Six men were huddled in a hole only big enough for three. The damp, muddy trench had been gouged out of the French field by a 500 pound German bomb, the only favour the enemy had done C Troupe since they arrived.
Terry was shivering as he hugged his blood soaked left arm; a vicious shrapnel wound with a tight belt tied above a long gash. Marty was clutching his side where a sniper had wounded him, his usual jokey patter having long dried up.
The commanding officer Sergeant Basil Oliver nursed a knee he'd twisted as he jumped into the trench. He was in charge now virtually everyone else had been killed during the last attack and his ashen pasty features showed how thrilled about that he was.
His gaze panned over the remaining men, all young and just as terrified, until they alighted upon Davies.
"Stan," voice hoarse he waved his right hand at a man about his age with a serious, intense face that rarely smiled.
Glancing up Stan look in his superior in the army and at the bank where they both slaved away 6 days a week. Their eyes locked and Basil offered a weak smile that the other man didn't return.
"Stan, we can't stay here much longer we're too exposed," they hadn't heard any Germans for some time but that didn't mean they weren't around lying in waiting to mop up any stragglers.
"Farmhouse," Stan said softly, "About 100 yards that way," he cocked a thumb roughly due east.
"Is it empty," Basil asked?
"Didn't see any movement," Stan responded although they both knew this wasn't any guarantee of safety.
"Go check it out," Basil decided, "Take Pete," he couldn't go with his dodgy knee he'd just slow them down. Pete was the only other uninjured soldier, a plumber by trade from down south.
Head flicking up Pete scowled, "We should stay put," he said, "Show our heads and we might get them blown off," he was thinking of his mate Timmy, his head taken clean off by mortar fire.
Stan though was already moving, "Come on, sitting around here isn't safe, it's going to rain and it'll be dark in two hours."
"Good man," Basil grunted suspecting Stan would have made a better CO than him, the man had a quiet assurance and a flinty determination that made him both good at his job with the bank and a reliable soldier.
"Don't take any stupid risks, just suss the place out."
Nodding Stan risked a peak then slapped his companion on the arm, "all clear," he hissed.
"You sure," clearly reluctant and terrified Pete was reliving the last ambush in which the entire platoon was damn near wiped out. So much for the Germans being overpowered easily by D-Day, it wasn't working out like that, they were fighting back hard.
Already on the move Stan waved his reluctant companion to follow, grudgingly Pete did so his pants and socks soaked through from lying in the trench which was about sixty per cent water.
"Stanley Davies," Stan offered his hand.
"Pete Dixon," the hand was shaken, "What did you do before all of this?"
"Good job, I was a plumber's mate."
The field around them glistened with rain and bits of broken mortar shell, it would have been quite attractive otherwise. The July sun was already sinking casting shadows over everything.
Stan pointed, "Let's make for those birch trees, we need cover," he began sprinting and Pete kept up with him.
"Where's this farmhouse then," he asked squinting at the trees?
"Not far, I saw it on the way in."
"I was too busy keeping my head down, I thought those bloody Stukkers were going to get us."
Reaching the trees and squatting down Stan checked his rifle, it had been drilled into him to check his gun at every opportunity. If it jammed in a fire fight you were dead.
"What do you think of his nibs then," Pete nodded back, "The sarge?"
"Scared out of his wits and not sure what to do next," Stan grunted.
"Yeah, that's my take too; Baines wouldn't have wasted two hours in a bloody hole in the ground," captain Baines had been killed by aircraft fire.
"It's not easy being the guy in charge," Stan said generously.
"What would you have done then Stan, if you'd been in charge?"
Having thought about it the dark haired man shrugged, after the attack they hadn't been left with a lot of options.
"Farm's this way," he avoided the question.
"We're not going in are we," Dixon looked anxious, "I mean there might be Huns waiting in there for us."
"Just a quick recce," it had looked deserted to Stan but what did he know, "We can't be stuck out in the rain and dark."
Accepting this Pete sniffed, "Reckon not," he didn't sound too convinced, "No sign of Germans out here."
"Busy attacking the yanks if we're lucky," Stan took a swig of water, offered it then set off at a brisk pace. It took ten minutes tom reach the farmhouse, a squat rectangular box with a stables to the right and piggery on the left, no sign of any chickens running about or a barking dog.
Stan scanned for bullet holes, found none and fixed his gaze on the windows. All the curtains were drawn which was odd unless this was an ambush site.
"No sign of life," Pete sounded more confident, "Wonder what became of them?"
"Run off or forced out," Stan considered his next move, "Let's get closer, you approach from the left side and I'll go this way," two targets gave them a better chance, "Take if slow."
Ignoring Pete he set off in a low crouch, rifle in one hand and water bottle in the other; the water sloshed noisily so he paused to put it away and that was when he saw it.
The blood stain was a pool with spots and dots moving away from it, lots of gore so it was a serious wound maybe a gunshot. The blood was turning brown and clotted so it wasn't recent but the sight of it unnerved him. Get a grip, he told himself, you've a job to do.
Silently he made his way to a barrel, a water butt and then the nearest wall pressing his back against this able to hear his heart hammering. Moving sideways to a window he bent his knees and risked a look, even though the curtain was drawn there was a narrow crack he could see through.
No movement, no flash of a gun, the place was still and silent it looked deserted.
Making his way to a door he tried it – unlocked – carefully he eased it open steeling himself for gunfire but there wasn't any. Unable to see Dixon he stole inside body crouched and rifle thrust forward at stomach height. Smells assaulted him cooked vegetables, meat, something sweet and something sour, very sour.
Entering a long lounge he looked about, this was a family home but there was no sign of them no kids, no dogs no woman of the house cleaning up, no man to challenge him with "what are you doing here?"
Then he saw the German soldier and the German gazed back at him eyes glassy and cold, a pistol in his right fist. Bloody hell thought Stan knowing he'd walked right into a trap like a green rookie.
But hang on, something was wrong. The German was too still, no shout, no shot, his eyes unblinking, sightless and he wasn't breathing. Plus there was a large bloodstain drying on the front of his tunic.
Edging closer, heart in his mouth, Stan took in the grey waxy skin, the blue lips and stiff legs. Dead as a door post he decided, this was no trap at least not set by this man who was a corporal like him.
Skin barely warm and rigour was setting in the guy was his age or slightly older with receding blond curls and a nose broken at one time. The wound was odd not one hole like a bullet would make but three parallel slashes like...like a large fork. Had the guy been stabbed with a pitch fork, had it happened outside hence the blood?
Circling the corpse, unable to see any sign of a fork, Stan felt himself relax. Could the family have done this, or the resistance if so where were they?
"Jesus Christ," Dixon's voice made him jump and the other man stood in the doorway wide eyed, lip trembling, "did you do that?"
"Don't be daft, he's been dead hours."
Letting out a deep sigh Dixon bent over the corpse, "The only good German," he said.
"Yeah but why only one, where's his unit," Stan wondered, "Come to that where are the family who live here?"
"Could be hiding," Dixon offered, "We should look."
So they did moving from room to room finding no more bodies, no blood, on the kitchen table plates were laid out the food on them cold – the meat was pork and the veg seemed boiled, cabbage, carrots and potatoes.
"God, I'm starving," said Pete and Stan felt his own stomach growl in sympathy.
"Hello," he called out, "British army," his words just echoed, the place was creepy he thought.
"I'll try upstairs," said his mate.
"Okay but be careful this feels weird," Stan circled the kitchen finding chilled red wine. Tempted to take a sip to calm his nerves he resisted but only just. He could hear Pete calling out giving his name and rank but nobody responded. Once the place was fully secured he'd go and get the others, rain had already begun to patter against the windows. Going to a curtain he yanked it aside and froze in terror seeing his reflection and that of a white bearded man in homespun garb, about fifty and painfully thin the man glared at him with fiercely intent eyes.
Stan spun gun ready; he was alone, no bearded man.
What the hell was he hallucinating, seeing things? He turned to the glass, no man just him.
"Pete," he called.
"Going to get the others; you okay here alone?"
"Sure, place is empty not so much as a cat."
"Be as quick as I can," Stan was strangely relieved to exit the building, certain he was being watched and judged.
He took his time returning to the trench but the caution was wasted, there was no sign of the enemy no snipers and the sky was clear. He found Terry still bleeding, Marty still clutching his side and Darren with his head down hands over his ears.
Only Basil seemed pleased to see him, "well," he said?
"Farm's clear apart from a dead German in the lounge, looks like he took a pitch fork in the guts."
"The owners," Basil enquired?
"No idea, there's no sign of anyone else just some meals left intact on the kitchen table."
"Marie Celeste," Basil muttered?
Choosing not to mention the ghostly reflection as he was still shaken by it, Stan shrugged, "seems safe," he wiped rain from his eyes, "and dry."
"It's a done deal then," said the sergeant, "Come on chaps," he told the others, "No point hanging around here," he threw Stan a look and going over to the sickest looking of them Stan helped him up.
Basil helped Terry and motioned for Darren to get moving, he was soaked and so were they.
"Thank god those German planes have left us alone," Basil remarked.
"Yes I thought they'd come back and strafe the whole field," said Stan, "But they seem to be avoiding this area."
"No sign of our chaps either," Basil grumbled.
"Maybe they're tied down in a pitched battle," said Stan although he couldn't hear any distant explosions, the silence was eerie and somehow unnatural. It felt heavy and depressing like even the birds and wildlife avoided this place.
Basil was speaking, "We'll billet in this place overnight and in the morning try to link up with General Bryant."
Assuming he's still alive thought Stan, assuming we are too, "We should post sentries Basil, I volunteer for first watch."
"Good man, good idea too we don't want jerry sneaking up on us."
Lowering his voice to a whisper Stan said, "what shape are these guys in do you think? I mean, I know you aren't a medic but what's your opinion?"
Wincing Basil kept his own tone low, "Terry might lose that arm if we can't stop the bleeding and I'm worried about Marty to, he needs to be in hospital."
Neither mentioned Darren who seemed to be suffering shell shock. He was the youngest, the most vulnerable and would likely get invalided out of this mess as soon as possible the poor sod. How he'd cope in civilian life was anybody's guess, who'd employ him?
"Hey Pete," Stan called as they entered the farmhouse glad to be out of the rain and an unusual chill for July. The lack of response alarmed Stan who repeated his call twice then moved to the stairs.
"Pete, are you up there," what could the guy be doing, "Get down here now," Stan began to climb the stairs when Basil emerged from the lounge.
"Did you say there was a dead German in here Stan, only I can't see one."
The body was gone, the chair it had occupied empty and there were no bloodstains.
Could Pete have moved it, maybe he'd buried it. "It was right here," Stan waved, "And the guy was definitely dead."
"You think Dixon moved him," asked Basil?
"No other explanation," Stan was bewildered.
"Germans," Darren finally spoke his voice low and strained.
"No they'd have picked us off," Basil was quick to scotch this idea although it must have occurred to him.
"Germans," Darren repeated his voice thicker and harsher. As he stood up both men stiffened, wondering what he was going to do. If he flipped out now, began shouting or shooting they were in trouble.
A crash from the kitchen broke the spell and the men moved to see what had made it, if Pete had returned? They found a plate of food on the floor, the plate shattered and the food scattered in all directions.
No sign of anyone, no animal so how had it happened?
"Spooky," said Basil and Stan could only agree. He searched the kitchen but found no cat or rat or evidence of Pete.
"Must have overbalanced," he said without conviction.
"We should try to eat something," Basil decided, "Don't know about you but I'm bloody starving, thirsty to."
Stan agreed filling a kettle and putting it on a ring to boil, then he hunted around for some fresh meat and veg, relieved to find that the larder was well stocked with potatoes, carrots, cabbage and sides of beef and pork. At least the people here hadn't starved, but why hadn't the Germans emptied the place of provisions?
"Where the hell is Dixon," Basil said seating each man around the table?
"No idea," Stan admitted, "He was okay when I left, looking around upstairs."
"Right well I'll just pop up and see if I can find him," Basil added a fake jollity to his voice.
"Germans," Darren repeated but in a lower, wearier voice almost resigned.
"Not here old chap not yet anyway," Basil slapped his shoulder. But someone had moved that body thought Stan and he didn't think it was Dixon.
"Let's have a nice brew," he injected some levity into his own voice to try and maintain morale, "Things could be a lot worse," who was he trying to kid, "At least we're not getting rained on."
"This place gives me the creeps corp," said Terry, the first thing he'd said in hours, "It just feels all wrong."
Looking away Stan hid his own misgivings, it did indeed feel wrong very wrong.
Then a call came from upstairs a cry of shock and warning, Stan was up there in seconds moving with a speed that belied his fatigue. He found Basil staring wide eyed at something suspended from the ceiling rafters, it was a tall thin bearded German, a different German with three stripes on his shoulder.
He swore and felt his insides clench, two dead Germans in the same house?
"Different man," he gulped.
"Older, thinner, different rank."
Basil frowned, "suicide," he asked? Not likely thought Stan, killed and strung up there most likely but by whom?
Then a door to the right was wrenched open and a blurred figure ran out and ploughed right into them gasping, weeping and swinging punches. With the strength of lunacy he swept Stan aside and floored Basil with a shove.
Twisting Stan tried to grab the man but was thrown off, Basil timed a punch but avoiding it the madman propelled him into a wall. Finally Stan applied a rear two-arm choke hold and held it on, squeezing with all his strength until the man weakened, slumped and went limp.
He laid him out, "okay sir."
"Well done Stan, good move."
Rolling him over Stan blinked in astonishment, it wasn't a German it was Pete Dixon all pasty skinned and bared teeth, eyes wild with hysteria. He looked frightened out of his wits.
"Bloody hell," Basil wiped his bloody nose, "Has he gone mad?"
Could anyone blame him if he had thought Stan, "panic I think."
"Let's get him downstairs."
"Do you want to let the others see him," Stan was thinking that panic could spread like a fever?
"We can tie him up, come on I'll help you," neither of them wanted to stay near the hanging German.
Eyes widened as they entered, Stan pulling Dixon's hands behind him and securing them with a belt, sat slumped in a chair the man did not move just dribbled.
"What happened to him," asked Terry.
"Germans," Darren mumbled once more.
"Lost his nerve that's all," Basil said diplomatically as Stan poured hot water into a pot full of loose leaf tea then hunted around for milk and sugar.
"What did you see up there," Marty asked this question?
"Nothing, "Basil was quick to lie but Marty wasn't buying it.
"Something scared him out of his mind."
Stan swapped a look with the sergeant, they should be honest he was thinking and tell the truth.
Then Pete's eyes snapped open, his head rose and features more composed and less manic he drew in a sharp breath, "This place," he spluttered, "Is full of dead people."
Nobody knew what to say to this and Stan busied himself hunting down cups and saucers, he didn't believe in ghosts or rather he didn't want to but how else did you explain this situation?
"Nonsense," Basil acted as the voice of reason, "We're tired, hungry, nerves on edge; it makes you see and hear things that aren't there."
Stan added milk to every cup, his hands shaking so much he spilled half of it then he grasped the pot, "tea everyone," he began to pour and as he did there came a banging from upstairs, a continuous thud like a fist hitting a door, small shoes ran along the landing, a door slammed and they all heard a voice, "leave us alone," it was a woman and it was followed by a very clear gunshot.
Those who could jump to their feet and draw weapons did so, Stan dropped a cup which shattered noisily on the floor, Basil swore and looked at the stairs but it was Pete Dixon who spoke breaking a tense silence.
"The dead have things to tell us," he croaked.
"Trick," Basil didn't sound too convinced by his theory, "Must be jerry here after all."
Not knowing what to think Stan let his gaze sink onto Dixon, "what did you see when I left you here alone Pete," he moved closer, "What do you know?"
Eyes blinking Dixon met Stan's gaze, "They're attracted to you Stan to your energy, you're more receptive than most people, you've seen the dead before."
Heart hammering Stan felt his face flush, this was not a topic he discussed with anyone he certainly never spoke of it to his army buddies they just wouldn't understand.
Then Basil spoke, "What does he mean 'before', have you seen ghosts?"
Say nothing don't share a single thing, but Darren was looking right at him, "oh yeah, oh yeah," he guffawed.
"We should leave here," it was Terry's turn to voice an opinion, "This place is haunted."
"Outside is haunted to by Nazis," Basil snapped, "Well Stan got anything you want to share with us, now would be a good time."
That was when Stan heard the voice of his old headmaster Mr Dale; a man who had terrified him far more than any of Hitler's goons.
"Mr Davies, stand up now," the booming voice which still held the trace of a Midlands accent boomed off the walnut panelled walls of the small classroom. Heart freezing Stan felt his knees shaking under the cramped wooden desk with its lift up top and dirty inkwell.
Every boy looked at him wide eyed knowing what was coming and glad it wasn't their turn, Dale was already holding his cane bending it between his hands. His own eyes seemed to gleam with barely restrained malice, everyone knew Dale loved dishing out a good thrashing and there was one in that air that morning with William Stanley Davies's name on it.
"Come here boy," said Dale not a physically imposing man, barely five feet with a mostly bald head and a beaky nose that was frequently damp.
Not moving Stan gazed at him, tears pricking the back of his eyes. He had felt the cane before and didn't fancy a return engagement; Dale always gave you more than six of the best, he preferred nine and sometimes when he was in a vile mood twelve.
Stan sensed he was going to get twelve that morning, he had after all broken a cardinal rule of the school, he had stood up for another boy, a lad called Jack who wasn't even in class today. Jack was taking a pounding off two bullies and Stan had intervened dishing out a bloody nose and a fat lip.
"No fighting in the school yard," Dale told him now spittle damping his lower lip, "A rule you chose to ignore Davies."
But I was defending a younger boy sir, a boy who is backward, a boy who gets beaten up every day and who can't defend himself. All this Stan wanted to say in his defence but he didn't, it wouldn't do any good, Dale would just shout him down with his usual rant "Don't talk back to me you ignorant, disobedient little runt."
"I said, come here," the head snarled his shoulders up and teeth clenched, a demonic looking figure. Wearily Stan rose on legs that felt like water, they took him around his tiny desk to the aisle that led to the front of the class, to the head's table where he would have to bend over and take his punishment, nine lashes maybe twelve.
He began to walk moving past Jamie (thrashed 3 times this term already) for low marks then Tommy (thrashed six times) for crying and finally Max (thrashed eight times) because he couldn't answer questions in class. None of them were bad boys just shy or not too bright, Dale bullied them he picked on them because they couldn't fight back.
Reaching the head Stan met his gaze seeing no warmth or human kindness, no interest in helping boys to learn he was a small, mean and cruel man abusing his authority. Even at five Stan knew this he understood more about grown ups than they gave him credit for.
"Come closer Davies," said the thin lipped mouth, "And bend over the desk," Dale pointed.
"No sir," Stan summoned the courage to say hearing gasps from the other boys in the class, unable to believe what he had said.
Dale couldn't either, "What did you say to me boy," he roared?
"I said – no sir I won't bend over."
Disbelief made the man's eyes bulge and cheeks turn puce, "How dare you," he bellowed raising the evil cane, "Bend over this desk at once boy," the cane came down to thwack the wood scoring it with a deep groove.
Jumping with shock Stan didn't back down nor did he dip his eyes in shame, what had he to be ashamed of?
"I will not let you hit me sir."
"Let me," Dale exploded coming around the desk in a sudden lurch, "I don't need your permission," and teeth flashing he swung his cane downwards – but only so far. Arrested in mid-air the cane bent backwards in the middle as though grabbed.
Dale blinked in astonishment and tried to pull it free, he tried to lash at the boy before him but he couldn't and the harder he tried the firmer the grip on the cane became until suddenly it was wrenched from his grasp and hung there in mid-air.
Stan could now see a figure behind the head, a shape, an adult outline made of grey smoky fog and within the fog was a face, long and lean with two bright blue eyes.
Looking over his shoulder Dale made to grab his weapon back when it flashed down and struck him across the wrist with a loud crack. Howling with pain he held his sore wrist, upon which a red brand could clearly be seen.
When he made a second attempt to regain his weapon it struck him across his scrawny neck and Dale staggered off balance, tripped over his desk leg and fell onto his backside in a humiliating heap.
More gasps from the boys, several of whom, were on their feet now pointing and muttering.
Stan's gaze was on the ghostly figure who had rescued him, all he could make out clearly where the eyes, a smiling mouth, a hooked nose and a single hand. That hand raised the cane and hurled it across the classroom so hard it flew through an open window and clattered somewhere outside.
Gibbering with shock and pain Dale glared at the spectre also, his features now bleached white and eyes radiating pure terror.
Sliding backwards on his bottom he reversed towards the class exit gasping and moaning with fear, no longer a terrifying bully no longer the big man who ruled these boys with a rod of iron but a beaten man. As he reached the door it swung open of it sown volition and scrambling on all fours like a dog Dale crawled away.
Boys watched him with first shock then amusement, some laughed, one cheered, two came over to Stan to pat him on the back, "well done mate," said one, "That showed him."
But it wasn't me Stan wanted to say I didn't do anything it was the...the what – ghost, spirit, angel he had no idea.
He had seen them in his dreams but never in broad daylight before, nor had one intervened before to save him directly.
Would he see more, was this the start of more open contact, was he somehow different from other boys was he perhaps special? None of them saw ghosts, none could see this one. Dale had but he was unlikely to speak of it, if he did people would think he was mad he might lose his job.
Stan watched the foggy form begin to fade, last to go where the blue eyes, eyes like twin sapphires that burned into him.
Who are you, will I see you again; what do you want with me?
Mum arrived to pick him up within the hour. It was always his mum. He hardly ever saw his dad who was either at work or at the golf club drinking. It was like Richard Davies had wiped his hands of his sons.
A broad matronly woman with an unsmiling face Daisy Viola had a lovely name but a brusque personality. Perhaps marriage had sucked all the joy out of her life, there certainly seemed little to go around.
Heavily pregnant she glared down at Stan with an air of resigned disappointment, "You attacked the headmaster," she gasped in disbelief?
"I didn't do anything," Stan began to object but Daisy continued.
"He told me all about it, how you grabbed his cane and struck him."
So this was Dale's cover story, how he was going to soothe his ego.
"How could I do that, I'm only 7," Stan tried to defend himself although he knew adults rarely listened, their minds closed tighter than a drum.
"If not you then who else," Daisy demanded, "None of the other boys were involved."
"I never touched the cane, you have to believe me, how could I grab it off the head he's a man?"
Ignoring the logic of this Daisy winced and put both hands on her bulging stomach. This second pregnancy was much worse than her first with sickness, dizziness and cramps every day.
"I don't need this Stanley I really don't, my blood pressure is too high as it is and Dr Gill insists I have more bed rest."
"I'm sorry mama but none of this is my doing."
"If not you then who, tell me that," Daisy snapped, "Your father will have to hear about this, I can't keep it from him, the school will send a letter and he'll have to deal with it."
Inwardly groaning Stan could imagine dad's reaction, cold fury, a withering look, words that dripped with acid and a thrashing.
"Why can't you deal with it mama?"
"I'm only a woman, the letter will be sent to Mr Davies and they'll expect him to respond."
"Dad doesn't care about me," Stan was sullen trying to recall the last time he'd spoken to his father or even seen him. Daisy tried to muster a reply but couldn't, maybe she knew the truth of it. It was she who dealt with Stan and would deal with the new baby, children were a mother's responsibility.
Richard saw himself as above all this, he was the bread winner he had a career and brought in the money they needed to live in their big house in Didsbury.
"Children are for women," Stan had often heard him say, "Women run the home and men provide," he was a true Victorian.
"You father does care Stanley in his own way, even if he doesn't often show it," tone softer now Daisy caressed her son's hair.
"Then where is he all night long," Stan snapped?
"That's enough, it isn't your place to question your parents we know best," at least she had the decency to look away as she said this as though not totally believing a word of it.
"How long am I suspended," he asked?
"Until next week only and soon after that will be the Easter break," Daisy sounded relieved.
"What else did Dale say?"
Wincing Daisy looked out of the cab window, "Not much, he was strangely subdued even anxious."
I'll be the was thought Stan, "mama can I ask you something, and I'm being serious now, it's important."
The big boned features turned, "go on."
"Do you believe in ghosts?"
So the day had come as he'd always known it would, the one he'd been dreading. Up early, washed and shaved he was downstairs to see mama lay out the eggs and toast.
His brother Leslie, as tall as him at fourteen, was tucking in hungrily and looked up with a gleam in his eye, "you look pasty," he said with a smirk, "Feeling off colour Stan?"
Not liking his tone or the fact Les was father's favourite, Stan took his seat as mum poured him a strong cup of tea.
"You do look pale Stan, not sickening I hope not today."
"First day in prison," Les enjoyed putting that jibe in.
"That will do Leslie," mum scolded although not too fiercely, Les never got a full rebuke they never hit him or sent him to his room not the family favourite. He'd had it easy compared to Stan even if he wasn't as good at football or cricket and his test results were no more than average.
At his age Stan captained both school teams and was often top in English and Mathematics. Not that he got praised for this, dad had never even commented upon it or looked at his many sporting trophies such as
- player of the month
- player of the season
- best goal scorer
- Most test runs in a match
and so on.
These were accolades Les had never achieved yet Dad smiled at him, shook his hand and often praised him as "my good boy" something he'd never said to Stan not once.
"The old man wouldn't let you join Wintersons then," said Les through a mouth of toast, this was a firm of accountants Stan had applied to and been accepted by.
"No," Stan was grim featured.
"Accountants are two a penny," Les quoted, "Two a penny," he took a mouthful of egg and chewed insolently, "All we need is another accountant in the family."
Glowering Stan did not react as his eggs were placed before him, inward he burned a this father's cruelty his indifference. He knew he'd make a good accountant one of the best, instead of which he was….
"Leave your brother alone," Mum advised, "He's under enough stress as it is."
"Oh aye," said Les, "Bank clerk," he smirked again, "Prestigious job is that, very important, can't be late on his first day."
"LEAVE IT," Stan hadn't meant to shout the words they just exploded out of him in a rush, a hot angry outburst. The smile was wiped from Les's face and he actually reared back in shock and fear. Well good, it was time he was put in his place.
With a look of horror and disgust on her face Daisy glared at the older brother, "Stanley there was no need for that; I think you should apologise at once."
"He's being a bloody pain as usual."
"There's no need for bad language either, I don't think they'd be impressed at the bank."
"No they wouldn't," having regaining his cockiness Les was gazing defiantly at Stan, winding him up.
"You keep your neb out," Stan warned.
"Entitled to an opinion surely."
"Wait until you start work, then you can make clever remarks."
Having heard enough Daisy brought the heavy brown teapot down hard on the table, "That will do, both of you," the argument ceased at once. Picking up a spoon Stan struck his egg rather harder than he'd intended.
Damn Les he was becoming impossible, there were times when Stan felt like giving him a good clout. His grim mood had now darkened considerably and Les was right about one thing, bank clerk wasn't very prestigious, he was sure he could have done better at Wintersons where he had scored the highest marks of all the applicants.
There were three of them in the outer office, the new boys starting that day. Stan saw a dark, surly looking fellow with a pugnacious jaw and something of a squint. But the one who returned his smile was tall and slim in shiny new slip-on shoes.
"Basil," he said and offered his hand, taking it Stan gave his own name. Basil went on, "Don't worry about Gerald he's surly with everyone."
"So was the bank your first choice," Stan found himself asking warming to the garrulous man of his own age?
"Accountancy, failed my finals and you?"
"Straight A's," Stan felt something cold clench around his heart.
"Then how come...oh let me guess, your old man press-ganged you into this."
Features tight Stan didn't reply, "accountants are two a penny," he repeated his father's withering remark.
"New ones earn 3 times what we will," said Basil, "and after a year will be on 5 times as much."
Oh great thought Stan I really needed to know that, "I wanted to join Wintersons."
"Oh good firm, rapid promotion, 5 weeks holiday a year. I'd sell my soul to join them."
Me to Stan mused miserably, but here he was and here he would stay father's orders, "What's the boss like here," he asked?
"Old Bradshaw, a decent sort I hear, stickler for the rules; lost his leg at Ypres I believe."
Finally Gerald spoke up, "right bastard," he sneered.
"Oh yes he's your uncle isn't he," Basil revealed?
"Aye he is, a proper sod," Gerald agreed.
Stan frowned, "So why are you here if he's that bad?"
But the shorter man just turned away, fists shoved into his pockets. Another poor sod given no choice most likely.
A thin clerk in a brown suit appeared smelling of moth balls and ink, he gazed at Gerald and nodded soundlessly, Gerald sloped off for his induction his preliminary talk, Bradshaw liked to see all new chaps.
"Good luck," Basil offered getting nothing back.
"Right charmer," said Stan his own spirits flagging. He already hated the oppressive atmosphere of the small corner branch with its dull brown panelled walls, squeaky linoleum floor and musty stink. Fancy being stuck here for weeks or months or even years.
Basil said, "Don't be too hard on old Gerry, got a first at Oxford and he's ended up here in this dump."
"Oxford," Stan gasped, "So what went wrong?"
"Bit of a scandal, got a girl in the family way then stole some cash to pay for an abortion. Hell of a stink; this is his penance, it was this or the clink I heard."
Eyes wide Stan realised that bad as his situation was there were people in a deeper stew, no wonder the man was miserable.
"Do you think you'll stick this out," he asked his new friend?
"Got no option, not qualified for anything else. One brother a doctor the other a teacher, so I can't let the side down."
Stan knew he was in a cleft stick, with so much unemployment he was lucky to have a job with a pension at the end of it; people were starving on the streets in Manchester, there had been riots in Liverpool.
He was last to go in to meet the manager, who did not rise from his chair but did shake his hand rather stiffly. A portly chap in his mid fifties with a bald crown and steel wire spectacles Bradshaw had a slight wheeze and he also stank of moth balls.
His tiny office had only one small window which let in almost no light and the walls were painted a sickly green, "ah Davies," he coughed and Stan noted the yellow tongue and bad teeth, "I hear you're an accounts whiz."
The dig hurt more than Stan wanted to let on, "Yes sir."
"Applied at Wintersons I understand, I know the manager there; same lodge," he winked a watery eye.
"Yes sir, came top," Stan thought he'd get that in let this man know he wasn't a dunce.
"So I was told, by rights you should be joining them but I see your father objected."
Two a penny, two a bloody penny. Stan remained taciturn, what could he say? There was no defying his father even at his current age, dad had too much influence.
Bradshaw cleared his throat, "I hope you won't see us as a second choice and a poor one at that, I need staff who are keen and motivated; this is a busy branch with some important clients."
Stan blinked seriously doubting these last two statements; this was a tiny regional sub-branch and unlikely to attract any major players.
"Do you have anything to say for yourself Davies," the manager rumbled and Stan realised he was meant to make a speech of thanks, to pour out his appreciation and vow undying loyalty. It was not how he really felt, to him coming here was like a prison sentence it seemed to be the death of all his hopes and dreams.
"I'm sure I'll be very happy here sir," was all he could squeeze past the lump in his throat, a tired cliché but his mind was unable to yield anything more fragrant.
"Do you indeed," said Bradshaw clearly not impressed, "Gerald and Basil waxed poetic about working here, perhaps you see it as demeaning."
"Not at all sir," Stan lied, "I shall give the job one hundred per cent."
"Well your father has asked me to keep him fully appraised of your performance so there's no room for slacking or poor time keeping."
How typical of his father to do this, the old man showed no interest in him but all of a sudden wanted chapter and verse on his working life, "I'm sure he won't be disappointed," Stan said dryly.
"I hope so too," said the one legged manager, "There's no room here for slackers or posers, we all pull our weight, you may be a good number cruncher but working in a bank requires other skills, you have to be good with people."
Stan had seen some of these people as he'd waited with his two contemporaries, fusty old types for the most part, many of them retired, a few sharp suited businessmen but all were older than him and grim faced. He was not optimistic that he could stick this out despite his father's pressure but then his eye was caught by something over the manager's left shoulder.
It was a dot of light, weak but flickering like a candle flame and growing stronger. As he focused on it the light gained strength and size growing and swelling until he could make out a definite shape. It was no reflection, he was sure about that so it had to be something real.
Within seconds the form of a hand was visible, above it an arm and above this a face, a young face male and slender.
"Billy," the name was out of his mouth before he could stop it and Bradshaw tensed.
"What did you say."
"Private Billy Adams," said Stan wondering how the information was just popping into his head.
Face draining of blood and eyes widening Bradshaw make a choking sound in the back of his throat, a sort of wheeze.
"He was only fifteen but said he was older so he could sign up," growing in confidence Stan felt the psychic link between him and the partially visible spirit grow stronger.
"You shot him," he felt the pain of the bullet, "In the back," felt the fear and disbelief, "you murdered him."
Features now grey and pasty Bradshaw tried to rise but his false leg was stuck under the desk.
"You shot him because he was running away, he was scared, he was just a child."
"Stop it," regaining his voice the manager gasped, "shut up."
But Stan couldn't stop, the spirit of Billy didn't want him to; needed to speak through him.
"Then you lied about it, said it was a German bullet."
"How do you know this? It's impossible, you weren't there in the trench."
"Billy was and he's here now, he's always with you."
"No," wrenching hard the manager got to his feet sweating and shaking, "I did my duty, he was a deserter, a coward."
"No he wasn't, he was fifteen and in shock."
"He was a soldier who had to obey orders."
"Murderer," Stan was surprised by the fury he felt, the revulsion and disgust at this man, "There were others," he staggered back, "How many did you kill, young boys crying for their mothers?"
"That's enough," making for the door, hands shaking, Bradshaw almost tripped himself over in his haste to escape, "get out of here Davies, get out of my sight," the handle refused to turn the door jammed.
Bradshaw wrenched and pulled then he hammered on the glass for help, "somebody," he called, "I'm stuck in my office."
"Trapped by guilt more like," Stan could do nothing but spout Billy's words, "You came home with a medal but they didn't, children shot in the back – Billy, Adam, Amos, Riley."
Frantic now Bradshaw punched and kicked at the heavy oaken door, yelling for help.
"They will always be with you," said Stan, "Waiting for you to join them to explain yourself to apologize."
The big man twisted around angry and bitter, "for doing my job, why should I? Men go to war to fight."
"Only you murdered them, it gave you a feeling of power, power you didn't have anywhere else."
"What do you know Davies, you weren't there, you don't know what it was like."
"I know a butcher when I see one, a killer and liar," Billy was more solid now a short boy, painfully thin with a thatch of red hair he still wore his ill-fitting uniform frayed at the cuffs and collar.
Turning back to the door and banging on it with both hands the manager began to scream and rant, he seemed to be losing his mind and Stan wondered if he was going to have a seizure when the door was opened from outside by Basil.
"I say sir are you," he got no further and gasping and sweating Bradshaw pushed past him and out into reception tie askew, hair wild and false leg clunking awkwardly behind him like a dead weight.
Everyone looked staff and customers, one woman lifted both hands to her face in shock, a small bald man ran out, a thinner also bald man said, "shall I go for a doctor."
"I am a doctor," said a squat sandy haired man a she approached Bradshaw who had fallen to his knees gabbling incoherently.
Basil regarded Stan, "What's got into old Bradders, what did you say to him?"
"Only the truth," Stan replied pulling himself together. The ghost of Billy Adams passed right through him and Basil to walk over to Bradshaw glaring down at him accusingly. The bloody bullet hole in the lad's back now clearly visible.
And Stan saw the others now too, spirits and phantoms materialising out of walls and counters to glare at their murderer, Amos aged 14 shot in the head, Adam aged sixteen killed by a bayonet thrust and Riley aged just thirteen shot in the stomach.
All cowards according to Bradshaw, deserters and traitors. Stan was appalled, was this what war was all about, boys dying in trenches for nothing?
"Poor buggers having a breakdown," said Basil.
"Luckier than some," Stan's voice was flat and lacked sympathy.
"What do you mean Stan," Basil was confused now?
Almost explaining Stan reined in his emotions and fury, how could he rattle on about ghosts without seeming insane. Basil and the other clerks were already regarding him oddly.
"Maybe you should leave," Basil suggested. Stan wished he could but he was here now, this was his fate his job he had to tough it out. The years yawned ahead of him grey and dismal, but if he could see spirits and touch another world maybe just maybe he'd be able to endure them.
Feeling an elbow in his ribs Stan turned and followed Basil's directing finger. They'd just arrived at the pavilion in time for the first dance, both kitted out in their army uniforms and about to be posted, both called up to fight in another war. Neither had been given any choice, if you were between 17 and 40 you had to accept conscription.
Banking wasn't a reserved occupation and to be honest Stan was relieved to escape the stultifying boredom of the bank, where he'd been imprisoned for a decade rising slowly through the ranks waiting for dead men's shoes.
"Isn't she a cracker," Basil was saying as he nodded towards a group of young Fleetwood women chatting amongst themselves, dressed in their best party frocks, legs darkened with tea.
"Which one," Stan asked seeing a blond, a red head and brunette? The latter caught his eye, she was glancing down shyly and not screeching like the other two?
"The little blond bombshell," said Basil who had just broken up his long-term fiancée Ann. Stan eyed the blond who was cute and flirty but his gaze was drawn back to the brunette, who turned suddenly looked up and looked him over.
She was petite with shorter hair and less make-up on than her friends, wearing a simple dark plaid skirt and white blouse. Like him she seemed awkward and out of place, a little intimidated and not at all brassy. She certainly wasn't sizing the men up like hunks of meat.
Without a word he walked over and smiled, "I'm Stan," he said, "Would you like to dance?"
The other two girls regarded their gazes roving up and down then one nudged the dark girl forward, "Go on Mari," she said and cheeks burning bright red Mari accepted Stan's proffered hand.
"Thank you," she said demurely as the live band struck up a tune.
"Nice name," he said as they began to sway in tune with Glenn Miller.
"Short for Marion," she told him, "With an O," the blush deepened. Local accent but not as broad as some of the other girls in this small fishing port off the west Lancashire coast.
Billeted close by Stan had been dragged by Basil, he wasn't much for socialising or dancing and his current boldness surprised him deeply, he was never so forward with women.
Something about this one was different in a way he couldn't explain; she just drew him into her orbit.
"I'm from Manchester," he said although she hadn't asked him, probably realised he wasn't a local, "going to be posted soon."
"Any idea where," she asked?
"We're not supposed to say," secrecy was drilled in from day one.
"Sorry," she sighed in his ear.
"No it's all right," heart racing and mouth dry he felt oddly light headed, his stomach clenched tight and legs even more clumsy than usual.
"When are you going," she asked?
"After the weekend I expect," he replied.
"Don't drink the wine," this remark startled him as it came out of nowhere.
"Excuse me," he lifted his head to study her?
"It'll make you sick," she was still blushing.
"What wine is this," was she referring to the pavilion, they didn't seem to be serving wine just juice and tea insipid stuff.
"In France," she whispered.
Stan almost fell over, how did this girl know he was going to France lucky guess?
"Did one of the other soldiers say something," he asked doubting they would even the big mouths, the sergeant would tear a strip off.
"No it's just something that I," she cut herself off.
"Yes, go on," he said his pulses pounding and head beginning to spin.
"I sense things, know stuff, it just comes to me, strange ideas."
They both fell still and looked into each other's eyes, the most beautiful eyes he had ever seen so deep and compelling.
"You mean you can read minds," he'd heard of such things even visited the odd pier end psychic but they were obvious fakes.
"Not as such," said Mari, "I just seem to know things other people don't."
This was astounding to him, of all the girls he should pick to dance with he'd plumped for a psychic, how incredible was that? Had he at some subtle level sensed her ability and been drawn to it because he shared it?
"Well you're right," he admitted, "But don't tell anyone else."
Smiling beguilingly she said she wouldn't and the music ended. By rights he should have let her go but he didn't, they had a second dance and a third and after it he asked if he could get her a drink?
She said yes and over it he gently probed into her background who she was, her family and where she lived? She didn't mind telling him these things then said out of the blue.
"I hope your brother's leg will be better soon."
He hadn't even mentioned he had one, "what?"
"I said I hoped Les' leg recovers, I've fallen off enough bikes myself."
This was incredible, she even knew Les' name and she was right he had come off his bike taking a corner too fast and hitting a patch of ice. Les now worked in the bank too, despite his snide comments about it being second hand and for old men; their father had laid down the law as usual.
Unlike Stan, Les had no aptitude for figures, so he wasn't mourning a dead accountancy career. That said he was in a bigger branch, had a more senior role and was dating the boss' daughter.
"Are you psychic," he asked bluntly, not normally something he would have asked a girl he'd only just met? After all it was a bit strange and forward, and why should she tell him her secrets when he hadn't revealed many of his own.
Deciding it was time he did he said, "I see things too," shifting uncomfortably from foot to foot he gulped his orange juice a little too fast and began coughing.
To his surprise Mari didn't sneer or dismiss what he'd said, remaining quiet she gave him time to recover and continue, "I'm not sure what you'd call them memories, spirits. Ever since I was seven year sold I've seen things other people can't, I still do at times."
Her gaze intense she said nothing, perhaps weighing up if he was spinning her a line like a lot of soldiers did with girls, told them what they wanted to hear.
"It's not a gift I asked for and I've never tried to explore it," half the time he'd tried to suppress it and wish it away. After all why would he need it in the bank or in the war? The army was toughening him up, turning him into a fighting man who would kill for his country. Not something he was looking forwards to if he was honest, could he kill a German?
"First day at the bank I saw these dead soldiers, boys really, they just materialised out of nowhere to tell me how their senior officer now the bank manager had shot them in the back for being deserters. He denied it but then had a breakdown, he was never the same again. I did some checking on my own and found out," Stan cut himself off, why was he telling Mari all this; he'd never spoken of it to anyone else.
"Look at me rabbitting on like a fool."
Touching his arm gently with a small hand she gave a little smile, "let's get out of here," she said and he found the smoky noisy atmosphere was getting on his nerves too.
"You want to go home?"
Nodding she said, "We can't talk here."
He found himself being led outside into the icy Fleetwood air, the tide was coming in and he could hear waves crashing over the sand. The prom wasn't deserted but it was more private than the pavilion; which had filled up with noisy couples eager to dance, flirt and drink.
Not my scene he thought, wondering how Basil and his other army mates were getting on? Basil had hooked up with the blond and they were in a tight embrace to a smoochy number. Well good luck to him, he was making the most of what time in England they had left.
Stan much preferred walking with and talking to this quiet, enigmatic young woman who hadn't laughed at his story of ghosts in the bank. He would never dare mention it to his colleagues or even his parents.
"Do you see spirits," he asked bluntly, "I mean you don't have to tell me if you don't want to, I completely understand. I'm a stranger, a soldier and I know what a reputation they have."
Again that small hand found his sleeve gentle and reassuring, my god he felt like he'd known this girl all his life that they had a deep emotional connection, but how could they when they'd only just met?
"Since the age of sixteen I've belonged to a development circle, do you know what that is," she asked?
He had to admit he didn't so she went on, "A group of sensitive people meditate, open their minds to higher energies and contact those who live there, the dead as people refer to them."
"Sounds weird," he had to admit.
"Not really, it's inspiring. We're led by a medium Elsie Clegg, who's like my mentor."
"And have you contacted the dead," he asked fascinated?
"It's they who contact us, we can't control spirits they only come through if they want to and have something to impart some message."
"Like what," he asked?
"Information for someone on earth that will help them or ease their grief, you see the dead see everything we do and in some cases they know what is to come."
"You mean they can see into the future?"
"In the next life the past, present and future are all one."
Rum idea, "did they foresee you meeting me?"
Her smile was intriguing, "why do you think I let those girls talk me into coming."
"A spirit told you that we'd meet up here," he was amazed?
"They told me I'd meet the man I was going to," but here Mari cut herself off like she'd gone too far and said too much.
"Going to what," he probed?
"If you don't mind I'll keep that for another time."
"We're going to meet again," he said as it seemed so unlikely?
"Yes we are."
But he could be abroad for weeks even months, he might even be killed and she could meet someone else. It was by pure chance that he'd met Mari at all and yet – some part of him felt it was predestined that it was meant to happen, destiny if you like.
His father and brother would scoff at the very idea, which was why he didn't plan on telling them.
"I'm going to war Mari, it's extremely dangerous."
"You'll survive it Stan," she said with such earnest intensity that he was taken aback. How could she know that, the fighting was intense and yes maybe the tide had turned against Hitler but he was far from beaten.
"You can't know that," he said touched despite himself.
"I do know," she insisted.
"So many are dying," many of his friends and colleagues had been killed.
"It's not your time," Mari insisted with total certainty.
"Anything could happen, a stray bullet, a mine…."
But touching his arm again she said, "our deaths are preplanned, we never die before the allotted time."
"But this is war Mari, it's totally insane."
Fiercely she held him and he found he liked it, "You have so much more living to do Stan."
Deeply moved by this he felt a warm rush pass through him and his heart soften and peel open layer by layer. He wanted to believe this, of course he did, nobody wanted to contemplate their own death not by violence. Yet young lads were being killed by the thousand on both sides, nothing was certain.
"I like to think so too," he responded in a more subdued voice.
"You have much to achieve in this life time," she went on.
"I'm a bank clerk," he said unable to keep the self-deprecating tone from his voice, it was hardly the most thrilling or challenging job in the world.
Face radiant in the moonlight she kept hold of him, "You are so much more."
"I wish Mari but the truth is I have no real talent," a bit of music, some ability to write florid prose and sports he had long given up.
"You have a very special talent," she argued.
"You mean seeing the dead, how is that useful," it had never done him any good indeed he largely kept it to himself for fear of ridicule and worse.
"Those of us able to see more are a bridge between two worlds."
"Most people would think us insane."
"People yearn for greater understanding, we can help them find it."
He couldn't see how, "go on," he said.
"By passing on what we see, what spirits tell us."
"You mean like mediums," he had seen one or two on the stager and not been impressed. It was all so trivial and vague; the press was scornful.
"I was training to be a medium before Elsie fell ill," she revealed.
"Your friend Elsie Clegg, what's wrong?"
"Her heart isn't good these days she's mostly retired."
He was sorry to hear it, "Couldn't you find another teacher?"
"I could," she said doubtfully, "But good ones are hard to find."
"Maybe you need to look outside Fleetwood," he knew how these locals hated to leave their beloved port.
"One day soon I will," she said mysteriously and he got the impression it was going to have something to do with him.
"When the war is over," he asked?
"Before then," she looked away.
"I'd see who wins first," he said with a smile.
"I know the outcome of the war," she startled him with this statement.
"You do," nobody else was sure beyond Churchill and he sounded hopelessly optimistic.
"I knew before the thing started."
"Now come on Mari that's impossible," he began to object but she took out a piece of paper and squeezed it into his hand.
He frowned, "what's this?"
"The exact date the war will end, no don't look at it now, keep it on you and see what happens."
Totally intrigued he almost defied her and looked anyway, then she was leading him up Warmsley Street, which was flanked by old terraced houses whose front doors led out onto the pavement.
"That's mine there, 103," she pointed, "But I think we should part here," they were just a few yards away and he saw a curtain twitch, no doubt Mari would be inundated with questions by her family.
"When will I see you again," he asked?
"Sooner than you think," and with a chaste peck on the cheek she dashed off. Odd girl he thought, mysterious yet compelling. He had to see her again, he knew that much, he felt irresistibly attracted. Not an emotion he'd ever experienced before with any woman.
Looking from one man to another Stan experienced a sense of being alone for the first time since he'd been deployed at Normandy. He was different from his comrades in a number of ways, chief amongst them being that he knew ghosts were real not imagination and this place was haunted, maybe it always had been.
"If we stay here," he replied, "We'll become part of this place."
"What does that mean," Basil snapped clearly losing patience with his old friend?
"People who stay here become part of the fabric of this anomaly; they become ghosts too."
"Rubbish," Terry tried to sneer but it didn't come across as convincing.
"I'm not dying here," said Marty.
"Better than dying outside," mumbled Darren but support came from a surprising source.
"Stan's right," said Pete Dixon, "You get sucked in, converted; soon you're part of the haunting."
But Basil wasn't having that, "I think you need to calm down, we've all been shocked by those dead Germans but there are no ghosts here."
He was wrong but Stan didn't argue he saw no point in it, he'd said enough maybe too much. If Basil reported this conversation he could find himself drummed out of the army for psychological evaluation.
"Let's eat," Basil waved, "A good meal will do us all good and I'm starving."
He was clinging to normality like a drowning man grabs any flotsam. With nothing else to do Stan set about preparing a meal for them all with the ingredients on offer, these were generous in the midst of a war.
"What are you making," Basil asked, "It smells marvellous."
"It's a mixed stew, meat and veg, very wholesome," Stan replied.
"Where did you learn to cook," the question made Stan think of his mother Daisy had insisted that both her boys know how to cook even though they would take wives who would cook for them. Cooking, she believed, was an essential life skill.
"At home," he admitted, "Les and I both took turns making Sunday lunch."
"Your younger brother," Basil realised, "How is he these days?"
Stan thought of Les doing a nice cushy admin job, he'd really fallen on his feet being back at staff HQ.
"In no danger of being shot at," Stan grunted sourly.
"Why isn't he part of this little shebang," Terry asked?
"Friends in high places," said Darren sourly. Yes thought Stan something like that. Their father had made sure Les joined all the right things – golf club, conservative party, rotary, Freemasons – yes things had been very different for Les the favourite son the golden boy.
Dad hadn't invited him to join anything beyond the bank and that had been more of an order a duty. Stan knew his place in the scheme of things, older bother he might be but this cut no ice with Richard Goodall Davies.
"You're senior to Les in the bank surely," said Basil.
"I was," Stan grunted.
"Oh yes he was transferred and promoted wasn't he, chief clerk; lucky sod. A big hike and decent money."
Biting his tongue and stirring the big pan Stan wondered if he'd ever be chief clerk in a big city centre branch? His attention was snagged by a large circular glass plate above the oven, unlike everything else here it was pristine, so clean and bright he could see his reflection clearly.
Only in his thirties he had aged, most of his hair was gone on top and thick lines formed grooves around his mouth, a mouth sour with disappointment. The one good thing in his life was on his left hand, his wedding ring. He and Mari had tied the knot in May at a registry office, one year after they'd met.
She was his wife and he was so glad, he had thought of waiting until after the war but she wouldn't hear of it. "No now," she'd insisted.
"Why the rush," he'd asked?
"The timing is perfect."
"For what love?"
Clamming up at this point she just kissed him so they got wed. His parents grim faced and unsmiling, no hugs for the new bride, she was beneath him a lower social class.
Sod them thought Stan, they weren't ruining or controlling this part of his life.
He blinked at the glass plate, his face no longer looking back at him. He saw a thin woman with long curly hair and a passionate, determined eyes. His age he sensed she wasn't English, a name pierced his conscious something beginning with F.
"You see me," her mind reached out to his and it wasn't asking a question but stating a fact. Almost dropping his spoon he stood there transfixed.
"Who are you," she had a glow about her a kind of shimmering corona, "you're dead."
"There is no death," she rebuked, "Don't disappointment me."
No she wasn't a woman to let down, high standards and she looked for them in others.
Basil cut in, "hey Stan we eating tonight or not?"
There was nothing for it but to serve the stew and to his relief they all tucked in, tearing at the crispy buns he gave them. Stan returned to the oven and the spectral woman was still there, her name now clear to him – Françoise.
"Did you die here," he asked mentally, smart enough not to say it out loud?
"Of course I did," she was impatient.
"The Germans," he said and this wasn't a question either.
"I was betrayed, they followed me here and killed us all."
"Your whole family," he sighed, "I'm sorry.
"We killed them too," she said with some pride.
"You were in the resistance?"
She frowned, "I still am," rich with pride.
"Even on the other side?"
"Wars aren't just fought in one dimension," she declared and this surprised him, he hadn't thought of conflict continuing beyond earth.
"If you're here then are the," he began to ask?
"Yes they are, you must be careful."
He was puzzled, "how can dead Germans hurt us?"
Again Basil interrupted, "you joining us Stan," he waved an empty plate, "More bread would be nice."
Checking the lower oven Stan found some good and crisp, he took a basket to the table and sat down impatient to continue his telepathic discourse with Françoise, but unable to just ignore his comrades.
They chatted about trivial things, women, booze, football but his mind couldn't latch on to such mundanity. He thought of a family all in the French resistance tracked down by the SS, a bloody shoot out, hand to hand fighting and everyone being killed – it was tragic.
What was Françoise, thirty at the most it was no age to die yet many younger had perished in this awful war.
"Quiet Stan," Basil was leaning in and lowering his voice, his tone once more genial like he had gone back to being an old friend.
"Tired," this wasn't a lie Stan was exhausted they all were.
"Yeah I'm dead beat to, after this I'm going for a lie down. You still taking first watch?"
When Stan nodded Basil said, "relieve you in 4 hours," it was a generous offer.
"At least it's quiet outside," Stan hadn't heard so much as a bird hoot let alone a shot or a jack boot.
"Let's be grateful for small mercies," said his friend who had kept most of his hair even if it had turned prematurely white. Stick thin and gangly Basil had remained largely an optimist, or as much of one as you could be in war. They'd been through a lot together, brutal training, the Normandy landings, attacks by German planes, minefields, snipers and now this.
"How's that new wife of yours Mary," Basil asked?
"Mari, she's fine, expecting," Stan had been shocked when she told him; the baby due next February, a girl she had insisted although how could she know?
"Oh congratulations, hey fellas Stan's going to be a dad," cups of tea were raised and he got several muted well-done's. The general discussion turned to kids, who had them how old they were, if they'd ever see them again.
Stan thought of his daughter and wondered if he'd ever see her one day, if she'd ever know him?
On the pretext of mixing more stew he returned to the oven, this time the face in the mirror was male with thick jowls, hard green eyes, receding fair hair and a scar through the top lip. Stan could see the collar of a dark blue uniform and didn't need to be told this was a German officer.
"So," his mind was mocking, "You have the gift, how impressive," sounding not at all impressed the man Gunter scowled, "Like us you are trapped here."
"Not trapped," Stan objected.
"Oh yes I think so Englishman."
"We're still incarnate."
A laugh greeted this, "Is incarnation freedom," said Gunter as though he didn't think so.
"Where is Françoise," Stan snapped?
"The French whore," this was said with cruel pleasure, "I raped her before I killed her, did she tell you that, and she enjoyed it."
Stan felt sick, was this true, "didn't do you much good did it Colonel," he threw back?
"Oh excellent you know my rank, I know yours too, soon I think we will meet on the next...what is it called, plane, that's it."
Stan shook his head, "I don't think so, I'm not dying here."
Gunter laughed, "Sure of that are you, I was pretty cocky to until," he broke off as though not wanting to relive the memory of his own demise.
"You were the first body I found, the guy who got stabbed by a fork, did Françoise do that; too much for you was she Gunter?"
Features darkening with hatred and top lip curling the colonel regarded him with eyes like two stones, "I shall remember you Englishman."
"Funny, I'm going to try and forget you; Nazi."
Turning from the glass and making his way to the back door Stan made sure it was locked and bolted then he checked each window one by one. He'd been shaken by Gunter's words but refused to let the man get to him, Gunter was dead like all his men what could they do from the next world?
It was clear that the act of dying didn't impart great wisdom, people remained as they were at least to begin with. Gunter was still a soldier and Françoise still a resistance leader, what will I be he thought always a bank clerk; what a depressing idea.
A strong perfume – honey mixed with lavender and roses – made him feel a rush of desire and there in one of the windows she stood looking back at him. Now he could see more of her like the black beret on her head, the small stud earrings, the silken scarf, the dark blue jacket and black pants.
"Be careful Stanley," she told him, even her mind had a soft French lilt.
"You seem clearer to me, I can see more of you."
"Our connection is getting stronger," she told him then looked about, "The Nazis are close, I can feel them."
"I just spoke to one, their leader I think."
"Gunter Siegel," the name was spat out with contempt, "A butcher."
"You killed him didn't you, with a pitchfork?"
Not denying it Françoise seemed proud of her actions, "It was self-defence."
Having met the man he had no doubt of it, "why did they come after you Françoise?"
"I led a resistance cell, for 2 years we ran rings around them – sabotage, vandalism, spying, stealing cars – I made Gunter look like a fool and he was determined to put me in my place."
"I'm so sorry you lost your life," he said and meant it but this was greeted with a very Gallic shrug and a resigned acceptance.
"It was the risk I took and I've no regrets. Now listen, you must protect yourself Stanley."
"Why, Gunter is a ghost he can't harm me."
"You're wrong he can," as if to prove it the window suddenly cracked with a loud bang, splitting diagonally right the way across. The French girl disappeared and tottering back Stan took out his pistol.
There was no sign of Françoise now and he wondered where she'd gone, if he'd see her again? She had said their connection was getting stronger, he hoped so. If he was in danger what should he do, how did you fight a ghost? Moving into a downstairs bedroom he found it belonged to children. It had bunk beds, stuffed toys, some books of illustrated fairy stories in French and a small bible.
Opening this he read an inscription on an inside page, to Françoise and Eduard beloved children from mama and papa. Not sure why Stan kept hold of the bible, drawing strength from it even though he wasn't a big church goer.
Clutching it tightly in his free hand he looked further and found some framed photos of a girl aged 5 and a boy about two years younger, Françoise and her baby brother, presumably both had died here when the Germans came.
In a drawer he found older pictures of Françoise aged 7, 9 and 13 but no others of Eduard which was odd, what had become of him, had he gone away, been taken away or had he died?
Somehow tragedy hung over this family like a shroud, they had known misery and despair even before the war.
Bible still held tightly he made his way to the stairs and climbed, the top windows would have to be secure as well, German soldiers could climb after all.
He had just reached the hall where they'd seen the hanging man when something cold and hard pressed into the back of his neck. Turning he saw Peter Dixon but his features were altered, broader, bloaty and jowly with flint hard eyes, the eyes of Gunter Siegel. It was the colonel's voice who spoke through Dixon using him as a channel.
"Told you I'd get you Englishman," a low chuckle followed this as the pistol aimed between Stan's eyes, "What's your spirit guide going to do now?"
"Get it Davies, shape yourself," barked a chilling baritone from the left field as PE coach Snape, known by the boys as Ape, booted the football as hard as he could. Built more like a wrestler than a player with his barrel chest, tree trunk arms and thick neck Snape was feared by everyone even most of the teachers.
Stan tried to chest the ball down but it smacked into his stomach, winded him and sent him crashing to the muddy grass, filthy after 3 days of rain. A boy from the other side soon took up the ball and ran with it; furious Snape bounded over.
"You useless bugger Davies," he aimed a kick at Stan which only missed because the ten year old squirmed to one side at the right moment. Carried by his own momentum Snape ended up on his arse in a big pool of mud, much to everyone's amusement.
Get up. Not sure where the voice had come from as it was soft, elderly and encouraging Stan got to his feet. Run with me, he was told and he saw a pair of legs dashing after the kid with the ball, just legs no proper body and the legs were grey silhouettes not really solid.
He was reminded of that day in the headmaster's office, the misty figure who'd saved him from a beating. So he ran like he'd never run before trying to keep pace with the phantom legs, he drew alongside them, drew closer still and then to his amazement they were 'inside' his legs giving him extra speed and wind.
Amazing himself further he took the ball of the rival striker and glided it back the other way, avoided a tackle, another tackle, a blatant foul and was within sight of the enemy goal.
"Pass it to me Stan," cried Alan Greene the best striker on their side and he was in a better position but Stan's revitalised legs lined up the shot and took it. Curving in the air left to right the ball had surely missed its target. Then it hit the side bar and ricochetted into the net.
Nobody could believe it, least of all Stan who had never scored a goal in his life. Roars and cheers greeted his ears, claps on the back, big grins and an envious wink from Alan.
Snape, his white shorts now shit coloured, gazed in disbelief, "bloody hell," he was heard to say then, "err well done lad, good goal," his previous contempt now heavily diluted.
Unable to take it in Stan wiped tears from his eyes, had he really just done this, he was rubbish at football or had been. That day though he couldn't do anything wrong, he scored twice more from difficult angles, one being a corner and by the final whistle all his previous fumblings had been forgotten.
"Damn good show mate," Alan Greene had to admit.
"Yes impressive stuff," Dave Hill had led the rival team.
"Didn't know you had it in you," said Malcolm Clark the physio. Snape appeared, his beetle brows and thick lips crinkled into a warm smile for once.
"Place for you on the regular team after this Stan," he said using a boy's name for the first time ever, "3 damn fine goals," nobody argued, "at this rate you'll be trialling for United," cheers greeted this and Stan blushed. He knew he hadn't done anything, it was his invisible helper but he couldn't come out and say this or he'd be a laughing stock.
Yet deep down he knew it was true, some spectre had come out of nowhere and transformed him, but who was he and why had it happened.
"Are you still there," he muttered when he was sure he was alone in the shower, "please tell me who you are," he begged through the steam wondering if this was a one off or if the ghostly legs would be with him every match?
With no reply he moved over to a steamed up mirror and saw written there the following words I AM YOUR GUIDE, nothing else, no name, no reason. Stan frowned at the word 'guide' having not heard it before. He knew of the girl guides but this was something else, something much stranger.
"What do you want," he murmured at the mirror unable to see himself or anything then a voice made him jump, a man not a boy, it was Clark the physio a wiry man in his forties with receding grey brown hair and stick out ears.
"Oh sir," Stan flushed, "sorry just talking to myself."
But to his chagrin Clark had seen the written message before he could wipe it away. Waiting for scorn, derision or a question he was amazed when Clark nodded sagely, sighed and pressed two fingers to his own teeth.
"I've never told anyone this but I'm a spiritualist, do you know what that is?"
Stan frowned, "not really sir."
"Strictly between us it's a religion, but unlike the others it's based on evidence, testimony given through a medium."
Stan had heard of them, didn't they claim to speak to the dead? "I don't understand sir."
"In our church we believe that everyone has a spirit guide who can help them in times of need, a dead person who comes back to earth to work alongside a chosen subject."
Stan thought of the legs he'd seen knowing they weren't solid flesh and blood limbs like his, "sounds queer to me sir."
"Maybe lad but you saw something out on that pitch didn't you, just before you got the ball and scored your first goal. I saw it in your eyes, amazement, disbelief then determination, you were like someone inspired and I think you were."
Clark was an odd sort, nobody knew much about him, didn't he live with an elderly aunt? The lads thought he was a poofter, mind you they said that about everyone. Stan had never taken him for a table tapper.
Then the physio handed him something it was a small stiff card with an address in Didsbury, "This is where we meet."
"I can't go out at night," said Stan.
"The next meeting is in the afternoon at 2.30."
Yes it was on the card, Saturday at 2.30 service and open circle. "I'm not very religious."
"Neither am I," Clark admitted.
"But you belong to a church," Stan pointed out.
"Spiritualism isn't like anything you've seen before, we don't quote bible stories or praise Jesus. Come along and see for yourself."
Stan nodded but deep down he decided not to bother, it was all too weird, Clark was weird. True he lived in Didsbury but it was a big area; this church could be anywhere. If his parents found out they'd be furious, mum was C of E and dad thought god was all a bit namby pamby; they often fell out.
As it turned out Stan did go to the church, only it wasn't a church it was a large Edwardian house with the front room and sitting room knocked through into one. It was only 10 minutes from where he lived with no sign and no crosses just a card in the window 'spiritualism' and nothing else.
It had to be the place he decided and he found himself approaching the front door, which opened at once. A big, blousy woman stood there with a nest of grey curls and some large brown beads.
"Hello love, first time is it, just go through."
Chairs had been placed in rows facing an altar, candles were lit and he could smell something floral in the air, low piano music came from a speaker it sounded like Chopin, he liked Chopin.
About ten people were sat around mostly women his mum's age or older. Some looked and smiled but the rest ignored him. The blousy woman closed the main door and returned, "want some fruit juice," she asked Stan who sat stiffly by himself.
"Yes please," he said politely and the woman glided away on fluffy pink slippers to get it from a back room.
"You alone love," a thin woman in a layered black hat and long fawn coat asked him this, "Don't be scared it's all perfectly normal."
It didn't feel normal to him, what was he doing here and where was Clark? Soon the fat woman returned with a china mug full of orange cordial. Sitting next to him, hand sin her lap, she said, "we start with a few hymns, then I give a bit of philosophy and finally the medium takes over."
Stan was confused, "what does she do?"
"Gives readings from the next world."
"You mean from the dead?"
"Yes I suppose so."
"Isn't that a bit creepy," he asked and the woman smiled.
"The dead can't hurt us lad, only the living."
Stan was destined to learn that this wasn't strictly true but aged ten he had no experience to draw on, just a football match.
The hymns were okay, he even knew some of them and joined in with gusto, the philosophy was boring and he zoned out not understanding any of it. Then the woman Mrs Shaw declared, "and now for the highlight of our meeting the mediumship, we are very lucky today to have an especially talented sensitive."
And there stood Mr Clark in a suit and tie, Stan's features boggled, Clark was a medium he hadn't mentioned that. He seemed different in the converted town house, more upright, more confident and less apologetic. At school he was always overshadowed by the bullying Snape but not here, here he was in his element.
Coughing and clearing his throat he addressed the assembled, "Lots of spirits here today," he told them although Stan could see anything, "I'm being guided to the people I need to speak to," and he began with a woman in a pink knitted bonnet giving her messages from her late husband that soon had her in tears.
Next he went to a plump woman in a faded blue coat, relaying information from a dead uncle and someone called Joe, an old boyfriend killed on a motorcycle.
And on it went until Mrs Shaw called time like a pub landlady, Stan felt deflated, nothing for him not a peep from the next world. It was then that he felt a presence in the empty seat to his felt, a shape forming out of a dirty grey mist. He saw a whole arm ending in a delicate hand, some kind of loose fitting garment tied around the middle by string. It reminded him of the habit worn by Friar Tuck in the Robin Hood stories he so adored.
The ghost had no head but oddly this didn't frighten Stan, indeed he felt warm and reassured.
Nice here, relaxing said a voice inside his head that clearly only he could hear. Good clairvoyance having not heard this word before Stan sniffed.
"Are you my guide," he asked with his mind wary not to speak out?
For now said the ghost.
You'll have others.
Not sure he wanted others Stan frowned, "Will you help me with my football?"
That was a one off, it's down to you now.
Disappointing, he'd been looking forward to supernatural assistance in scoring goals. "I'm no good."
Better than you think, believe in yourself.
This was not something his father ever told him, or his teachers it was either "poor show Davies" or "That's more like it," but praise was thin on the ground.
"Why am I here," he asked, "If not to get a message?"
You don't need one you can ask me things.
"What's going to become of me?"
A life of mysteries and adventures, many ghosts, some pain, some happiness.
Not liking the pain bit Stan noticed Mr Clark stood beside him, "I see you have your own connection to spirit," said the physio cum medium with a smile, could he see the monk?
Tongue tied Stan just nodded, "I can't see him clearly."
"That rarely happens," Clark admitted, "Even to me."
"You seemed to be okay up there giving messages."
"It's my gift, yours I'm guessing will be different not restricted to these gatherings, you'll go out in the world and touch more people, unbelievers."
"Why would they listen to me," Stan doubted?
"You're a leader of men Stanley, you have a presence, a strength that many lack."
Not understanding this the boy just shrugged, he didn't feel like a leader and he didn't believe this man's prediction.
"Will you come here again," Clark asked?
"I dunno," Stan said honestly.
"Well I hope you do, and get to know the people here especially Mrs Shaw."
People had moved into a back room now for tea and biscuits, it seemed to be a regular ritual, a sort of winding down after the main show but Stan just wanted to get home, his parents would miss him and he'd need a good excuse.
"We won't speak of this at school," Clark had lowered his voice now to almost a whisper, "They wouldn't understand."
Stan was sure of it, the pupils and teachers all shared one trait, a closed mind, none would be found dead in a place like this and he smiled at his own ironic humour.
Sure he was going to die, that Dixon was going to blow his head off Stan swallowed. Go on then, he thought, get it over with. He thought of Marion and regretted not seeing her again or his unborn child.
The shadows stirred, rippled, coalesced into a shape, a woman with long hair and beret. Striding over she swung her arm upwards, the arm holding the gun swung away from Stan much to Dixon's disbelief, "mine gott," he spluttered.
Stan grabbed the pistol and wrenched it free before shoving Dixon back, "bad luck Fritz," he panted turning to Françoise who was solid now, like a flesh and blood woman, beautiful and feral, sensuous and alive.
"Thank you mademoiselle," he said.
"You're welcome," she returned without any hint of a smile. Dixon slumped holding his head and blinking rapidly.
"What happened," he gasped confused?
"Where's Gunter gone," Stan demanded, "Will be possess one of the others?"
Looking around alarmed Françoise shrugged, "Maybe, he hasn't given up, his type never do."
Making up his mind Stan headed for the stairs, he had to warn the others but to his surprise the French girl lunged in front of him barring his way.
"The solution is up here not down there," she declared, "This is where the Germans are weakest."
Wondering why he nodded, "Go back to the others Pete, tell them to stay alert."
Dixon frowned, "What about you?"
Ignoring this Stan headed up the landing, Françoise by his side, "why are they weak up here?"
"You'll see," she responded with an impish smile.
"How come you're so solid now so visible," like a real woman he almost said but knew this would be insulting.
"You went into my bedroom, saw me as a child, saw me grow up and then you found my old bible."
"So," he pressed, "what difference do those things make?"
"I became more real in your mind Stanley, I took on shape and form, you know more about me now."
It sounded logical he supposed, "When I saw that gun I thought my guide would intervene."
She surprised him by what she said next, "the monk, he is no longer your guide."
This brought him up short, "how do you know about the monk?"
"As you touched my life so I touched yours."
"Why has he left me," Stan felt bereft.
"He was only with you for your early life, one can have many guides."
She sounded extremely knowledgeable, "so who is my guide now?"
That impish smile was back, "we shall have to see," it was at best an evasive response.
Passing a number of doors they came to an imposing light wood barrier with a thick brass handle, the door beyond had to reach to the back of the house, "who's room is this?"
Her only response was to gesture at the handle, he was just reaching for it when the thing turned and the door flew inwards to reveal – no one. Stan saw a floor of polished planks, fluffy pink rugs, a wooden rocking horse on the left and a child sized piano on the right.
It was the dried blood splatters that froze him in place, sprays up and down the floral wallpaper, a larger pool soaking into the floor near a single pink decorated bed.
"What is this place Françoise?"
Taking a deep breath she remained rooted where she stood, reluctant suddenly to proceed, "It is," she almost sobbed, "where I died."
Now he saw a shape in the bed, a torso with legs bent at the knees and one arm flung out. It was a woman, he was sure of that and he had a nasty feeling he knew who she would be.
Approaching the bloody sheet with a heart like a stone he reached out and eased it back, bile catching in his throat, acid stinging his eyes. Oh dear god, it was worse than he'd expected and stomach knotting he stumbled sideways.
Silent and solemn Françoise tensed her lips but did not turn away, it was like she was making herself observe this grim tableaux.
"They took their turn," she said, "one by one," now her voice did catch briefly, "Then they cut my throat."
Stan had no words to offer, no comfort, what solace was there to this abomination this horror?
He became aware of a new heaviness in the room, a sickening weight and looking around he saw them bleed through the walls into full view, men in Nazi uniforms, most were young and unshaven, some had bloody wounds to chest or back or neck.
These were the rapists, the killers, the guilty men – he counted five of them, four corporals and a sergeant.
"So this is them," he said wanting to lash out, to hit or shoot them but how could you punish those already dead?
"Yes," Françoise agreed.
"How did they die?"
"My family picked them off, my mother cut his throat," she indicated the man with the horrific gash across his neck.
"Good," said Stan, "I'm glad," he knew he could have happily killed them all himself and the thought shocked him. The idea he could be so brutal and vicious, so vengeful but he felt for this woman and hated what she had been through, how her brave life had ended.
"I needed you to see this Stanley to understand how brief and precious life is, I'm still angry but it's passing, I'm moving to acceptance now."
Not knowing how anyone could accept a death like this he shook his head, "I don't understand Françoise?"
"Our deaths, like our births, are predetermined."
"What are you saying; that this was always going to happen, you were always going to die like this; that it was unavoidable?"
Meeting his gaze she gave a very French shrug, "life and death are always known Stanley."
He couldn't accept that, that rape and murder were inevitable, "no," he gasped, "I'll never believe that."
"But you must," she urged him reaching out with a hand.
"Why must I?"
"Because death will touch you many times my friend, and it will seem pointless but it isn't."
What did she mean, which deaths, those of his comrades or civilians or the poor souls who came to this farmhouse?
"When will death touch me," he demanded?
"In years to come."
"You can see into the future?"
"Where I am now the future is an open book; there is so much I could tell you."
"Then tell me," he snapped?
"It is not permitted."
"There are rules that govern our lives here."
"But if you could help me save a life in the future, why wouldn't you?"
She gave a weary, somewhat resigned sigh, "I cannot take away the choices made by another soul Stanley."
"Which soul, do you mean me," he asked?
"No, I speak of another as yet unborn."
This astonished him, unborn? "What are you saying Françoise, are you talking about a baby I'm going to have?"
She turned away arms folded under her breasts and back stiff with suppressed emotion, "I have said too much," she whispered.
"No, you haven't said enough, tell me more tell me about this unborn soul who is he or she?"
When she turned back there were tears on her cheeks and they were for him not herself, she was grieving for him even as her body cooled in the bloody bed where she had so violently perished.
The day began with Stan wondering if he was up to being acting under manager, and ended with his world imploding.
He had just reached the branch to be greeted by Basil (they'd transferred there together) and was a bag of nerves.
"Love the suit," said Basil and nervously Stan brushed dust off his lapels. The suit was new, his firs tin ages and a good fit but was he a good fit for the job.
"Relax," said his friend all smiles, few things bothered Basil he was unflappable, "You're going to be fine."
Not feeling fine, feeling anything but in fact, Stan had been sick twice that morning already.
"You think so," he was standing in for Dawlish a real martinet if ever there was one, a by-the-book man who had made it clear to his stand in what he expected; the same exacting standards and harsh discipline. The old man was having his appendix out, but had vowed to be back in harness as soon as possible.
"Everyone's looking forward to it," said Basil, "You're much more easing going than Dawlish, mind you Joe Stalin would be more relaxing than him."
For the hundredth time Stan checked his watch, five minutes to go until he was officially the top man. Ellie appeared, one of the new female clerks the bank was experimenting with.
"It won't last," according to Dawlish.
Pert and blond with bright pink lipstick Ellie offered him a warm smile, "What do we call you – sir, master, Mr Davies," she was teasing of course, she did a lot of that.
"Stan will do," he didn't want any fuss being made.
"Stan," Ellie gave a look of mock horror, "Did you hear that Basil, first name terms with the boss, can you imagine us calling Dawlish – Sid?"
Then Kevin the trainee stuck his head through a doorway, "phone call boss," it took Stan some moments to realise that he was the boss in question.
"Be the old man with last minute instructions," Ellie joked, "Don't forget to flog them."
"Or make them walk the plank," Basil joined in the jollity, faking a smile Stan went through into the back where a black rotary phone awaited him.
"Stanley Davies," he said then wondered if he should add his new job title, as it turned out he wasn't asked for it.
"This is Matron at the southside sir," said a rather hectoring voice, "your wife has gone into labour, I just thought you'd want to know."
Mari, but it was two weeks early, "are you sure?"
"Yes sir, we're rarely wrong about these things," the prim voice put him in his place
"Good god, it's too soon," he blurted.
"Baby comes when baby's ready sir," Matron lectured.
"Yes of course, stupid of me. The thing is I'm a bit tied up at the moment, starting a new job as..."
"I really think you should be here sir, I wouldn't have called you over anything trivial."
Terror clenching his bowels Stan almost dropped the phone, "why, what's wrong?"
"Best if we discuss that face to face Mr Davies."
Discuss what, everything was going fine, this was their third baby. Christine had been born in 1945 and Jean two years later; both healthy. Now 7 and 5 they were doing fine and looking forward to having a new brother or sister.
"But I can't just abandon my post," what would Dawlish say or Area?
"Your wife needs you Mr Davies, this is urgent; I can't put it any clearer than that."
"Yes of course I'm sorry," he couldn't leave Marion to cope alone at a time like this.
"You're on your way then," Matron urged? Seconds later pulling his coat on Stan dashed out front to find Basil chatting to a client, excusing himself the other man glided over.
"Where the hell are you going Stan, you can't just leave?"
"Mari's gone into labour, there's a problem."
Features dropping and grip loosening Basil went pale, "Oh bloody hell I'm so sorry."
"Stand in for me will you."
"Me," Basil sounded astonished.
"Well who else, you're the next senior man."
"You want me in the big office," Basil was ready, he had the experience and he knew everyone, maybe with hindsight he was a better choice.
"I trust you Basil, Dawlish should have offered you this job anyway. I must be off, this sounds bad and Mari will be in a state."
"Of course I get that, is the baby," unable to finish Basil just trailed off.
"I don't know, matron was a bit tight lipped," no more needed to be said.
"Off you go then and take as long as you like, I'll square this with Area don't worry."
Thanking his old friend with a hug Stan darted through the door, all thoughts of the bank and his new job forgotten, he wouldn't think about either for some time to come; he wouldn't be in any fit state to.
"Mr Davies," even without the uniform and cap Stan would have recognised this woman as Matron due to her bearing. Short and stout with a round face and double chin she had a puckered nose and small steel hard eyes that radiated authority.
"Come this way please," in short but rapid strides she led him away from the reception desk.
"I want to see my wife," he gulped barely getting the words out.
"Yes but there's someone you need to speak to first."
"My wife is more important," Stan wanted to scream but the words came out as a strangled gasp.
Then a door opened a huge man stood there, he could easily have played Tarzan in the movies with his 6ft 4 frame, wide shoulders and massive hands. The flaxon hair was a trifle too long but the handsome features more than made up for it, strong and confident, a man in control of his environment.
"Mr Davies, Reg Sterling consultant," he declared.
"My wife, my son," Stan blurted as Reg guided him gently but firmly through the door into a wide corridor. On earth side of them warnings about flu vaccines and other maladies.
"We had to induce the birth, the baby was in some distress," Reg responded and Stan felt his heart grow cold with dread.
"Why," he asked?
"Your son has rhesus disease Mr Davies, do you know what that is?"
Stan didn't and shrugged, Sterling went on, "your wife is rhesus negative but your son is rhesus positive, it's not a good combination I'm afraid."
"I don't understand; why not?"
"Because your wife's anti bodies began attacking the baby's red blood cells in the womb."
The dread he'd felt before was now an icy cold numbing terror, this sounded awful.
"How ill is my son," he forced past the lump in his throat?
"Very ill indeed I'm afraid, there's evidence of jaundice, eyesight problems, heart weakness," Sterling swallowed, "To be frank your son is fighting for his life, we've moved him to the intensive care unit."
Knees almost giving out Stan felt like he wanted to be sick again, "oh my god," he spluttered and then he smelled it, not an antiseptic smell not soap or detergent but a mix of lemon and rose, a soft sweet perfume.
Arms he could not see hugged him and he felt a body pressed against him, he felt breasts, lips; it was a woman. One he had not smelled in six years, but here she was with him now comforting him. Not his wife but a spirit; it was Françoise.
"I must see Marion," he gulped.
"Of course but please be clear, she doesn't know any of this yet," warned the consultant, "She's weak after just giving birth so be gentle with her."
"She has to know," Stan croaked.
Then matron spoke her tone now much softer, "aye lad but pick your moment, she's his mother."
And I'm his father Stan wanted to rage, "is Billy going to die," he felt moisture on his cheeks?
Reg and matron swapped a look, something passing between them then he said, "We're not sure yet."
Hardly what he wanted to hear, not quite a NO, "you mean he is," said Stan?
"It's early days," matron took his arm, "He may rally," and he may not, "try to be positive."
"Is there anything you can do, drugs, transfusions?"
Reg sighed, "we're doing all we can believe me, he's in the best possible hands."
A cliché, Stan recognised it for what it was. How often had he used them on a soldier dying of gunshot wounds.
Françoise. continued to hug him as he made his way into the room where his wife lay pale and shrunken, cheeks gaunt and lips almost blue.
"Mari," he called and her eyelids flickered, then he was with her hugging her, kissing her, "oh Mari," he sobbed and she sobbed back.
"Where is he, where's our Billy," voice so weak he could hardly hear it she sounded hoarse?
"Why what's wrong," that was the question, how to answer it?
"He's weak, tired, they induced the birth," true as far as it went but not the whole truth, that poison chalice he clutched to his breast.
We're doing all we can can, he's in the best possible hands. Empty words he knew that, comforts not truths.
"Something's wrong," said Mari.
"Nonsense," he soothed.
"I can feel it, a mother knows, Billy's not right."
The words tore into him like German bayonets, "He's going to be fine love, stop fretting."
"No Stan he isn't," and he could see in her eyes that she knew, she understood. Should he tell her, should he come clean, was she strong enough to take it – was he?
"It's his blood," he began clumsily.
"What about his blood," Marion demanded?
"He has rhesus disease," Stan still wasn't sure what this meant, "your antibodies attacked him or something, I don't really understand."
Slumping back onto her pillow Mari sobbed miserably, "this is my fault," she said.
"No of course it isn't."
"Yes it is, I made him ill."
"Don't be daft love," but his words lacked conviction and she saw through the lie.
"Yes I did and you know I did, you blame me."
He shook his head to deny it but further words wouldn't come, then in his mind he heard Françoise's voice clear as day,
I'm sorry Stanley but your son is dying the words were crushing blows and sinking to his knees beside the bed he gripped the sheets and sank his forehead to the fabric, shaking and trembling like he had malaria.
It was his worst nightmare, every parents' worst nightmare, Billy couldn't die he just couldn't, a son was all Stan wanted after 2 daughters, was it too much to ask?
He felt a hand in his hair, it was Marion, "have we lost him," she gulped and he wanted to say no we haven't, he's going to fight back but he couldn't; the lie wasn't in him.
"So we have," she finished and he just knelt there as if in prayer, a broken man, a father without a son.
He was still there when matron entered, creeping over she hoisted him by his armpits, "come on now Mr Davies, buck up," she said some of her old vinegar returning, "your wife and son need you to be strong."
But Stan didn't feel strong he felt worthless, useless, some vital spark in him had perished, he had been torn asunder and no German bullet could have hurt more.
Marion was asleep, he touched her cheek, "I had to tell her."
"Aye lad of course you did," matron understood.
"I want to see my son now," he gulped.
"I'll take you."
At the door he looked back wondering what the future held for him and Mari if they'd survive this, if their love was strong enough? Then he saw Françoise. reflected in the heart monitor screen serious and solemn, just as she'd been the last time he saw her.
She had known this was going to happen, even back then in the farmhouse she had known and some part of him hated her for that, for knowing and not saying.
It was a glass box like a fish tank only with wires and tubes going into it. Lying on a cushion was this strange blob of flesh a lump of blue, red and pink barely human to his eye. The tiny chest was moving rapidly, the microscopic fingers flexing and unflexing, the mouth opened and closed as if trying to gulp life.
Tears burning his eyes Stan touched the glass, wanting more than anything to scoop this little bundle of life up and hold him tightly. BILLY was written on a yellow card next to the tank, just this one word nothing else.
Hello little man thought Stan as tears ran down his cheeks to wet his collar. This was his son, his precious dream his future and it was being snatched from him.
Chris and Jean had been such routine births, no complications and he loved his daughters of course he did but a son...well that was something else.
"Help him," Stan could see a ghostly reflection in the side of the glass.
"I cannot," said a soft French lilt.
"It isn't allowed, even if I knew what to do."
"But you saved me, remember?"
"You were not meant to die in 1944."
"And this baby is, look at him; how can you let a baby die?"
Françoise offered no answer, "do you trust me Stanley," she asked.
"No, yes, I don't know; how can I?"
"Then I will tell you something, you will have a son."
"This is my son," he raged.
"There will be another and he will live, but he will be different."
His mind couldn't process the information, why should he want another son, "look at him," he nodded and she was looking, "This is my Billy my flesh and blood."
"His blood is poisoned," she said not without compassion.
"There must be a cure, something," he was grasping at straws.
"Not in 1952," Françoise sighed.
"Then how can I have another son," he snapped wondering how he could persuade Mari into even getting pregnant again?
"That isn't clear to me yet Stanley but I am told some new element has to be added to the mix."
"Why wasn't it done for Billy?"
A simple Gallic shrug met this question then something else occurred to him, it niggled its way to the forefront of his brain.
"Gunter," he snarled his fists tightening, "Gunter knew," forearming his face dry he straightened up, "This is his doing that German bastard," the final two words echoed off the walls and Billy opened his eyes to look up at his father.
He knows me thought Stan, even at this age he recognises me. Oh Billy he thought, how can it have come to this how can I be so useless so impotent. Torn by grief he let his mind drift.
Gaze drifting back to the bed to the terrible wound around the throat Stan felt his gorge rise and with it came anger at this abomination, how could men behave like this, what kind of men where they these Germans?
Beyond the bed a rocking chair creaked back and forth, back and forth, Stan saw blue vapour smelled cigar smoke as it wafted up and around him/
Then he heard the chuckle, a hateful sound, a mocking rattle. Gunter appeared bit by bit, a finger, a boot, a patch, a medal then his eyes bovine and cruel.
Sat in the rocker he regarded Stan puffing on a thick Cuban, "She took over an hour to die, my men kept her alive you see, they took their time only ending things when...when they were spent," he spoke so calmly like discussing a trivial matter.
"Your men," Stan spat furiously, "obeying your orders."
"Loyal sons of the fatherland," Gunter agreed exhaling a thick plume of blue smoke.
"Monsters, barbarians; like you," striding over to the rocker Stan found it empty, Gunter now stood by the window still smoking, still smiling.
"Whores like her," he nodded at Françoise, "are the barbarians, the savages, I am a loyal officer decorated for bravery in the field."
"You, brave," Stan spat, "A man who murders civilians, women?"
Colour suffused the fat jowls and showing his teeth Gunter chewed on the cigar, "you are offensive Englishman."
"No Gunter you're the one who is offensive, you disgust me, a thug in a uniform promoted above his level of competence."
Now the eyes flashed dangerously, "How dare you judge me, a common peasant a nobody."
"A man of honour," Françoise retorted, "Not something you'd understand, a decent and kind man."
Considering this the German officer gave a snort then in the grime of the glass he wrote something with his stubby finger, 5 letters in English not his native tongue.
Stan studied them not understanding, it was a name but not his name or that his men, "what's that?"
"I can see into the future," Gunter boasted, "Well a little way. I can see into your future," he jabbed his cigar, "so I know what is to come Englishman."
Bewildered Stan didn't understand, "Billy, who is Billy?"
"No don't," Françoise pleaded suddenly alarmed and disturbed, "Don't say any more," she cried.
But chuckling Gunter shook his head, deaf to to any pleas for clemency, "Billy is or will be your son, briefly that is."
"You can't know that," Stan shot back.
"Oh but I do," the German mocked.
"What is he talking about," Stan demanded of the ghostly girl by his side?
"He has no right to reveal this," she said, "Say no more Gunter."
Deaf to her petitions the SS officer regarded Stan with disdain, "Your third child will die."
"NO," Stan wasn't sure if he cried this, Françoise or both of them together.
"Oh Ja," Gunter sneered, "It will happen and it will destroy you."
Grabbing Stan by the elbows and wheeling him to face her Françoise said, "Don't listen to him."
"Is he right?"
"You will survive this and grow."
"But my child will die," he was trembling now and when she didn't deny it he broke free and turned back to the German.
"I have no need to lie Englishman," the sneer was still there but with it something else...certainty.
"How will my child die, what can I do, how can I stop this?"
"You cannot," Gunter snapped. No thought Stan it's a lie a filthy lie, Gunter was playing mind games, tormenting him. He was typical SS, cruel and vindictive.
Then, as if growing bored with the game, Gunter turned to the 5 dead German soldiers and named them one by one, "Ernst, Josef, Nils, Vogel, Dieter," he barked, "Go downstairs and take possession of the English soldiers, bring them up here."
Stan was appalled, as the uniformed ghosts filed past him he snatched at them grasping for arms and collars but his hands felt nothing, touching nothing, passing through cold emptiness.
He threw punches that failed to hand, kicked at insubstantial bodies. Realising the futility of what he was doing he ran through the icy shadows to the door to find Françoise in his way.
"No Stanley, stay here," she pleaded.
"I must help my friends."
"This room is where the fight will be won or lost."
Ice past through him five chilling miasmas as the German phantoms marched through him and the door.
"Won how," he demanded as her eyes dipped to the old bible he still clutched, "with this," he didn't get it was he meant to pray, recite psalms, read parables, "I'm not religious."
Gunter laughed but the girl said, ""Light will always defeat the dark."
Clapping sarcastically Gunter edged away from the window, "oh bravo how inspiring little French whore. Pity it didn't save you or your family."
Stan could have punched the guy but he'd just seen how futile violence was, "I don't understand Françoise," he felt helpless, "How can we defeat ghosts."
Gunter was nodding, "even dead we Germans are too much for you."
Ignoring him, refusing to be distracted Stan opened the bible. As well as the usual text there were passages added written in spidery childish handwriting, phrases, words and prayers.
"You and your brother," he muttered.
"Yes, we were inspired," Françoise admitted.
Gunter laughed at this like it was the funniest thing he had ever heard but Stan read the childish words trying to understand their meaning, word of faith and hope, petitions to angels and saints.
He read one of them, "Oh blessed angels be with us this night, push away the darkness in the name of Jesus."
Nothing happened, he felt no different but Gunter had stopped laughing so he tried something else written in a female hand at least that's what it looked like,
"Guardian angels be with me always, come in light and love."
Then the bedroom door crashed open and Basil stood there, gun drawn behind him where Dixon, Terry and Darren and they held guns also. Their faces were blank, eyes glazed and postures stiff backed like the Germans had been.
"Excellent," said Gunter now flushed with triumph, "and just in time," he clapped as Basil pushed Stan back towards the bed and raised his service revolver.
"No don't kill him," said Gunter, "Let us have a little sport instead."
Dashing to stand beside Stan, Françoise clutched at his arm offering her support but what could she do she was a spirit she had no substance?
"Basil," Stan shouted, "Basil for god sake," surely his old friend wouldn't harm him.
"I am Dieter," the words were stilted, forced out as if through numb vocal cords, "Corporal Dieter Schulman."
Horrified Stan gazed at the man he had known for years, "no you're Basil, we work together at the bank."
"You are mistaken," said a coarse German accent, "I now control this body and this arm," the pistol wavered, "Your friend is gone."
How could his colleagues have been taken over, possessed so easily and turned into puppets, zombies?
"Your name is Basil Ogden," Stan tried to persist but was waved quiet.
"I am Dieter Schulman born in Munich 1922."
Stan eyed Dixon surely he would see reason but Pete snapped, "Joachim Vogel born Leipzig 1923.
Then Terry spoke, "Josef Stieger born Berlin 1924."
Finally Darren announced, "Ernst Von Abbe born Frankfurt 1919."
That was four of them but there had been five ghosts so where was the fifth and where was Marty? The spirit controlling him was called Nils, so why hadn't he returned with a gun drawn?
"Loyal Germans," Gunter was flushed with pride, "I am proud to know and serve with them."
Zombies thought Stan, unthinking brutes, slaves brainwashed by the Nazi party.
"But they're dead, you're dead," he hurled back, "You have no place in this world any more and the war is lost anyway."
Rage rippled across the fleshy face, "Never," Gunter barked, "We will prevail."
Stan sighed, "The end is in sight Gunter, Berlin on fire, your forces retreating, the allies advance every day."
Something like panic flared in those small grey eyes, panic and fear, "You will be crushed," but the words lacked conviction. Fanatic he maybe but Gunter couldn't deny the facts, the tide had turned and enemies were closing in on two fronts.
Françoise held up the bible, "The light will always prevail, your evil is broken."
Pure loathing now twisting his lips into a rictus Gunter moved closer to the woman, "stupid bitch," he spat but Stan moved to bar his way.
"No she's right, the power of evil has lost this one," he put his own hand on the bible, "In the name of god the father I dismiss you Gunter."
Gunter's reaction was swift and venomous, "Shoot him down like a dog."
"She's beneath you lad, you're better rid."
His father's cold dismissive words still echoing in both ears Stan stood in the tiny back street lounge of 103 Warmsley Street, where he had walked his future wife home over a decade earlier.
Despite many letters and phone calls he hadn't seen her in 4 years, not since Billy's funeral. They had parted by mutual consent, both consumed by a terrible grief that they couldn't cope with. This meeting was his idea, a last ditch attempt to save their marriage.
"Why bother," Les had snapped, "Find someone else, cut your losses."
The girls came in first, Christine tall at 11 with long blond ponytails. Grinning widely she ran over and hugged him.
Shorter, plumper and shy Jean aged 9 held back until he gestured he rover, her hug no less intense. His girls, his daughters, seeing them made his heart burst with pride.
Both had been crying, he could tell by their red eyes and puffy cheeks, he liked to think they'd missed him that they wanted him back in their lives. God knew, he wanted them back in his.
Then there was Mari her features pinched, new lines around eyes and mouth, cheeks pale and eyes heavy with pain she tried to force a smile but it didn't work. She had aged in 4 years, me too he thought. The sparkle and promise of youth long gone, replaced by a weary resignation.
Mari's mother Liz took the girls into the back parlour after they'd brought him up to date on school, boys, music and places they had been. He was shocked by how much he'd missed and how grown they were, almost little women.
Finally he and Mari were alone, they could talk but would they find anything to say to each other did they have anything in common any more?
Stan forced himself to speak, "I've missed you," this was certainly true his life had been so empty just work and home, there was no other woman in his life.
"How are you," he asked then bit his tongue at such a crass question, "sorry that was a bit stupid."
"No," she summoned, "I'm fine."
"I'm not," he admitted, "I miss you and the girls."
"They miss you too," they not me he noticed.
"I was thinking, hoping really that we could try again," there he'd said it placed his cards on the table, "we are still married after all and I want to stay married."
"Do you," she said and there was such doubt in the words such disbelief that he faltered.
"Yes of course, don't you?"
Despite a raging coal fire it was freezing cold in the tiny room. Then again he had been cold all day, as if all the blood had drained out through his socks. He knew that if he failed in his mission today he was facing divorce, and he didn't want that.
Not answering him directly Marion circled the room, "I can't lose another baby," she said studying photos of her family, "I couldn't go through that again," her voice caught, "You've no right to ask me."
Nodding in acceptance Stan held out his hands," Very well," he said.
"You don't still want a son?"
Yes he did more than ever but he wanted to be married to her more, she was the love of his life.
"You're all that matters to me," he said his own voice catching.
"We have the girls," she said.
"Yes we do and I love them both," Chris and Jean were the core of his life, he didn't want to miss another moment of them growing up.
"But you always wanted a son," she pointed out.
"Losing Billy was," what words could he use that were remotely adequate – devastating, catastrophic, gut-wrenching – they didn't even come close. "I didn't think I'd ever get over it."
"And have you; gotten over it."
No, not a chance, never in a million years, "what do you think?"
"I felt so crushed," Mari admitted, "So useless, so worthless."
"It wasn't your fault, not anyone's fault," did he believe this had he convinced himself?
"You still sound angry," she observed.
"Of course I'm angry and bitter and sad, I always will be."
He had watched his six week old son die in her arms, just close his eyes and give up on life, seeming to shrink inside his blanket to diminish.
Mari said, "some part of me died with him."
He totally understood, some part of him had died that day, "It was the worst moment of my life," he said and meant it, "But losing you would be just as bad."
"How can we go on," she asked and he wasn't sure how to answer this.
"I don't really know love, one day at a time."
"But things won't be the same," she told him and he bowed his head in acknowledgement of this truth.
"No they won't, we're not the same people."
"So why persist, why not just part company now."
"Because I love you Mari and I believe you still love me," he forced the words out, they felt unusual coming from his lips.
"But is love enough, can it sustain a marriage?"
"I think it's a good place to start," he admitted, "something to build on," he knew lots of marriages where love played no part at all, such as his brother Les's to Monica.
"I'm not sure Stan, I need more time." Not the answer he wanted to hear, neither a yes or a no but a limbo and they'd been in limbo since the funeral 4 years ago.
"Move on," his father had urged smelling of whisky, "Marry into your own class," he had sneered, "You need a wife suitable for a bank manager, because that's what you're going to be."
Stan sighed, "how much time," he asked?
"I don't know, how long does a broken heart take to heal?"
He stood up, "I'd like to see you more often and the girls."
"Nobody's keeping you away," was that a criticism, if so he felt stung by it like he'd been keeping away on purpose.
"At the weekend," he said.
"So it doesn't interfere with your job?"
His job was all he had, it kept him same, "I have to work to support myself," his father would despise him even more if he didn't.
"So we come second, is that it?"
Now he was stung, "No I didn't mean that, you'll never come second."
"After Billy died," she said wiping her face on a thick white hanky, "you went back to the bank."
What else could he do, was he to give up his career? "I had to do something, to keep busy, it was how I coped. It isn't that I felt no pain, I did too much, but working took my mind off it."
"I needed you, the girls needed you," so this was what behind her reluctance, she thought he was uncaring.
"Are you," she challenged?
"Yes, more than you'll ever know. Work helped to dampen down the pain of loss."
"Well it didn't work for me," she threw back at him and he didn't know what to say to this. Why had they ended up bickering, picking at old wounds?
"Mari, I don't want us to fall out, I came here for a reconciliation."
"Fancy word," she said dully.
"It means I still love you and that I think we have a future together."
"Maybe we don't," she said stealing the wind from his lungs. Was this it then, where they over, was the marriage dead? No he couldn't accept that, he wouldn't they had to fight harder to believe in themselves.
"I think we do," he croaked, "If we give up now what was it all for, what will happen to the girls?"
"I'll look after them."
"But I want us both to do that as husband and wife."
"I'm not sure I do," she said and again he felt winded even dazed, she was rejecting him throwing his approach back in his face, he couldn't believe it.
At this point the kitchen door opened and his daughters ran in full of things to tell him, so he had to swallow his true feelings, put on a smile and pretend to listen to their prattle when all he really wanted to do was take Mari in his arms and kiss her.
Mari and her mum swapped a look it was heavy with meaning, head shaking Mari turned away and left the room. Much a she wanted to follow her he forced himself to chat to Chris and Jean, he didn't see enough of them and he might not see them again for a long time.
"Are you and mum splitting up," it was Chris, the direct one, who asked him this and there were tears in her eyes, in Jeans too.
No he wanted to say not a chance, but he couldn't force the lie out and a she meant Liz's gaze he said a silent sorry.
"She'll come around," said Liz Wakefield, a skeletally thin woman with grey hair in a bun and a strong local accent. Maybe he thought and maybe not, and if not what was he going to do next? He couldn't bear the thought of his father's smug, triumphant expression or Les' contemptuous smirk.
Then Jean spoke up and shocked him to the core, "do you think this has anything to do with the farmhouse?"
At first he wasn't sure if he'd heard her right? Stan had never told anyone about the farmhouse in 1944. It was an episode he had blocked from his mind; its strangeness having terrified him.
"How do you know about that," he asked?
"Mum told us," said Chris as Jean bit her lip nervously.
"What did she say?"
The two girls swapped a look as if they'd blurted out a big secret then Chris interlaced her fingers, a very grown up gesture and said, "That you met ghosts there both good and evil."
His stomach clenched, "anything else?"
"That the evil ones tried to kill you."
He gestured for Chris to go on but for once she seemed to have lost her brash self-assurance, then Liz cleared her throat as if to signify that the conversation was over.
Spell broken the girls asked for ice cream and Stan knew this was his cue to provide it, but all he wanted to do was ask his wife what she know and how she knew it?
The farmhouse was in the past and that was where it had to stay, its mysteries dark and inexplicable.
"Kill him," Gunter snarled at his four men and all of them took careful aim with there service revolvers but they did not fire, they just stood there stock still, immobile as if frozen in place.
Françoise permitted herself a slight smile of triumph but it was soon wiped from her face as Gunter marched over and snatched the gun from Basil's hand.
"If you won't then I will," he boasted turning to aim at Stan. The physical gun did not fall from his ghostly fingers, he was solid now and that was impossible. A ghost had no physical presence on the earth plane, or at least this was what Stan had always believed but Gunter was different.
The cruel SS man had powers and abilities beyond the norm, or maybe it was this place, this freakish hellhole where the laws of physics no longer applied.
Placing herself between the two men Françoise eyed Gunter coldly, "You cannot do it, he isn't destined to die here," she said but this didn't impress the German.
"He will die when I decide," and the gun edged forwards.
At this moment Marty crashed open the room door and staggered in, his features torn with confusion and pain.
"You bloody Hun bastard," he spat and fired, a hole appeared in Gunter's tunic small and red with gore spilling out of it.
But he's already dead he's a ghost Stan was thinking as Gunter toppled back onto the bed, dropped his own weapon and gave a horrible liquid gurgle from his throat. There was no doubt Marty had shot him in the chest, the wound continued to bleed and Gunter twitched in obvious pain his burst lung deflating.
He croaked something in German Stan couldn't understand then blood ran in a line from the side of his fat lips, his eyes turned glassy and he 'died' again.
Marty thank god Stan wanted to say but then the four possessed soldier sin the room turned as one and fired their pistols.
Hit 4 times Marty flew out of the room, clutched himself and slid down a wall leaving a hideous red smear.
Outrage burned in Stan's throat as his colleague perished before him then the Nazis swung their guns back at him a lethal firing squad of homicidal zombies.
It was Françoise who cried out, "lords of light protect us," and Stan was suddenly blind, hit in the face by a luminous silver fire that exploded through windows and door, through every crack in the wall, from light sockets and under the bed, from carpet fragments and motes of dust in the air.
He had no idea what it was but sank to his feet, covered his face and uttered a shrill cry of fear and pain.
The Nazis cried out also, unseen by him they twisted and writhed performing a strange dance before clutching their temples and collapsing one by one to the ground. Dark seething serpents of inky poisonous fog left each man evacuating their eyes and mouths in a noxious stream and when gone the men lay unconscious, guns discarded.
As the light eased Françoise tenderly touched Stan on the shoulder to let him know it was all right to look, but it was some seconds before he did and even then he blinked his tear-filled eyes.
The light seemed to be coming from outside even though it filled every crevice and crack in the room. The source of it was hovering above or parallel to the house but he couldn't tell what it was as it was too bright. Was it god, a host of angels or something else? He couldn't be sure only that he felt both awed and terrified.
"What is it," he asked his spirit guide but she was more concerned with the other soldiers who seemed badly dazed. Basil recovered first and gazed in horror at Marty, stumbling over to him.
"What happened," he demanded then looked down at the smoking gun in his own hands, "oh no, dear god no."
He seemed so stricken that Stan didn't know what to say to him, making his way over to the window. The light outside had diminished some more revealing a shape, a form, something circular.
It looked solid to him, something real not spiritual but so unlike anything in his experience that he was lost.
"Stan," Basil cried out in anguish.
"You were possessed," Stan replied.
"What the hell do you mean man?"
"By the spirits of dead German soldiers, they're gone now," hopefully thought Stan.
"But that's," Basil was about to say impossible but held his tongue, "What are we going to do about Marty, how will we explain this?"
"He was killed by the enemy," said Stan.
"But he was shot by me by us."
"Get a grip Basil, we can't go back to HQ babbling about spirits," in truth they couldn't tell the truth about anything that had happened in this place.
"No I suppose not," the other man fought hard to get a grip of himself, "I must say you're taking this rather calmly."
If only you knew thought Stan, "What do you make of this Basil," he pointed and as the tall man joined him stood aside a little.
"Queerest thing I've ever laid eyes on, it's so bright; look at the way it just hovers there above the ground."
Vast and silent the blazing orb was bigger than the farmhouse, wider and taller, a structure, a craft maybe but not a plane or balloon. Françoise came over, "one day," she said, "You'll understand."
"Why not know," he mentally asked?
"You're not ready," like he was ready for any of this.
Basil said, "I swear that thing is solid Stan it's something designed and engineered."
It got rid of the Nazis that was all Stan cared about, even the body of Gunter was gone, "not one of ours," he muttered sure of that.
"No, can't be Jerry either," said Basil, "Or this house would be tinder by now."
Turning away, his eyes hurting from the glare Stan went over to help the other men to their feet, all were dazed and disoriented.
"Be dawn soon," he declared, "We should leave just before then and get back to allied lines."
The others nodded, some looked at Basil, who was still commanding officer but he remained silent deferring to his friend, who seemed to have taken charge.
"Will I see you again," Stan asked Françoise and she smiled.
"You will," she agreed, "For a time at least, until I have to progress onwards."
"Where to," he enquired?
"I've no idea it's more of an instinct than an actual understanding," she told him.
"Heaven," he asked impulsively.
"A higher plane," she corrected.
"Hope it's better than this one, than this bloody war."
"Soon the war will be over," she assured him.
But she was already fading away unable or unwilling to discuss the future, fair enough he thought guess we'll find out soon enough.
"I'm going to get a bath," he finally decided feeling dirty and sticky, "I suggest you all take advantage of the facilities, no telling when the chance will come again."
There was a general murmur of assent but Basil moved ahead of Stan a concerned look on his face, "A quick word old chap; what exactly happened here are you sure?"
No thought Stan not really not fully, there was still so much that left him baffled, "We took refuge from the enemy, a sniper killed Marty, I think that will do for the official report."
Clearly not happy Basil gave a snort, "and the rest of it?"
"Best forgotten Basil, not spoken of unless you want to end up in a padded cell."
Giving this some thought the senior man frowned then nodded, "as you say Stan, mum's the word."
Just before dawn Stan and Basil dug a grave behind the farmhouse, the others brought Marty out wrapped in some blankets and laid him to rest. Nobody knew much bible so they told stories about the dead man, some funny some poignant then Stan led them through the Lord's Prayer before Marty was covered with earth and a cross made of twigs placed to mark the spot.
Marty had been shot by a German sniper who had fled under cover of darkness. That was the story they would tell HQ and stick to, no spooks, voices, ghosts or possession not unless they wanted to be invalided out as mental cases.
Stan wasn't happy about the deception but he knew how closed and limited the military mind was especially during war.
"Seems peaceful enough now," said Basil but he spoke too soon as they soon heard the drone of an engine. Theirs or ours Stan mused as a dark shape took form below the clouds.
"Take cover," he said as a precaution and the plane lost height, it might be allied on the other hand.
"Jerry," Pete Dixon had the best eyes, "Stukker," he gasped as they reached some trees.
"Has it seen us," Darren was shaking, "Christ, I bet it has."
"Keep down," Basil barked regaining some of his natural authority. The German plane droned closer, sank a bit lower then swooped by without firing.
Nobody moved for a good minute, Stan emerging first to take a look. It had gone, at least he couldn't see or hear it. Just the one plane, a lone flying maybe on reconnaissance.
"We're okay," he sighed with relief.
"You sure he didn't see us," Terry worried?
"We'd be dead if he had," said Basil knowing the trees gave scant cover against machine gun fire.
"Let's get back behind our own lines," Stan urged.
"If we can find them," Darren mumbled.
"Then its on with the bloody war," Dixon complained, "Maybe we should have stayed where we were."
Oh no thought Stan that most certainly wasn't an option, it was time to get back to the real world and face whatever it had to offer.
He thought of Françoise and wondered if he'd ever see her again, or if she was tied to the place where she had died, where they'd all almost died.
Pain woke him sharp and persistent, a pain so severe it couldn't be ignored. It was a piercing needle in his sinuses, his teeth and even up over his left eye. He had no choice but to get up and go into the bathroom to examine himself, finding nothing obviously wrong. His eyes were bloodshot and he had no rotten teeth but when he tried to return to bed the pain intensified.
Miserably he dressed and headed downstairs. The North Euston was deadly quiet, the other bank conference attendees would all be asleep at this hour. Stan had been sent by head office as part of his career development. Managers of tomorrow it was called, nothing more than an excuse for a booze up, some illicit sex and a few dull talks that a chap could sleep through.
Going outside into cool darkness he found the pain easing off, but when he tried to return to the hotel it picked up. Remaining outside he elected to go for a walk, making his way towards the beach. With the tide out it was quite pleasant, there was nobody about and no traffic.
Walking on the sand he found his discomfort easing by degrees, oddly the further he got from the hotel the better it became which made no sense at all. Was he coming down with something, a virus maybe or could there be something more odious wrong with him? God, don't let it be a tumour.
He saw a lone figure stood near the shoreline a woman in a long fawn coat with a white head scarf, as he drew nearer she turned and with a start he gazed in wonderment.
Mari did not react or smile or speak she just looked at him, not surprised in the last. Utterly stunned he tried to formulate some words but nothing would come then out to see a light came on, a bright round light sinking down towards the ocean. A luminous silver orb that reminded him of something.
Instead of crashing into the sea it floated towards the beach, fifty feet up then forty, sinking gradually and under control so not a meteorite. He felt it was rotating on an axis that it had a definite shape with lines and bulges, it was no chunk of cosmic rock but something smooth and tempered.
Finally Mari spoke, "The pain brought you here, I felt it to; we were summoned."
"How," he gasped, "By whom?"
The descending craft reminded him of something not seen for years, but how could it be here and now?
"The time is right," Mari went on.
"Before the energy was wrong, we were wrong; something has to be added to the mix."
This made no sense to him at all, "before," he quizzed.
"Billy," she answered and his who body went cold.
"what has this to do with him," he demanded?
"Everything," she replied.
"Mari, why do I get the impression that none of this is surprising to you?"
Hovering directly above them the blazing light bathed them in its radiance, he saw an aperture open on the underside of the craft and a column of energy shot down to encompass them both in a warm tingling welcome.
He felt his feet leave the sand, his body begin to rise, rising with him Mari took his hands in hers. She told him not to be afraid. It was too late – he was terrified.
Stan woke up in his hotel bed shivering and itchy all over, his body felt stretched and bruised, his groin hurt as did the underside of both arms. Turning to the clock he saw it was 6.30, hours had passed an entire night yet of it he could recall almost nothing.
Mari, where was she? Had he dreamt of meeting her, had he dreamt about the flying light. If not, what had it been? His last memory was of rising into the air, being sucked into the craft.
Putting a light on he sat up, opened his pyjamas and studied himself, his skin looked cooked like he had sunburn, which was absurd. Three red dots formed a triangle around his navel, his genitals were tender and slightly swollen, the tip of his penis was smarting and bright red.
Turning his arms over he saw several pinpricks in the flesh like he'd been injected over a dozen times from wrist to biceps. His throat was slightly sore and his eyes smarted in the strong light.
There was an odd smell about him, not a rank body odour type of smell but something medicinal and antiseptic. He felt he'd been examined at length, subjected to a complex procedure but the details eluded him. He wanted to speak to Mari but couldn't ring her parents' home at this hour.
Unable to sleep he lay back down and turned off the lamp, comfortable in the darkness but deeply troubled by something he needed to remember and yet couldn't.
Billy. He remembered that much. Mari talking about Billy and how the energy had been wrong last time but wrong in what way and why was it right now?
A flying saucer; he was sure that was what he had seen just like outside the French farmhouse 14 years earlier in another life. But he didn't believe in such things, they were nonsense made up by Hollywood. He was a sensible, reliable pillar of the community, a future bank manager. He couldn't go around talking about spaceships, people would think he was mad and the bank wouldn't be too happy either.
But if he had seen a flying saucer and been taken aboard it, taken with his wife then what had been done to them because something sure had. The marks on his body and his curious sunburn were proof of that.
Am I going mad? He had to consider this, was he mentally ill in some way and having delusions. Had it all been a vivid and realistic dream? That didn't explain the marks on him or the smell or the sense he had been altered in some way.
"You look rough," was Basil's opening comment as they sat down for breakfast in the main dining room. It was the last day of the course and they'd be free by noon, just some boring speeches to get through.
"Bad night," Stan held his stomach.
"I didn't sleep too well myself," the other man admitted selecting a half-grapefruit whilst Stan studied the cereals on offer, "Kept seeing this strong light over the sea, so I got up and looked out and blow me I could swear there was something hovering over the sand."
Heart racing Stan forced himself not to react or give anything away. Then Jim Grant of the Preston branch piped in.
"Yes I saw it as well, looked like one of those bloody flying saucers the yanks are always going on about. Couldn't have been of course, I mean they don't exist but it looked so real."
This roused a response from Hannah Baker of the Bolton branch, "Oh I don't know if they don't exist then why are the US air force investigating them, why do they show up on radar?"
Nobody had a good answer to this but before it could be debated further Trish, the girl at reception, popped her blond head in, "Mr Davies," she whispered giving a one finger wave, "Someone to see you in the lobby."
Relieved to escape his colleagues Stan excused himself and followed Trish, a short but curvy young woman with arresting swaying hips. She was sexy and she knew it, he thought, but all thoughts of her were driven form his mind when he saw Marion stood near a window in a long blue coat.
He rushed over at once, "thank god you're all right," he muttered his mind buzzing with last night's events, "Did that episode on the beach really happen, I can't remember anything after we rose into the air."
Looking at him with a wan smile she reached up with both hands to cup his cheeks and the moment she did something popped open inside his head like a door jammed tightly shut.
In his mind's eye he could see himself stood in a vast lighted room with a curved roof and rounded walls, light coming from below not above. Somehow he knew he was inside the alien craft and that it was alien, not something designed on earth yet he felt no fear, no panic.
To his left a long thick cable stretched horizontally forward, it was thicker than his head and pulsating softly like it was an artery. To his right where these oblong boxes jutting from the wall, each released a haze of orange mist that he felt clung to him.
The floor was totally smooth like polished glass or a frozen lake but instead of slippery he found his feet held to it by a kind of magnetism.
A figure moved from within the light, stepping towards him, the outline was female and slender and when he saw the face a gasp of disbelief escaped him.
The person before him now wasn't some bug eyed creature or robot but a person he knew.
"Françoise," he gasped and the French girl offered him a welcoming smile.
"Hello Stanley," her mind spoke to his as strong and vivid as ever.
"But how can you be here," how could a dead girl from the French resistance be onboard a flying saucer?
"Come with me Stanley, all will become clear."
The further into the room he walked the longer it seemed to be like it was telescoping before him, stretching itself, he got the impression it was infinite in size and scope.
"Is everyone in here a spirit," he asked, could this be a ship of the dead did the dead need vehicles?
"The crew of this craft are flesh and blood Stanley, they would not be able to help you otherwise."
"Help me to do what," he demanded?
"Conceive a child."
Eyes popping open Stan stood back from his wife breaking the contact, shock making him gasp out loud, had Françoise really spoken these words; conceive a child?
Leading him to a sofa Marion sat down and waved him to do the same, "there is more to see," she said softly.
"Can you remember it all?"
Nodding she offered his hands, this time he took them in his own.
The next mental action replay saw him lying naked on a table, he had no idea if he'd removed his clothing or someone had done it for him. Most shocking was his erect penis, vast, engorged and totally aroused.
Figures moved around him slight and slim with prominent heads but he couldn't make out any details as though they were masked or cloaked in some way. A needle went into his left arm, another into his right leg and a third pierced his foreskin.
The Stan on the table didn't react, there was no flinch of pain no cry of objection but the Stan observing all this let out a cry of shock. He was clearly being subjected to a medical procedure but for what reason? why would aliens want him to conceive a child and how could they help anyway if they were of a different biological make up?
Fluid was removed from his penis, semen he assumed, taken over to a spherical glass container and injected into a blue solution causing it to turn green and bubble slightly.
"what are they doing," he thought out loud, "why are they taking a sample of my sperm?"
It was a soft French voice who answered, "They are mixing it with sexual juices from one of their own kind to make it more robust."
He felt disgusted, "Good god, why?"
"The new baby must have additional genetic material and a superior immune system."
"For what reason?"
"So he will not die like his brother."
Stan's brain wrenched itself back to the hotel lobby, exploding from the suppressed memory angry and shocked and a little disgusted. He felt like a lab experiment, like some kind of stud bull.
"I can't believe any of this," he croaked.
"You couldn't at the time," Mari agreed, "Which is why your mind shielded itself."
"I was treated like a farm animal Mari, they took blood and semen."
But it was obvious that she knew this, knew it and wasn't upset by it.
"We are part of a larger experiment Stan," she told him.
"None of this bothers you does it," he cried then realised he had to keep his voice down, "abducted, stripped naked, sexually aroused," he shook his head.
"We weren't abducted," she answered him.
"Felt like it to me, forced onto that beach then lifted into the air. I was naked on a table with a," but he couldn't bring himself to supply all the details.
"They are helping us as we help them," she said.
"Helping us to do what, create a monster."
He could see he'd offended her by the downturn of her lips and the way she turned slightly from him.
"You should watch more," she said in a wounded voice and he knew he'd gone too far.
"I'm sorry, that was wrong of me of course I want to see more," he didn't but couldn't see any way out of it.
He was gazing at the spherical glass container with its bubbling green contents, pea soup he thought wryly then felt someone behind him. It wasn't Françoise, no perfume, no soft female steps this was a different person if it was a person.
Maybe it was one of 'them' whatever they were. Then in his head a new voice, male and very vivid, incredibly strong and clear.
"We are the fathers," it said and Stan found he couldn't turn or look around or move away from this being, "This child will thrive," the voice added.
"But what will it be," Stan heard the disgust in his voice.
"A starseed," he was told.
"A what," the term was new to him and meaningless.
"I don't understand."
"The first of a new generation of human being, more aware, more awake."
Stan sighed, "aware of what," he demanded?
"The truth about earth and the universe."
"What truth," angry now Stan wanted to tear free of the controlling influence but couldn't yet nothing physically gripped him he wasn't tied or bound?
"That all life is one," said the voice, "That we are all evolving souls."
"Why won't you let me see you," stick to practicalities thought Stan?
"You would be deeply shocked."
"Our race is different from yours in many ways, not leas tour appearance yet we share many qualities."
"But you're alien, how can your DNA be combined with mine to create a human child?"
"Our science makes it possible," was all the voice would say.
"And Marion, does she have any say in this?"
"Let us go and ask her."
Mind returning to the lobby Stan found he was sweating profusely, needing several tissues to dry his face and neck. The conversation with the alien still vivid in his mind, what it had said to him was shocking in the extreme.
"A new baby," he gulped, "But not ours."
Marion seized him by the arm, "yes it is ours," she insisted anger turning her cheeks orange.
"But it will be a," he swallowed the word freak knowing it would hurt her.
"A what," she challenged.
"Alien, different, an outcast," he would not use the term starseed as it was nonsense.
"No he won't, our son will be a human being a person like us normal at least on the outside."
"And on the inside," he demanded, "What will he be like there?"
"That's for us to mould and form," she insisted.
"And these aliens, will they take a hand in his upbringing will they intervene?"
Marion shrugged like she didn't know or didn't care but he cared.
"This feels wrong to be Mari, I don't think we should take part in this experiment."
But her look was solemn and she moved his hand to her belly, "we already are Stan."
Blinking in astonishment it didn't take him long to join the dots, "you're pregnant," a confusing blizzard of emotions exploded through him – shock, joy, pride, fear, disgust and delight.
"With our son," she confirmed.
"You know it's a boy," he asked?
"Of course I know."
"Another Billy," he wondered?
But Marion sighed, "He's to have another name."
Stan frowned, "What name," he asked suspiciously
"We will know when the time is right."
"Do we get to even pick it," he felt frustrated and left out but she hugged him warmly.
"Oh yes," she whispered, "He's all ours."
Stan stood there, elated at being a father again but confused and lost, wondering who his son would be and how he'd relate to him, how he'd feel deep down?
They had been walking for two hours when Stan saw it; a roadblock. A chunky German armoured personnel carrier, four armed soldiers. Behind them a black staff car and emerging from this a man in a black uniform with the silver SS logo on his collar.
Issuing his comrades back out of sight Stan studied the SS officer; there was something familiar about him even at this distance, that arrogant strut, the position of the hands and the high chin. I know him thought Stan but how can I, I've only me tone SS chief and he's dead.
Addressing the soldiers with a hectoring bark the officer snapped them to attention and delivered orders, clearly a man used to having his orders obeyed instantly and they were.
"why a road block here," wondered Basil and it had been bothering Stan to, this was pretty remote with no sign of allied or resistance activity.
"No idea, doesn't seem to make much sense." Then the soldiers cocked their rifles and jogged off the road, heading the direction of the English intruders. They know we're here, this was Stan's initial thought but then he wondered how had the plane spotted them had a hidden observer, some paid spy?
"They're coming this way," Darren sounded ready to panic.
"So," said Dixon, "we outnumber them and outgun them," he cocked his own weapon, "I say we put them down," he looked at his mates for confirmation.
"It might be simplest," Basil agreed.
"No wait," some impulse or instinct stayed Stan's hand, it was too easy.
"Shoot them now," said Terry, "They're easy targets."
Too easy thought Stan, "Hold fire for now unless they see you," he eased around the thick clump of bushes.
Basil caught him, "what are you doing?"
"I want a closer look at the SS guy."
"How come, he isn't threatening us?"
"No but he gave the orders, what does he know that the grunts don't?"
Leaving his pals Stan crept in a wide circle towards the road, edging around the Germans silently and keeping low, his target seemed to be alone unless there was someone else hiding in the staff card; it was certainly big enough. If there was he'd deal with them; he had the element of surprise after all.
Stood with his back to Stan the SS man was smoking on a small brown cigar, and this triggered another memory, that cigar, the way he held it, the stink.
Then the head snapped around, "ah here you are," it was impossible, no way was Stan seeing what he was seeing.
"Gunter," he gasped in shocked disbelief?
"Did you think leaving the farmhouse would be the last you saw of me," said the corpulent man now turning fully, his gun was not drawn.
"But you're dead, a ghost," Stan spluttered feeling out of his depth, he couldn't understand what the man was doing here in a staff car, did ghosts need cars and how come the soldiers could see and hear him?
"Dead yes," Gunter agreed after another puff on his cigar, "But not uninvolved in the war effort."
"The dead have no further role to play in events."
A snicker met this outburst, "How little you understand Englishman about life, death, war and victory."
"Enlighten me," Stan was ready for a trap but so far none had been sprung on him.
"The power of the will is supreme," Gunter spat as though addressing an idiot, "and my will is stronger than most, I refuse to drift off into the ethers."
"But you have no choice; your physical life is over."
"we all have choices, alternatives."
Then a waft of perfume, a rustle of fabric and a soft female voice, "Be careful Stanley he's distracting you."
Stan couldn't see Françoise but like Gunter she clearly wasn't restricted to the farmhouse, she felt close yet invisible. He looked around body poised and senses of high alert, pistol ready to use. The soldiers were moving away from him in a line, they seemed too focused on their task to be a threat.
"Nervous," Gunter mocked, "You should be."
"Me and my men are returning to allied lines and you aren't going to stop us Gunter."
A laugh greeted this and after taking another puff on his cigar Gunter tossed the remains aside, odd as he didn't seem to have finished it. Realising it was a signal Stan bent his knees and dropped down low; just as a shot rang out and something burned across the top of his scalp.
Sniper, a bloody sniper hiding in the trees; he should have foreseen that. Gunter had his pistol out in a flash and was drawing a bead on Stan when from out of nowhere, from the very fabric of reality three metal prongs jutted hard catching Gunter in the chest and piercing him.
It was a fork, a pitch fork and impaling the fat German deeply the prongs tore into his lungs. with a liquid gurgle and a gasp of disbelief he looked down, pawed at the wooden shaft of the fork, blinked, coughed blood down onto his double chin and tottered back.
He still held his luger and it was still aimed at Stan, that is until the man fell onto his back legs kicking and coughed up more blood, swearing in his native tongue.
"Keep down," a voice whispered, "The man is to your left and high up."
"Nice work with the fork," said Stan, "again," he added.
Chuckling the unseen Frenchwoman flowed around him nebulous and swift.
"Turn this way," she blew on his cheek, "Raise your gun, higher, to the left more, higher," she directed. Stan could see only branches and twigs, some nuts and bark.
"Fire," she said, he fired hearing a cry and a grunt then something heavy falling from a high perch to crash into leaves, moss and twigs.
"Good shot," she kissed him on the forehead, a sweet and tender blessing.
"Is he dead?"
"Injured, but he won't bother you any more."
The German soldiers, who'd heard the shot, had turned and were coming back. That is until a fusillade of bullets tore into them and one by one they twitched and fell, cut down ruthlessly.
"Stan, are you okay," Basil called.
"Yes I'm fine, Gunter set a trap."
"Who," Dixon frowned and when Stan turned to point at the body on the road he found it wasn't there, a check of the staff car revealed nobody in there either.
"Where's the SS guy," asked Darren, "Did he run off?"
Confused for a moment Stan decided his mates weren't ready for the truth, "what, err yes he must have."
"At least now we have transport," Basil admired the two vehicles finally selecting the staff car, "this one I think, plenty of room for us all."
Tired of walking across country nobody objected, in a car they would reach allied lines much quicker.
Dixon frowned, "what if we encounter another road block?"
It was a good point and Stan gave it some thought, "we bail out and run," he eyed the fallen Germans, "let's gather their weapons and ammo, just in case we need to fight our way to freedom."
"Mr Davies, you need to get home now," Edna Torrance was calm but insistent, the urgency behind her words only too obvious.
Stan had been impressed by the midwife the first time he met her. A tall Ulster woman with piercing green eyes and large hands she had an impressive track record of attending over 200 home births.
"Never lost one yet," she declared and it wasn't an empty boast based on the checking he'd done, doctors and nurses all admired her and Edna had attended the home birth of a neighbour recently.
Living now in Cleveleys on the Fylde coast; Marion had insisted that she didn't want to give birth in another hospital. Initially resistant Stan had been won over by Edna who combined cool competence with a warm and compassionate nature.
"There's nothing to worry about," she had reassured him, "the pregnancy is progressing well."
This was what Marion had insisted too, all was fine all was normal; this baby was not going to die.
"But what about rhesus disease," Stan had challenged his new consultant.
"No trace of it in the blood tests we've done," David Summers was a young man with a full head of curls, "Everything is fine, no anti bodies and the vital signs are strong."
So Stan had agreed to Mari's demands, his daughters were certainly excited. Now fourteen Chris greeted him at the door looking very grown up, "he's coming, he's coming," she gushed.
Twelve year old Jean held back shy as usual, she said nothing but her blush was one of pride.
"In here Mr Davies," Edna's voice drew him into the front bedroom. Curtains drawn, lamps on and air full of steam it smelled of meat and blood and sweat.
Mari was on the bed face creased with pain and eyes squeezed shut, at the base of the bed was a yellow bucket its contents a dark crimson.
"A whole bucket of blood," Chris seemed delighted like this was a good thing.
"Nothing to worry about," insisted the midwife.
"But so much blood," Stan felt weak at the knees, his insides clenched.
"Not that much and there's always some," said Edna, "Not long now," she assured, "I can see the baby's head."
Stan forbore to look, always squeamish around medical matters he had never attended a birth in his life, waiting outside the hospital for Chris and Jean.
"Mari," he said softly and the eyelids half opened before his wife uttered a piercing scream like something from a horror movie.
"Here we go," said Edna.
"Can we see," Chris demanded?
"I think you two should wait outside," said Stan wishing he could join them.
"Oh dad," Chris was the only one who would challenge him, she had his fiery nature.
"Go on," he urged, "the baby will be here soon enough," swallowing his gorge he looked to Edna for her support.
"Oh aye," she agreed, "Just a few minutes now, he's a big lad."
Taking two steps back Stan found and sank into a whicker chair, palming sweat from his forehead with a shaking hand. Birth was such an ordeal, how could women go through it once let alone several times?
This is our last child he thought, I'm 47 and Mari is 36 we're not likely to have any more. If this one doesn't make it...no don't think like that don't be negative. The kid's going to make it, I'm going to have a son a healthy baby boy.
Chris stuck her head around the door, "is he born yet," unlike Jean she wasn't afraid of their father and edged further into the room. Lacking the energy or will to stop her Stan said nothing, it was Edna who replied.
"Almost chuck, come and look," and Chris did waving her sister to follow.
"Come on Jen, you can't miss this," she said.
Giving one final terrific scream Marion lay back onto the pillow gasping and Edna hoisted a small bundle in a shawl.
"Here love you hold him," she told a delighted Chris.
"Can I really," Chris gushed?
"I need to wipe his little nose and mouth, clear all the gunk away."
"Careful," said Jean ever cautious.
"I am being," Chris insisted, "Isn't he gorgeous and look at his hair. Dad, he's got black hair."
Stan roused himself he felt oddly drained and lethargic, it wasn't like him at all, he'd come here to support his wife and was leaving it all to the girls.
"Let me see," he said and Chris turned to hold up the baby as proudly as if it were her own.
"Our brother," she declared.
"I've got to cut the cord," said Edna.
"Oh gross," said Jean but Chris was all for watching.
"Do you want to do it Mr Davies," the midwife asked? Stan blanched, the very idea was too much but he found his hands taking the big scissors despite himself. Normally he'd shy away from such a task, but he found himself cutting with gusto.
"well done sir," Edna tied rapidly, "You're a natural." The girls both giggled but Stan was blinking in surprise at the curious glow around his son, a sort of shimmering golden aura that reminded him of something.
Then a soft French voice caressed his ear, "how sweet," it made kissing noises and the new baby blinked and looked around to wear the voice was coming from.
He can hear her thought Stan and see her, see my ghostly guide.
"what are we calling him dad," asked Chris, "how about cliff after Cliff Richard."
Stan didn't think so then Jean piped in with Ringo, Chris countered with Elvis and it was left to their weary mother, bathed in sweat to end the debate.
"Neil," she said, "His name is Neil."
Stan blinked in surprise, it was a name they hadn't even discussed before. There had been talk of Stephen, Brian even Basil but not Neil, "why that," he asked as the girls considered it, the only pop star they could think of Neil Sedaka.
"I don't know it just popped into my head."
And a soft French voice said, "Is perfect," a misty finger tickled the baby's chin.
"Neil it is then," Stan agreed to the disgust of his daughters who preferred Buddy or Tommy.