“Snakes and Ladders” – a fictional story of predatory behaviour

‘Snakes and Ladders’

 “What goes around comes around”.  It’s a common enough aphorism, but God knows there is precious little evidence for a perfect karmic system of justice.  It has served me well enough though, helping me suck up the slights of life in the belief that the perpetrator, the cause of my angst, would one day ‘get’ his, or hers.  Taking the high ground, I used to call it.  It kept me out of a few confrontations but when it failed, bloodied and bruised, whether literally or metaphorically, I took comfort from belief in a future of righteous redress.  Until, that is, I met Nadine.

Nadine must have been born manipulative because even at 19, when we first met, she was already the finished article.  She had all the physical and intellectual assets one could want in a woman, except one: she had no scruples. She could make you feel you were in the wrong, and even apologise for getting in her way, as she put the boot in.  Fortunately for me our paths only crossed tangentially, but from time to time we had mutual friends and colleagues.  I heard from them about the damage she did but never that she’d been called to account.

I first came across her at a flat warming.  Three first year student friends of mine, Niki, Simon and Ella, were sharing a sunny first floor in Clapham.  Nadine came along to the party with a mutual friend of theirs.  Niki and Simon were a loose item, rather more loose to Simon than Niki it transpired when Nadine made a blatant play for him.  She was taller, more athletic, and cleverer than Niki and it didn’t take her long to ease the heartbroken girl out of the flat and take over her room.  Shortly after that she dumped Simon over some fabricated dalliance between him and Ella and, in three months from start to finish, she had the flat to herself.

By these and similar methods she clawed, inveigled or dissected, her way to an underserved first class degree (leaving her tutor’s marriage in tatters in the process) and then an MBA.  By the time she was ready for the snakes and ladders of business she’d ‘hopscotched’ her way across London from flat to maisonette to house, and along the way had accumulated a rather nice Alpha Romeo Spyder, a time share in Gleneagles, a pony (stabled) and more jewellery than could be decently worn in polite company.

The infuriating thing was that Nadine didn’t need to be this way; she was actually über competent, at everything.  She never climbed over someone into a qualification, a job, or a bed that she didn’t then occupy with more success and ease than the rightful incumbent.   Her reasoning seemed to be that there was no point in wasting everyone’s time, especially hers, proving that she was better at, or more deserving of, something someone else already had.  She just took it, used it, and then abandoned it when the next opportunity came her way, leaving someone else to pick up the pieces.

We were 5 years out of university before I saw her again.  I was with my, then, girlfriend Elaine at the British Film Institute; a season of Balkan avant-garde movies.  When the lights came up, there she was in the seat in front.  I tapped her on the shoulder.  We walked out to the foyer together, she chatting superficially in the way you do when you’re struggling to remember the name of someone you’ve met out of context.  She introduced us to her companion Boris, an under-something in the Croatian embassy, before we went our separate ways.  Later I heard she had a flat in Korcula and Boris had been demoted and transferred to a consulate in Bolivia.

We met a couple more times, just passing through the same airport departure lounge, or a reception somewhere, but the next occasion after that was different.  I was diligently, if tediously, working my way up the ladder in a private bank.  I even had a chic office on a favoured 35th floor corner in Canary Wharf.  Well, to be more accurate, it was my boss Dave that had the corner office, I was next door.  Anyway, one hot May I was sitting with my door open, for the illusion of cooler air, and looked up to see Nadine standing there, being introduced by Dave as his new P.A.  She was casually dressed in a tailored silk blouse and slacks, but every inch the powerful corporate animal.  There was just the merest flicker of recognition from her before she turned away and I knew right then that, whichever way the dice fell, poor Dave was about to land on a succession of squares with snake heads and slide right off the game board.

In a way Nadine counted me as a friend, well at least not an enemy, because I’d never had anything she wanted, nor stood between her and her next objective.  Nevertheless it was prudent self-preservation that stopped me from trying to warn Dave.  Instead I watched her, in the way a fascinated child watches a python in the zoo, as she undulated her way into position for her next live meal.

Her first coil was simple and subtle: a presentation to a new client went unaccountably wrong.  A brochure was bound with some pages upside down, a name tag was misspelled, some annual account figures didn’t quite add up.  The outsourced printers took most of the blame, but the CEO noticed the beads of sweat break out on Dave’s upper lip, and the adroit way that Nadine gathered up the loose ball and ran with it.  She knew exactly what to say, and how to say it in such a way as to leave the unmistakable impression of a man out of his depth being rescued by a loyal and undervalued assistant.

The second coil wound on quickly afterwards, at a Wimbledon-week garden party for some minor-royal Saudi client.  Of course there was no alcohol on offer with the post- match strawberries, but ever-attentive Nadine saw to it that, as he networked the clients, Dave’s glass of fruit punch was always topped up, but with a little hidden extra.  When he was found face down in the shrubbery Nadine was tending him wearing a Royal teal-blue hijab she had secreted in her handbag.  The contrast between her chaste modesty and her disarrayed drunken boss ensured that control of the account passed to her, and she was being tipped to head up the Dammam office the following year.

The only time she came even close to being exposed was when Ranjit, the night security guard, found her going through Dave’s desk and laptop.  She was copying and deleting files, leaving a trail of incompetence for her coup de grâce.  Ranjit was no match for Nadine and easily fell victim to her blushing embarrassment; he was “paid in kind”, then blackmailed, for his silence.  And so it went on; little by little the life, and job, was squeezed out of Dave.

About 6 months later I happened to be sharing the lift with Nadine, by then my boss, when it shuddered to a stop between floors.  Ordinarily being trapped in a lift with a more-than attractive predatory female would be the stuff of many a male fantasy, but the barely nascent thought was stifled by the realisation that, at last, what had gone around was about to come around in spades: Nadine was obviously very scared, and she began to unravel.  This time it was her doing the sweating, her with a look of non-comprehension on her face, and her out of control as she crumpled into a corner hugging her knees and gabbling.  It wasn’t hard to get her to talk about herself at any time so it only took gentle prompting, purely as a way of calming her nerves you understand, to get her to review her successful career and catalogue her victories and victims.  By the time we got to the juicy details of poor Dave’s fall she was standing again, head back in full flow, assured and confident as ever.

After about an hour power to the lift was restored, and downward travel resumed.  Nadine checked herself over in the mirrored wall of the lift car, adjusted her neck line, smoothed down her skirt, and flicked her hair before turning and thanking me for helping her keep calm. At the 8th floor, where she was going to a wine and canapés ‘do’ for future vice-presidents, she gave me a peck on the cheek, at the same time digging her finger nails ever-so gently into my hand to tell me, as if I needed telling, that she intended her ‘performance’ to be our little secret.

Me?  I was on my way home to Elaine, but I got out of the lift as well.  I thought that walking the last few floors would give me time to think, about what I should do and how it might play out, and I was right.  By the time I had reached the lobby, I knew.  I ran the last flights to the basement security office and Ranjit, and the recording from the in-lift CCTV camera.  Despite the emergency lighting in the stranded lift, the dim images were perfectly usable, and the sound crystal clear.

Don’t you just love ‘YouTube’?

 

© Andrew Gold 2015

Days of Beige

D’Arcy and Sybil approach the promenade café, as they do once a week, for a late breakfast.
They are dressed in their Saturday clothes. D’Arcy is wearing needlepoint corduroy trousers and a safari jacket. Both are beige, and baggy on his thin frame. A narrow-striped shirt, paisley cravat, and suede shoes complete his ensemble. Light on his feet for an octogenarian, D’Arcy springs to the door with a flourish. He pulls it open for Sybil and salutes smartly. Smiling coyly she pulls at his arm and says what she always does.  “Oh D’Arcy, behave.”
Mr Singh, the café owner, comes round his counter wiping his hands on the teacloth which always hangs from his shoulder and greets them.
“Good morning Mr D’Arcy. How are you today? Mrs D’Arcy. You look lovely as always. Is that a new dress? Very beautiful.”
He knows it is not a new dress. It is the same pale blue dress she wore last week, and the week before, the one she got at Sue Ryder in the High Street at Easter. Her black patent court shoes match the small bag hanging on a chain, loosely, from her shoulder.
Mr Singh ushers them to their table, the one by the window, the one with the white plastic ‘Reserved’ sign which he deftly removes.
“Your table”, he says, as he flicks the seats with his cloth. “I trust this is satisfactory?” He knows it is satisfactory. It is always the only table vacant at 11 on a summer Saturday morning in his busy establishment. He enjoys the game they play. He is their Majordomo, they are his valued guests in a grand hotel dining room somewhere.
D’Arcy pulls a chair back for Sybil to sit and Mr Singh does the same for him.
“And what can I get for you today, something special perhaps?” He knows the answer.
“I think we’ll have two of your toasted teacakes, some thin cut marmalade and a pot of your finest Darjeeling tea, if you please Mr Singh”.
As D’Arcy and Sybil settle into contemplation of the week past, Mr Singh turns towards the kitchen. He is stopped in his tracks by the café door being wrenched open and two more customers come in. It is Shane and Trisha. He thinks “Oh God, not today, please” but feels his skin go tight around his jaw as he must say something else, with a smile. “I’m sorry, but we are full just now, perhaps you can come back later, yes?”
Trisha half turns to leave but Shane points and moves towards the two empty seats at D’Arcy and Sybil’s table.
“Nah, this’ll do, won’t it Trish. We don’t mind sharin’, even with wrinklies.” He laughs.
Mr Singh and D’Arcy look at each other. Mr Singh’s eyes plead and say he doesn’t want any trouble. D’Arcy raises a hand to acknowledge his plight and his eyes say they don’t mind sharing.
Shane and Trish sit, placing their mobile ‘phones on the table. Not waiting to be asked Shane orders. “Two mugs of tea, and two bacon and egg rolls, Gunga Din, and make it quick: people to see, places to go.” Mr Singh returns to his kitchen and Shane mocks the gentility of the old couple opposite.
“I say Trish, the tone of this gaff has gone down a bit lately ain’t it. What’s that pong? Old people always whiff a bit, don’t they?” Sybil is wearing her priceless Jean Patou scent, the one from the tiny black bottle she keeps on her dressing table, the one she got in Paris at the end of the war. Trish giggles, but looks at Sybil’s kindly calm face and feels a wriggle somewhere inside. She is uncomfortable but the goading is cut short when the orders come. Her ‘phone pings. She picks it up, looks at the screen, snorts “s’only Chantelle” and puts it down again.
Sybil and D’Arcy unwrap their butter patties delicately, carefully scraping each paper clean before folding them precisely. They quarter their teacakes, and cut them again into neat triangles. The treat lasts longer that way. They are used to making things last.
Shane and Trish grab at their rolls, but then look and grin at each other. In grotesque parody of the gentility across the table, they cut their rolls into pieces. Then, mouth open, they noisily chew a quarter at a time, the runny egg dribbling down their chins and over their fingers.
D’Arcy and Sybil continue to talk quietly about the week gone and the day to come.
“It turned out nice after all, didn’t it D’Arce? I thought the rain was in for the day, but it turned out nice.”
“Yes. Nice. I thought it might, something about the clouds looked, you know…promising.”
“Yes. Promising. You’re usually right about the weather, aren’t you? We could walk down to the bowling club later, if your legs are alright, D’Arce.”
“Yes, good idea. Is your teacake nice?” Mine’s lovely, I think they’re always good in here.”
Shane’s ‘phone pings. He picks it up, looks at it, guffaws “Facebook” then resumes his goading.
“I say Patricia, if you’re up to it, we could go dahn the skate park. By the way, these rolls are quite superb ain’t they? The egg works with the crispy bacon so well, don’t it? Oi! Gunga Din, my compliments to the chef.” Then he turns to D’arcy.
“What do you think D’Arce old chap. ‘Ere, ‘ave a try.”
And with that he lifts his plate and slides a half-eaten part of his roll onto D’Arcy’s teacake. Egg oozes into marmalade.
D’Arcy stares at his plate, and then at Shane. Trish feels the wriggle again, but smirks. D’Arcy looks back at his plate and then at Sybil. “Oh dear,” she says “that’s not nice is it. Not called for at all”.
“No, not called for Sybil. Perhaps we should go, we don’t want to cause any trouble?”
Shane, sensing his advantage, presses on.
“What about Sybil ‘ere, she looks like she could do with a bit of protein. ‘Ere you go luv.”
And he scrapes part of Trish’s roll onto Sybil’s plate.
D’Arcy and Sybil look at each other again, resigned, and Sybil picks up her bag and makes to leave but Shane in, mock regret, implores them to stay.
“Oh, don’t go. I’m sorry. Let me get you another. Oi, Gunga Din, Mr and Mrs D’Arce ‘ere ‘ave ‘ad an accident. Another two teacakes if you please.”
Sybil sits again, her hand still on her bag, and looks again at her husband.
“It’s no use D’Arce. We’ll have to do something.”
“I suppose so, Sybil.”
Shane feigns alarm “Oooh, careful Trish. We’ve got ‘em all annoyed now, they might….”
But, before Shane can finish his sentence, D’Arcy and Sybil each pick up a fork and pin his denim jacket cuffs to the table. Trish’s scream chokes as Sybil wraps the chain of her handbag round her neck and pulls her, face first, into the remains of her egg roll. While Sybil holds Trish down, D’Arcy reaches for Shane’s mobile phone and places it in the centre of the table in front of the immobilized youth.
Looking directly into Shane’s eyes, he brings the heel of his hand down on the handle of a knife which spins into the air. In one flowing movement he catches it again and drives the buttery blade through the ‘phone’s screen. Applause breaks out in the café.
D’Arcy and Sybil wipe their hands on Shane’s hair and walk to the door.
“Well Sybil, to be honest I wasn’t sure we could still do that, were you?”
Oh yes, D’Arce. I know we’re getting on a bit but S.O.E training was very good. Those were the days. So, bowling then?”

“Thunderball”

 

Alice slips on her shoes, quietly opens the door, pulls up a frayed coat collar against the rain and walks unsteadily away. Turning the corner she stops, leans against a wall to breathe and listen, but there is only the echo of a barking dog and her own footfall moving on. She does not know where to, but it will not be back: her bloodied eye tells her that. It is not the first time he has hit her, this time for forgetting his lottery ticket. His ticket. Her ticket, and five million pounds, will take her far, far away.

 

100 words

“Judge not…”

 

Bing bong.
Like Wyndham’s Chrysalids, they are crisp, clean, cloned and innocent.
Wanly smiling she says “Do you think about the future at all?”
It must be cold dispiriting work, winter door-stepping the unsaveable, so I say “At my age I think more about the past”.
They laugh, and put at ease come in for debate, tea and homemade scones.
“These are lovely,” he says, “really unusual flavour. May I?”
“Of course,” I say, “help yourselves. Take some home if you like.”
Leaving, already giggly, she hands me leaflets.
Mulling Matthew 7, I wonder what they’ll think about their futures.

100 words

“Distance Past”

 

His heart recognised her immediately; after 30 years it still skipped. She did not see him in the cafe; she was stirring soup, and his memories. His eyes traced the olive soft skin of her arm, rising and falling, the little birthmark that still peeked from her sleeve.
He had never understood how the space between them could ache so. Now it ached more than ever but she, still wearing a ring, and he one of his own, was still untouchable.
So holding the thought that, if she knew, she would really love him back, he turned and walked away.

100 words

“True Love”

 

Cheryl is giving Victor his regular trim.
“How’s your week been?”
“Same old, same old”, he lies.
The lost love of his life has just arrived at the home, but does not remember him. Dementia.
“There, Victor, nicely presentable.”
Tidied, he sits staring at the garden, untended like his love, holding her hand. Once soft and supple, her thin skin maps a long life with another.
Rehearsing passion never declared he squeezes and mouths “I love you, Jenny”, but it escapes.
She squeezes back, staring now at him.
“Are you Eric?”
Her slight smile is worth the deceit.
“Yes dear”.

100 words

“Putting the Clocks Back”

 

It’s that time of year again, but it is years since John rose to the alarm. He weighs the value of getting up at all but then sighs and rolls stiffly out of bed, edging downstairs one step at a time, the bannisters for support not fun. Through the steam of a boiling kettle he contemplates the cold dark morning, fingers his coarsely stubbled chin and wonders how others, out there, live with caution bred of age and uncertainty.
Waiting for television to emerge from its nightly chrysalis he adjusts all the clocks, except the one he cannot turn back.

100 words

Rabbi Burns

A tale for Burns Night.
I was Glasgow-January cold, head-down at my ‘Hungry and Homeless’ pitch outside the station; knees under my chin, complete with polystyrene cup, obligatory sad-eyed mongrel at my feet, and a fresh pack of cigarettes in my army surplus satchel. The dog looked up, so I looked up too. “Any spare change, pal?” I said, but the outstretched hand was empty.

“I’m Bob Burns,” the owner of the hand said, “my friends call me the Rabbi”.

I shook the hand. Looking at his clothes, and hearing the Ulster edge in his voice, I thought, “Rabbi is it? More like another dosser”, but instead I said “I don’t do synagogue, and you don’t sound, or look, Jewish – so…..”. I hoped he’d take the hint and go away, but instead he sat on the blanket. The dog raised an eyebrow and half-looked at him, but dropped her head again when he stroked it, and went back to sleep.

“I’ve heard that before”, he said, “the not-looking-Jewish bit anyway…, apart from wearing this.” He fingered a silver Star of David around his neck, hanging on the same chain as a small crucifix, a miniature Buddha, a couple of Chinese-looking symbols and a Hindu Mandala. He went on, “I think it’s the red hair that foxes people. Me Ma was from Larne, and me Da was from Poland. He was a refugee, and Jewish, in that order too – a refugee in his mind all his life, poor man. Of course, technically, that makes me not Jewish at all – since it passes through the mother’s line – so that makes me…”

“A Protestant,” I interrupted, with more than a touch of sectarian sarcasm, and pointing to the laden chain, “but it looks like that’s the only team you’re not playing for; you hedging your bets?”

He smiled. “Aye, Mebee. I like to think of meself as more of an ‘Ecumenical Non-Conformist’,” but while I was mesmerised by the mock-importance of that, he said, “Can I ponce a fag off you?” Something in his grin was disarming, even irresistible: I gave in. “Here, have one of these,” I said, offering not the end of my roll-up, which I kept for the image, but one of my precious Silk Cut, “but do you mind not sitting here with it – the punters are put off if we’re mob handed, you’ll queer my…”, but I didn’t get to finish; the authority of his touch on my sleeve shut me up.

“I was wondering, if you’ve got nowhere to go later, would you come across to the shelter, under the railway arches over there?” His head pointed, with a nod and a flick, to a side street. “We’re doing soup, and some poetry”. And with that he rose, like a snake uncoiling to a charmer’s pipe, and, just as hypnotically, swayed off through the evening rush-hour crowd. He called back over his shoulder, “and tea,” and then, “thanks for the fag,” and finally a fading “see you later.”
I can’t say now, any more than I could then, why near that midnight I was standing under the railway arches, the dog even more nervous than me, looking for a non-Jewish, poetry-reading, Irish Rabbi called Burns. I felt the dog’s string go eager-taut in my hand as she, again, saw him first, this time coming out of an open doorway in a wall. He fussed her: “Hello Gypsy lass, good girl, Good girl,” and then turned to me, his hand on my shoulder. “You made it then – that’s grand. Come on in, we’ve a fire going, the soup’s on – we’ll start the poetry in half an hour or so”. I didn’t remember having told him the dog’s name, but let it pass, and followed him, and the warm air, into the cellar. The smell of damp plaster and brick dust mixed with that of defeat from those sitting hunched on boxes and chairs around the walls, and the kettle of sweet broth on the brazier.

I was the youngest there by a mile. Some seemed so old that they were beyond old: poverty, cold and hopelessness does that, especially the hopelessness: I’d seen it on the streets every day.

We sat. Hunted, weary, and even a little wary, each gripping soup and broken bread in fingerless gloved hands: refugees all, from the world outside. In the dim paraffin-lamp light, and through the steam rising from my cup, I watched the Rabbi. He was a sort-of beachcomber of souls, and we were the flotsam thrown up on his personal shore. He moved around the walls, speaking quietly, refilling cups and offering something to each in turn….offering – I couldn’t hear the words; for all the world it could have been a benediction, absolution even, except for him being a Rabbi of course, but he was offering something – more than soup and bread – I could see it in their faces.

“Well, Ally,” he said, as he got round to me, “let’s get the poetry going before we all fall asleep.” He held out a folded piece of paper, “Here, you can start”. I didn’t remember having told him my name either, but didn’t dwell on it at the time, and so I read. The rest of the night passed well enough, all reading something, and in the morning we left, dispersing our strange fellowship in the early fog.

It was a couple of months later when I did think about it: when I went back to tell him how I’d had a change in my luck, how I had a place to stay now, and a job: crappy, but a job. I wanted to tell him that I didn’t feel hopeless any more, that I had even thought, just once or twice, of going to synagogue again. I was going to ask him how he had known….but…., but I couldn’t find the opening in the wall under the arch, never mind the cellar.
A old man, sweeping the road there, said I must be mistaken: his breathing and words punctuated by his rasping brush strokes. “There hasn’t been a cellar here since the war…………….a raid on the railway yards…………..direct hit……………….a lot of people killed in there…………………….mostly refugees off a train…………….filled in the cellar when the viaduct was rebuilt.” Then I thought about it.

I still had the piece of paper he gave me, and I read it again then, as I do now…
Then let us pray that come it may,
(As come it will for a’ that)
That Sense and Worth, o’er a’ the earth,
Shall bear the gree, an’ a’ that.
For a’ that, an’ a’ that,
It’s comin yet for a’ that,
That man to man, the world o’er,
Shall brithers be for a’ that.
and his handwritten footnote,
We’re all the same before God, Ally, any religion or none!
was signed, of course,
Rabbi Burns.
©Andrew Gold 2014
1147 words

It was big….

The writing group was asked to write 500 words beginning with “It was big…”

It was big…

“It was big”. That’s it? That’s all he’s said?”

“Yes. From the moment we found him, that’s all: it was big.”

“And he was just sitting there on the beach?”

“Just above the high water line, and more curled up, cowering like.”

“Any idea who he is?”

“Nope, no I.D. at all. He was wearing yellow oilskins though, well what was left of them. There’ve been no Maydays tonight, but he must have come from a wreck. I’ve alerted the team for a search from first light, if anything else has come ashore they’ll find it.”

Coastguard Sector Officer Barnard stood in his dripping grey waterproofs and stared beyond the rain spattered window, the only sounds the hiss of the radio that wove with the shrieking storm outside. After a while, he turned back to his Station Officer.

“You seem to have everything covered but keep a visual watch going, and listen out on Channel 16. I’ll go and see him; which hospital did he go to?”

“The Cottage, but apart from shock he was uninjured so they discharged him to the Mission; that’s where he is now.”

The Fishermen’s Mission was in a narrow lane off the harbour. Barnard parked on the quay, by the bucking sheltering boats, and ran to its door splashing through puddles of diesel-sheened rainwater, the acrid scent of smoked fish in his nostrils. The Mission’s canteen smelled too: of stewed tea, baked beans, and stale chips. Barnard found him there, alone amongst the otherwise ordered tables, at the centre of a widening whirlpool of furniture: a human maelstrom thrashing and pushing away everything around him.

Barnard grabbed an overturned chair and sat, but immediately found himself fighting the man for control of the table between them.
Eventually, whatever the man was grappling with relented and his clawing hands moved instead to encircle a half-spilled mug of tea and rum. Draining it in one swallow the man stared silently into its empty depths, searching. Then he suddenly slammed the mug down, his wild red-rimmed eyes looking directly into Barnard’s and said, almost pleading, “It was big. Big”.

Barnard spoke quietly, reaching out a hand to reassure him. “You’re safe now. Safe, do you understand?”

But the man recoiled, seeing something other than compassion in Barnard’s still glistening wet arm. He howled. “Safe? Safe? It was BIG!”, and then overwhelmed he fell forward, wrestling again with his table demon.

By morning the man was re-admitted to hospital, deranged beyond comfort of reason, religion or rum. A boat was reported missing, but the searchers found nothing.

A few days later, further up the coast, a trawler snagged its nets on something that towed it backwards for 5 miles. They thought it was a submarine, but the navy said that none were in the area.

Later still, a dead Sperm whale washed up. Not of itself unusual, but its stomach contents were: lengths of thick tentacle, a huge gelatinous eye, and a beak festooned with shredded yellow oilskin.

Andrew Gold©
05 September 2014

 

 

“Memento Memo”

The writing group was challenged to write, in ten minutes, a story linking two or more previously unseen objects from a tray placed in front of them.  The objects I can recall were a small silver picture frame with a photo of a baby, a pen, a Swiss Army penknife, a flower, a notebook, a sealed envelope, a British Legion enamel lapel badge, a paper clip, a pair of small scissors and, of course, the tray itself.

———————————————————————————————————————————————————————-

Cecille looked at the small envelope laying on the hall tray with emotion somewhere between fear and excitement, but definitely emotion  After all, she had been anticipating such an envelope for 43 years.  She picked it up cautiously, surprised that it didn’t weigh more given the probable import of its contents.  She turned it end-over-end through her fingers, studying the writing, and then walked slowly to her drawing room where she sat at her secretaire.

Her late husband’s penknife, the one he brought back as a retirement keepsake from his office in Berne, seemed like the appropriate tool to open the letter; the violence of a finger or thumb ripping through the flap wouldn’t do.  Carefully she inserted the blade, slit open the envelope and prized open the pouch. Inside was a small piece of folded lavender coloured note paper.  Cecille drew it out and, as she opened the fold, a small photograph fell to the floor which she bent stiffly to retrieve.  It was faded, but clearly of a small child holding a doll.  The writing on the paper was also small; neat and tentative.

“Dear Cecille,” it said, “If you recognise this picture, or even the doll, I think I may be your daughter.  If I am, and you would like to meet me, please write back.”

Cecille’s eyes filled.  She stretched across to a small vase of flowers, cut a bloom with her desk scissors, and put it into one of her own envelopes.  Then she took her pen and a piece of paper and began to write.