Saturday, May 11, 2013

Rogue Phoenix Press Presents: Take a Break

Take A Break
A. W. Lambert

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Within these pages you will find twenty-five short stories. You will find each different, each hopefully a pleasant little read. Some involve ghostly goings on, others a little detective work and still others are a tad goofy; just a little nonsense with something, hopefully, to raise a smile. When taking that welcome break, cup of tea or coffee in hand, this is a little book which can literally be dipped into at any point for a ten minute relaxing read.


Do you believe in ghosts? No? Well I don't blame you. No rational minded person would, would they?  And as a lifelong soldier, there was no one more rational than me.
Thirty years; boy soldier to Lieutenant Colonel. Northern Ireland, The Falklands, Iraq, I'd seen them all; life and death in the raw you might say. No room for wishy-washy thoughts of a life thereafter where I came from. No, it was enjoy life while you can because when your times up; it's up, isn't it? It's over. Finished, right?
Yeah, well…Maybe.
 When I retired my wife and I chose carefully. We had seen the rough side of life, now was the time for peace and quiet. And the public house in the little Norfolk village was just what we were looking for. It was in the perfect rural location and its projected takings, though nothing to write home about, when augmented by my military pension, would give us the comfortable retirement we had planned for so long.
My wife immediately joined the WI, helped out at the church and generally integrated into the local scene. I concentrated on running the pub and enjoying my retirement to the full; my evenings filled with the local characters and their stories, my spare time spent walking Buster the dog and exploring my new surroundings.
It was mid September; the 13th to be exact. I remember it well because it was my birthday and six months to the day since we'd taken over the pub. The evenings were beginning to draw in and there was a hint of a change in the air, a lessening of the sun's strength. But it was still warm and I'd been walking since closing the pub after the lunchtime session. So engrossed was I in my exploring that I walked much further, stayed out longer, than I had intended. Feeling a little weary, I settled to rest on a grassy bank, my back against a large oak. I relaxed in the warm afternoon sunshine, as Buster, head down, foraged relentlessly among the undergrowth, darting from one spot to the other, investigating every sound, every smell.
I have often asked myself since; did I doze, even rest my eyes for just a second? If I did I was unaware of doing so and yet suddenly he was there, standing over me, looking down, and smiling a sad, tired smile. He was young, no more than twenty or so and pale with soft, fair hair drifting over one eye. He wore a waist length, jerkin style, leather jacket and a scarf wound untidily around his neck. His trousers, a thick, dark worsted material, were tucked into heavy fur-lined boots. But what took my eye most of all was the nasty gash that ran from the hairline above his right temple to his chin. It was no longer bleeding; the blood thickly congealed and crusted, but I'd seen many wounds in my long military career and knew instantly that this young man needed medical attention and quick.
I scrambled to my feet, my mind racing; the jerkin, the heavy boots, it had to be a motorcycle accident. I instinctively reached toward him, offering support, but he moved back a pace; out of reach. I stood, arms still extended, uncertain. "Are you okay?"
He nodded, the sad smile persisting. I noticed his eyes, focused on a point just above my head. I had seen the signs before. Concussion.
"Yes, we're all okay," he said, his words soft and dreamlike. "It's Chalky. We're just waiting for Chalky."
"Chalky? Was he with you? Is he hurt too?"
His head turned, his eyes now scanning the woodland behind me. "No, Chalky got out before. There was only time for him. But we can't leave him. We have to wait." He frowned, his eyes narrowing as if he had seen something in the undergrowth. He gave a half wave of his hand and shuffled uncertainly toward the trees.
"Wait," I called after him. "You need to see a doctor." I pulled out my mobile and held it up for him to see. "I can make a call, get an ambulance."
He hesitated, looking back, shaking his head. "Don't worry, old sport," he said. "Just waiting for Chalky, that's all." He turned and in seconds was lost among the trees. Common sense urged me to go after him, bring him back and call for help, but an inner something held me back and I just stood staring stupidly at the spot where he had disappeared.
Feeling pressure against my leg, I glance down. For some reason Buster cowered at my feet, his ears flattened to his head.
That evening, behind the bar, the vision of the young man haunted my thoughts. Earlier, immediately after returning from my walk, I'd telephoned the local police and reported the accident. Remembering the young man's words, "we're all okay", I reported that, although I had only seen one person, there were probably more involved in the accident.
"Oi, what's this then?" I was snapped back to the present by the sharp retort. Old Len Bartlett, the pub's oldest and most faithful regular, stood before me, his pint pot extended. "I asked for mild. You know I always have mild. This isn't mild, it's bitter."
I took the pot from him. "Sorry Len," I apologized. Things on my mind," I emptied the pot, refilled it with his favourite and handed it back.
Len supped at the fresh liquid and smacked his lips, satisfied. "That's more like it. So what's the problem then?"
I related the story of my encounter with the young man. Slowly, as the tale unfolded, a smile spread across the old man's face. "And you reported it to the police?" he said, when I had finished.
I nodded. "Strange though, they said they'd had no reports of any accidents in the area."
Len pursed his lips. '"Sright, 'Cause there weren't none."
"You're privileged, lad," he said with conspiratorial wink. Us that know, us old'ns don't talk about it, but looks like today you met one of the Romeo Victor crew."
"The what?"
"The Romeo Victor crew."
I studied the old boy across the bar. "What the hell are you talking about, Len?"
He took another long draught from the pot before answering. "I think it's time for you to meet our Arthur," he said finally.
The following day, after the lunchtime session, I closed the pub and followed Len to a tiny cottage on the outskirts of the village. A woman who I guess was in her late fifties answered our knock. She ushered us through to a tiny sitting room at the back of the cottage.
"Dad," she said, as we entered, "You've got visitors."
The old man was sitting in a high backed, winged armchair facing the window looking directly down the garden and out across open fields beyond. Despite his obvious age, he had a full head of pure white hair, a broad smile and eyes that sparkled mischievously.
Len dropped into a chair opposite the old man. He grinned up at me. "I'd like you to meet our Arthur," he said. "Arthur White." He turned back to the old man. "Arthur, this is our new publican," he said. "Yesterday he was out walking and guess what?"
The old man turned his twinkling eyes toward me. He chuckled happily. "Met the boys, did you?"
"Sorry?" Confused I turned to Len for an explanation.
"Just the one, Arthur" Len said, his eyes still on the old man. "The blonde lad."
"Ah, that'll be the Skipper. Must be getting impatient."
"I'm not surprised," Len laughed. "They've waited long enough."
Totally mystified, I looked from one old man to the other.
Old Arthur pointed to a hard backed chair, motioning me to sit alongside him, waiting for me to settle before raising a bony finger and pointed to a spot in the sky above the distant field.
"We'd made it to about there," he said. "Pretty shot up, we were; only the two engines at full power. But old Romeo Victor was a wonderful Kite and the skipper had nursed her all the way; we were nearly home." His arm dropped back into his lap and he was silent for a moment, memories flooding back. "But then," he continued finally, his voice little more than a whisper. "The damn rudder decided to fall off." He shook his head. "Even a Lancaster can't fly without a rudder."
As they held mine, old Arthur's eyes, just for that moment, lost the mischievous sparkle and became deep, dark pools of sadness. I felt myself drawn to that day, that perilous moment. "So what happened…? How did you…?"
"The skipper ordered us out," the old man continued. "I was the first to go and as I left, Romeo Victor went into a violent spin." He heaved a heavy sigh. "They never stood a chance. Twenty-one missions," he muttered, almost to himself. "Same crew, twenty-one missions. Brothers, we were. Always together. Always." His voice had dropped to a whisper. "But it all went wrong that day, lad. You see, they went without me. They didn't mean to, couldn't help themselves, but they did. They went without me."
We've been here for three years now and we couldn't be happier, every year better than the last. It's winter now and as I stand looking out of the window, a roaring fire in the grate, the surrounding fields, covered with a light dusting of snow, look as beautiful as ever.
Earlier this year, September the 12th it was, I remember it well because it was the day before my birthday. It was also the day that Arthur "Chalky" White died. He was ninety-two and as they lowered him into the ground I was there at the graveside. As the coffin came to rest something tugged my eyes sideways, toward a raised hillock beyond the adjacent field. Bathed in the red glow of a softening September sunset lounged a small group of young men. My heart skipped and I looked around at the other mourners. Nobody else was looking that way. Most had their heads bowed, listening to the vicar's last words. But they were there, honestly, I can assure you, all six of them. They were too far away for me to see the expressions on their faces, but I would have wagered anything that they were all smiling. Well they would be, wouldn't they? They had waited for their comrade for a very long time and now all seven would be together again. And I'm sure wherever they went from there they would stay that way.   
No, I'm like you; I don't believe in ghosts either. When your time's up it's up, finished, right?
Yeah, well like I said…Maybe.

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