ever saw him.

He’d obviously seen him today. Was staring at him, a kind of hunger on his face. Surely not? Surely the man was straight? He’d never heard any rumours to the contrary. Still, that meant very little. The man could be bi. Or he could be in denial, even to himself.

Johnson considered. There was every reason to ask to see the manager. The aborted meeting this morning – maybe there was something he should know before he went home. No need to allude to that strange moment when he’d caught Harris looking at him. No need at all. But if there was anything, well, perhaps this was the day to find out.

He finished dealing with the mower, then stood up, his back objecting to the straightening after so long bent over. His hands, cold even in the gloves, welcomed the idea of indoors.

*****

Harris didn’t have a secretary. Didn’t see the need. Karen on reception fielded visitors and members who wanted to see him, answered phone calls and did the odd spot of typing. Pretty girl, if you were that way inclined, which he wasn’t.
Staff mostly knew they could just knock on his door any time. He tried to be accessible. But when the knock came so closely after his glimpse of Johnson bending over the mower, he was almost panic stricken. He hastily adjusted himself and then sat down abruptly behind his desk. Wonderful what a lot a stretch of oak could hide.

‘Come in.’ Did his voice sound normal? He had no idea. And then he gulped as he realised who had just knocked and entered.

‘I just wondered, sir, whether there was anything important. Since you had to cancel our meeting this morning.’ Johnson’s voice was a sexy growl that had Harris half hard again in a second.

*****

Johnson wasn’t sure exactly what to say. The manager was looking nervous, or possibly annoyed. But his question, he thought, was perfectly legitimate. He enjoyed his job, and wanted to make sure there was nothing outstanding to be seen to urgently.
Harris was staring at him, his mouth opening and closing, but without any sound coming out. He was blushing slightly, too, as if caught in some secret activity. As if staring out of the window had been in some way reprehensible. Johnson could soon disabuse him of that notion. But he couldn’t risk open flirtation. He valued the job too much.

The silence continued.

‘Is there anything I can do for you?’ He used his most sultry voice, and hoped against hope that if he was wrong, Harris would just take the words at their straightforward value.

*****

Harris looked helplessly out of the window, hoping for some kind of rescue. The light was fading. It was still early January and the evenings started early. He could barely see the mower now. There was a dull glow across the course, where the street lights were coming on.

Johnson’s query couldn’t be real, could it? Could he, dull-as-dishwater Phil Harris, golf club manager, be arousing interest in this glorious twenty-something who stood in his office?

He cleared his throat.‘I’m sorry about this morning,’ he said. ‘Something came up.’
Well, that was a bit of innuendo he hadn’t intended. But the groundsman didn’t seem concerned. There was a small smile on his face. A knowing look in his eye.

*****

‘I was just servicing the mower,’ Johnson said now. ‘I wondered if anything else needed servicing.’ Then he muttered under his breath, ‘or anyone.’ It was so mumbled that if necessary he could say he’d said, ‘or something,’ and it would be hard for anyone to contradict him.

He waited. He didn’t dare say anything else. It would be so easy if they could only say exactly what they thought without any repercussions. But to begin with, although there could be no overt homophobia in his employment, a golf club was not the most progressive of workplaces, and to add to that, although Harris wasn’t his employer, he was his manager, so things could get awkward quickly.

Harris was moving towards him. That blush was deepening.

‘I was watching you with the mower,’ Harris said.

‘I know.’ Let him make the first move, for goodness’ sake. And yet, maybe he wouldn’t. Maybe he was too constrained by his managerial role.

*****

‘I was thinking,’ Harris said, hoping his voice wasn’t betraying his nerves, ‘that I might have a drink in the bar. Would you like to join me?’ There. That couldn’t be too threatening, could it? It wasn’t his custom to drink with staff, but he could, if necessary, justify it as some relaxation while they discussed aspects of Johnson’s work.

‘I’d like that,’ came the reply.

*****

They were staring at each other, neither of them quite daring to speak. Dan Johnson, the young groundsman, and Phil Harris the manager. Who’d have thought it? Mark Leigh, the barman, smiled to himself. He’d have thought it, had thought it the moment Dan had reported for work that first day. They were made for each other in so many ways. Looks – both had them in spades. Shyness, too and old-fashioned manners. Neither of them had ever shown the slightest interest in women, members, members’ wives, members’ daughters, kitchen staff, or Karen on reception. And if a guy wasn’t interested in Karen, then he wasn’t interested in women.

He served them a pint of beer each, and handed out coasters. He’d already cleaned the tables and was enjoying the lull between the daytime crowd and the evening lot. So Mark could watch this pair from his position behind the bar without them realising they were being scrutinised. It would, he thought, be as entertaining as any of the soaps on the telly.

*****

Harris loosened his tie. It was a few years since the club had abandoned its insistence on ties as the appropriate and mandatory wear in the bar. But Harris still felt somehow obliged to wear one. He knew it appealed to the older members, and he didn’t care whether it appealed to the women or not. Somehow, at the moment, the thing felt more like a noose.

‘Nice tie,’ he heard Johnson say. He’d chosen one of his favourites today, thinking of the appointment he’d made (and then broken) in the morning. It was dark grey with a tiny pattern of penguins wielding golf clubs and its fun element contradicted its formality, making him laugh inside.

‘Thank you,’ was all he managed.

Johnson was very slowly moving his hands, circling each wrist in turn. ‘Of course, ties are such useful things,’ he said. ‘Not just decorative.’

Useful? Harris tried to think of a use for a tie. Well, he supposed he could make a makeshift tourniquet if someone had a small wound. Anything else? No, he was stumped. He looked enquiringly at his companion.

‘For tying things up,’ the groundsman said. ‘They can be used to keep a wandering branch in place, or provide a quick mend on a machine. Though I’d never use one as good as yours, of course.’

*****

There didn’t really seem to be anything for either of them to say. Both men sipped their beer in silence.

‘I just wanted…’ Harris began, and Johnson waited for some kind of guillotine to fall. He had no idea whether the manager had wanted to praise or scold him or merely give instructions. It seemed he was about to find out.

‘…to tell you how pleased we are with your work,’ said Harris. The royal we? Hardly. The marital we? But Harris wasn’t married. The managerial we, then. But Johnson would take it, anyway.

He smiled, tentatively. And Harris smiled back.

He thought he’d said some kind of thank you. Then they made some desultory small talk about the grounds, the machines, the weather. If cross examined, Johnson would not have been able to remember what they had talked about. He was drowning in that smile. It lit up the manager’s face and brightened the dull grey evening.

Harris fidgeted with his tie again, and Johnson couldn’t help fidgeting with his fingers as he imagined tying it round the other man’s wrists.

Another smile. Why was it all so difficult? There was supposed to be equality nowadays. And he didn’t imagine teenagers had any problem making suggestions, proffering invitations, and so on. But adult men in the workplace were at a distinct disadvantage. Of course, so were women, and for that matter the men who wanted those same women, but acknowledging that didn’t make his own situation any easier.

‘Your day off’s a Monday, isn’t it?’ Harris knew perfectly well that it was. He made out the rotas for staff time off, and had probably checked in any case.

‘Yes?’ Johnson turned it into a query. Did Harris want to change something, or ask him to work overtime?

‘I wondered.’ Harris stopped.

Time to bite the bullet and offer some encouragement. ‘What did you wonder?’ Johnson spoke softly.

‘Whether you might like to go out for a meal some time. I checked which restaurants around here were open on a Monday.’ Harris was blushing again and looking extremely nervous.

‘I’d love to.’ That had to be clear enough.

‘Next Monday, then?’

‘It’s a date. That is, I’m assuming it’s a date. Is it a date?’ Johnson thought he might be blushing too.

‘Definitely a date.’ The tone was suddenly all efficient manager, confidence returning now that the invitation had been accepted.

‘And you’ll wear that tie?’

‘If you like it so much.’

‘It gives me ideas.’

‘About penguins? Or golf clubs?’

‘About the uses of strips of silk.’ There. That was definite, too.

‘By the way, my name’s Phil. Not at work, of course, but when we go out.’

‘And mine’s Dan.’ Stupid thing to say. Harris, Phil, was his manager; of course he knew his full name.

‘Till Monday then, Dan,’ said Phil.

They looked straight at each other, promise in both sets of eyes. Then Phil retreated to his office, pleading work to be done, things to sign, people to phone. And Dan got up with a thought about working but knew it was so dark and so cold that all he could reasonably be expected to do would be to put the mower away.

‘Leaving?’ The barman grinned.

‘Just need to tidy up.’ Dan knew his voice was gruffer than usual and that he had a stupid smile plastered all over his face.

‘Doing anything special tonight? You look as if you’re looking forward to something.’

‘Not tonight, but it’s Friday already. And I do have a date, but for Monday.’

‘Ah. Well, enjoy your evening anyway. See you tomorrow.’

‘See you.’ Saturdays and Sundays were their busiest days. Too busy to hope for any more unscheduled meetings with the manager. Monday, however…

He put the mower away in the outbuildings in a kind of dream, glanced at the manager’s window and saw Phil putting on his coat, presumably getting ready to go home. Though he’d probably be back later to oversee a Friday night in the club. Monday had to be his day off, too. Very few people played golf on Mondays and Karen could cope with them.

But the tiny penguins with their golf clubs would, he hoped, get the perfect round on Monday. Meanwhile, he could just enjoy the anticipation. He was soon astride his motorbike, bombing down the road to his future.

*****

Phil went home and fed his cat, Mogg, then went back to socialise and supervise in the bar. He had changed his tie for a light blue one with dark blue diagonal stripes. The penguins were now too precious to risk in the booze laden atmosphere of Friday night at the club.

He was smiling broadly. Let people wonder. It was almost Monday.

My writing: an update

I feel really strange.

I finished both the series that have consumed my brain and my time for the last fifteen years. Living Fae’s final volume, On the Edge, is in the last stages of formatting and might even be published about the same time as this post. The Skilled Investigators has reached a conclusion although my betas might ask me to expand bits. They usually do. I’m one of those authors whose word count goes up after editing…

On second thoughts, I’m going to hold back on publishing On the Edge. It isn’t a Christmas story and could get overwhelmed in the general riot at this time of year, and I’ll be publishing my Christmas offering so that friends not signed up to this blog can get it on Smashwords or Amazon.

Harlequin (Living Fae) and Genef (The Skilled Investigators) have lived in my head since their inception. I got to regard them as perfectly real and as good friends. Now I’ve told their stories and don’t quite know what to do with myself. I have a suspicion I might be lonely.

That’s not totally true. There’s another novel that has been languishing on my hard drive… it needs some care and attention but basically, it’s written. And it could possibly be the start of another series.

I haven’t only been writing the two series, of course. I’ve managed quite a few short stories, and a fair amount of fan fiction. I have also written poetry, reviews, and meta about writing. All in the last quarter of 2019.

I posted a poem recently (poems always get more reactions on WordPress than anything else I say) and I also posted (on AO3) a story for a Secret Santa exchange. My giftee liked it so that’s a plus and so did the mods! I can’t link anyone to it or say anything else until the author reveal which I believe is on Christmas Day. I published The Road, and the collection Beating Hearts, I wrote about typos and about reading mm romance, and I edited and amended a short story that I gave you for free (Hallowe’en Changes). Then I got another short story ready to post for you for Christmas (watch this space). So I suppose I’ve been busy.

All the same, Harlequin and Genef are going to leave a huge hole in my life. There is a vacancy in my brain for at least one more character to move in. How do I advertise for new tenants?

A fantasy writer’s lament

(shutterstock – public domain – fractal art/poly dragon – photoshopped)

There’ s a dragon sitting in my head,
not breathing fire unless I refuse
to give him a role in my latest work
or choose
to pretend he’s not in my head at all but just
a figment, imaginèd.

In shadow behind the dragon
a silvery unicorn prances,
slipping in and out of mist,
taking his chances
I’ll add him to the story,
wild and moon-kissed

Hunting (both dragon and unicorn),
seeking friendship, not conquest,
fae creatures try
to convince me they’re wonderful and strange,
not just like every other sentient being
under the sky.

(Magical families and travels
or fantasy love and crime
don’t differ from the mundane kind;
they’re merely more exotic
to observe,
and in my mind.)

They make incessant noise in my head,
these uninvited guests of mine,
chattering day and night.
Sometimes I’d like some peace and quiet,
all for myself, and so…
I write.

Happy Halloween. Have a free story!

The story is dedicated to smallhobbit, a friend in real life and on social media, who entertains me with her fanfic offerings and whose birthday falls on Halloween. The house in the story is real; I live in it. The characters and plot are based on something I wrote some years ago, but recently rewrote and edited extensively.


Hallowe’en Changes.

Adam ran quickly upstairs. Time had passed while he was putting the finishing touches to Ewan’s costume for the Hallowe’en party tonight and he hadn’t noticed, lost in considering how to attach the tail and horns so that a six year old would be unlikely to dislodge them. He was due at the school gates in ten minutes and and Ewan would cry if he was late again. Then the other parents, mostly mums, would tut and frown and mutter about children with two dads having problems. Mentally slapping himself for being such an irresponsible parent, he dashed into the bedroom and grabbed his coat. It was still October for just under twelve hours, but the temperatures were threatening frost, and since the hour had gone back it was almost dark when the children came out of school.

Oh no! He simply had to post the birthday card he’d made for his mother last night and it was up in his craft room in the attic. Two at a time wasn’t really an option on the steep narrow stairs from the spare bedroom but he did try to hurry.

And came out into a loft space full of strangers. Strangers working at cramped benches in an atmosphere of smelly chemicals and damp felt. Well, the house wasn’t called Hatters’ Court for nothing and he was tired. Maybe his brain was taking liberties. He knew the loft had been part of a communal workspace, accessible from the whole terrace. The previous owners had found a hat form and bobbins when they were renovating. Maybe the card could wait till later; there was a post at 5.30. He and Ewan could go for a walk to the postbox. There’d be plenty of time before the party.

He backed but didn’t quite make the stairs. A fatherly looking man in shapeless clothes took his elbow and ushered him to a bench.

“I know you’ve just lost your wife, dear, but you really must try to be at work on time. Those kiddies of yours depend on just your wages, now, don’t they?” It wasn’t a question so much as a threat, made softly but very firmly. And the man was all too solid. Not, definitely not, a figment of an overwrought imagination.

The other men at his bench were busy, their fingers impossibly entwined in felt and thread and needles. He watched them for a moment then gasped as a hat, or rather, the makings of a hat, was thrust into his hands.

“Come on, Timothy. Stop day dreaming. And get a move on.” The words were rough but spoken quite kindly and Adam stared at the speaker. About his own age. Badly dressed and careworn, but pleasant looking, with blue eyes and fair hair, a bit like his friend Mike. Very like Mike in fact. A joke? A hoax for Hallowe’en? Surely not at hometime. Mike would be there now. Maybe he’d pick Ewan up, take him home to wait for his idiot father. The other parents never looked critical when they regarded Mike, but then they didn’t know he was gay, too, just that he was a writer, and worked at home, and was therefore free to pick up Callum. Mike’s partner Dave had died in a road accident when Callum was a baby.

So, play along. Suss out what was going on and avoid making waves till he had more information. He worked carefully but rapidly, watching the others and picking up the intricacies of the task with growing confidence. For someone with experience of a variety of sewing techniques, it wasn’t too difficult. Once, he’d been a fashion designer and now his main contributions to the world of clothing were the costumes he made for Ewan, and some local garment repair jobs but it was, he thought, like riding a bike. However, he was soon tired, fancying a coffee or just a loo break. His fingers hurt. Nobody moved from their appointed workstations. No drinks were forthcoming. When he tried to get up there was a gasp of shock and he sat again, pretending he was just making himself more comfortable.

The windows were smallish and not at a height to let the workers see out but he could see that daylight was fading fast. What on earth would Richard think when he got home and there was no one in. No husband, no son, no dinner. There would be a row later for certain. People who gave up their high paid city jobs to be at home with their children were expected to cook and clean and wash instead, even if their card creation and tailoring skills were still pulling a respectable income. Richard had encouraged him to stay at home but he sometimes thought the price was steep.

“You can do your job anywhere,” Richard had said, coaxingly. Had he just been keen to have a house-husband waiting on him hand and foot? Sometimes, it seemed that way. To be fair, Richard’s work in the bank demanded a physical presence, though more and more of his financier colleagues were taking advantage of flexi-time and job sharing.

His fingers faltered as he mused and the overseer, the man who had greeted him, frowned and rapped on the table.

“Timothy, dreaming again! That’s no way to make a living! If finishers don’t finish, hats don’t sell.” His voice was sharper than that of the younger worker and Adam looked across the table for sympathy but the young man’s face was intent on the hat in his hand.

“Look, this has gone far enough.” He sounded as exasperated as he felt. “This hoax or whatever. It’s beyond a joke now. I’m out of here.” He threw the hat on the table and made his way to the stairs. To his surprise, others were following him. The overseer was saying,

“Time to knock off. Same time tomorrow morning. Expect a shake if you sleep in.”

And with that, they all trooped downstairs. Except that they didn’t come out into Adam’s spare bedroom. It could have been, he thought. It was about the right size. But there were three narrow beds crushed into the space that usually held one double and a dressing table. And the cheerful crimson and mushroom colour scheme had melted into brown and dirty white. The carpet was gone.

He looked out of the window and got the biggest shock yet. Now he could no longer pretend that this was a joke or a trick. The Fold, as the tucked-away lane was called, was there all right, but beyond the last house there was nothing but fields and there was no sign of the car park.

Mike’s house at the other end of the terrace was in darkness. There was what looked like a candle flicker next door. Adam’s house was the short leg of an L-shape. All present and correct. Only not correct. Not correct at all.

The other men took no notice of him as they made their way through the house and down to the ground floor. Not all of them. He could hear footsteps above his head, fading as they reached the corner where the lofts joined. They shouldn’t, he reflected, be able to get through the walls erected for fire safety. But they evidently did. The men in his house seemed quite at home. One of them went straight to the lounge. Adam’s lounge. Richard’s lounge. A kitchen in this reality. Heavy blackened pans and a fly covered ham hung from the beams. There were empty hooks, too, as if food were scarce. A woman was already stirring a big pot over the range where Richard’s expensive woodstove ought to stand.

“What’s for dinner, Sal?” The questioner didn’t sound hopeful.

“What d’you think?”

“Pea soup, I s’pose. It’s always pea soup. Did you put a bit of ham in it?”

“Naw, that’s got to last us, that has. Till Christmas, any road.”

Adam was shell-shocked. Confused rather than frightened. They didn’t seem to mean him any harm but surely they couldn’t be real? Or at least, they probably had been real once. He must be seeing the house as it had been a hundred and fifty years ago. But they could see him, talk to him, hand him things. He shook his head and tried to stop the sense of panic that was rapidly overtaking him.

Someone handed him a dish of greyish liquid. Pea soup, presumably. And a heel of bread. That was greyish too, and very stale. He was hungry, however, and curious. He dipped the bread in the soup, as the others did. It helped to soften it and he had soon polished off his helping. There was, apparently, no more. The others were washing their ‘pots’ as they called them, at a sink in the corner. Using a jug of cold water to pour over the dishes which they then left to drain on a sloping wooden board. Adam followed suit, grimacing inwardly at the lack of hygiene. Richard would be horrified; Ewan would be ill. He tried to think about them and shook his head to clear the fog that was forming in it.

Even in this once-upon-a-time world, surely hygiene mattered? He tried to recall period dramas he’d watched.

“Is there no hot water?” he asked of no-one in particular.

“Not for washing up.” It was Sal who spoke. “Can’t afford the wood any more.” He heard mutters from some of the others and realised there was the same slight disapproval here that he’d sensed among the mums at the school gate. He sighed. It seemed altogether too easy to annoy whatever group he found himself in.

There was little conversation, but he gathered these people were related. A sister and three brothers, plus himself, of course, and a couple of small children in a cot, in the corner opposite the sink, under some sacking. He glanced at them and was thrown by their resemblance to Ewan and Callum. One of the boys opened sleepy eyes.

“Papa,” he said. Shocked but touched, Adam kissed the little upturned face and replaced the sacking. He whispered a tentative goodnight and followed the others upstairs.

Two to a bed. That seemed to be the rule. And only one candle, guttering. It was quite dark outside now. He would have to sleep here and hope to wake in his own bed in the morning, next to Richard rather than this stranger. Unless he woke in a hospital ward which seemed increasingly likely.

The woman had a bed to herself of course. But that didn’t last long. A large man came up the stairs and joined her then turned straight over and started to snore. Adam sat on the edge of ‘his’ bed, staring at the candle. Nobody had undressed. It was quite cold and he was glad to keep his clothes on. Thank goodness he was wearing his warm jog pants and sweatshirt. Except that he wasn’t. Where on earth had he got the woollen trousers and the knitted jersey? And when?

“Come on, Tim.” His bedfellow sounded sleepy. “Moping won’t bring your woman back to life. Get to sleep now.” He turned over and Adam joined him in the narrow bed. He didn’t sleep much; he spent most of the night clinging to the edge so as not to fall out. There had to be a knack to this but he hoped he wasn’t going to have to learn it.

The next morning, after a cup of something that could have been either fruit tea or a vaguely alcoholic drink but was too weak for recognition, and another hunk of bread each, two of the men set off up to the workroom. The other looked set to follow, tying his shoe laces and draining his cup.

“Don’t just stand there, Tim. See to the kids then get yourself up there as soon as you can! Him in charge’ll get mad if you’re late again.” It was Sal speaking.

Adam helped the little ones out of bed. There was nothing to give them except water.

“Don’t be daft!” Sal was speaking again. “They can’t drink that! Haven’t you been listening? There’s cholera in town. Give them some ale like we had.”

Frightened by the mention of disease, as he had not been by the whole situation to date, Adam did as he was told. He might be immune to the cholera, if that was what it was, but the children wouldn’t be. One of them spoke.

“Is it time to go to Sairy’s, Papa?” he said. He let the children pull him out of the door and down the lane to the house where, in normal times, Mike lived. The woman who opened the door was not Mike, nor even some kind of female replacement. She was old and huge and exactly like Adam’s mental image of a witch. There were half a dozen listless children huddled round a small coal fire and Adam’s pair joined them without looking back.

He returned to the house and climbed up to the loft. The hats were waiting.

As he worked, he tried, haltingly, to explain what was happening to him, but even to his own ears it sounded mad and unlikely. The others seemed to think it was mad, anyway. There were mutters about hatter’s complaint, the mercury poisoning that sent so many of the workers insane. But his brother, if he was his brother, Bob spoke up for him. Losing his wife that way was turning his mind for the moment. What way? He couldn’t exactly ask but it couldn’t have been the cholera or someone would have been sharper with him about the water. He’d soon be back to normal, said Bob, grinning at Adam with a mouth full of rotten teeth; not quite full – there were a number of gaps.

They did knock off at lunch time. Adam had wondered if they would and had not felt hopeful. Someone brought some stewed tripe and it was shared out eagerly. He tried to eat it and almost gagged. Being hungry evidently didn’t extend to tripe. Bob was eyeing his plate and he handed it over without a word.

“Not hungry, our Tim?” Bob didn’t wait for an answer but tucked in.

After lunch the work stretched on into the afternoon and early evening. He was aware of sounds below. Sairy had brought the children home and put them to bed. There were noises in the lane. A horse and cart and a man whistling his dog. Older children playing. The sky was growing duller and still the hats filled his time.

About half an hour before ‘home’ time, he needed to pee. Desperately. Caught the overseer’s eye and asked for permission. Made his way downstairs and…

… found himself in the spare bedroom. The phone was ringing and he answered it automatically, reaching the landline handset in their bedroom before the rings could stop. It was Richard. Breathlessly he stumbled his story out to him and became aware of an ominous silence.

“Adam, it’s nearly hometime and I know you have to pick Ewan up. I haven’t time to listen to your trivia.” Trivia! “I’m phoning to say I won’t be home tonight. Or tomorrow for that matter. Or ever, apart from coming to pick up my things. I’m only telling you so that you don’t contact my firm. Or the police.” Adam held the phone away from him, not sure if it was real. He looked around at the turquoise carpet and aqua bedspread, chosen so carefully a lifetime ago. And yet he thought he’d been waiting for this and it was almost a relief.

He heard himself asking faintly what day it was and Richard’s puzzled reply that if it mattered, it was Hallowe’en and he’d have to go to the party without him if he wanted to go at all. Ewan would be disappointed. It seemed Halloween would be a joyless celebration this year but he would make an effort for Ewan’s sake, and he wasn’t quite as upset as he’d thought he would or should be.

He put the phone down and picked up his coat. The card for his mother was already lying on the bed beside it. The clock said 3.01. The children would only just be leaving the classroom.

He hurried and was at the school gates before they came piling out. Ewan was clutching a ‘Hallowe’en card’, a gaudy thing with a witch and glitter. Callum was behind him, sucking his thumb, all big eyes and untidy hair. Adam looked round for Mike then heard a teacher saying something about Mike not being able to pick Callum up and would he…?

Still in a daze, he shepherded both children home, made hot Vimto and opened a packet of Rich Tea biscuits. The phone rang again and it was Mike, a troubled, nervous Mike, who seemed to be apologising for something and hoping that Callum wasn’t rubbing salt in the wound. He became aware of Richard’s voice in the background telling Mike to put the phone down. Then everything clicked into place and sent his world spinning into uncomprehending mist and white noise.

Later, a minute later or an hour, but more likely a minute since the children hadn’t finished their Vimto, he was aware of Ewan pulling at the hem of his sweatshirt.

“Daddy, there’s a man at the door. He’s doing a pro – pro – well he wants to know about the hatters who used to live here, and did you get my devil horns for tonight and what time are we going?” Listening to a six year old could be confusing but Adam knew the man at the door didn’t want to know about the horns.

Adam pointed to them, attached to the hood of the red velvet onesie on the dining room table, and thought quickly that he’d have to dress Callum as a ghost; sheets were easy. Next time there was a fancy dress party he could sent them as twins, Tweedle Dum and Tweedle Dee. Appropriate for people who seemed to have fallen down a rabbit hole.

The he crossed the room and opened the door.

Sebastian, tall, red-haired and handsome, was a researcher for television and his admiring first look at Adam turned to real interest when he found he could tell him a lot about the hatters. Adam wondered if he had it all absolutely right. After all, there was no proof that he’d gone back to a real situation. But then it probably didn’t matter since television histories were often full of inaccuracies and nobody really cared. Besides, it would be really hard to prove him wrong. Sebastian seemed conscientious and very, very interested. So interested that when Adam pointed out that he had a ghost costume to pluck from thin air and a party to attend with two small children and no significant other, Sebastian seemed to think that was an invitation for him to join them.

He was still interested when Adam told him about the cards and the sewing, briefly sorry about the loss of the high-powered fashion lifestyle but only for Adam’s sake.

“You’re well out of it,” he said. “It’s a rat race out there. And if you get itchy fingers we can always do with someone to help with costumes for shows.”

So there was a glimmer of permanence, maybe? Adam smiled. Maybe Halloween was going to prove joyous, after all.