It was bloody annoying really. Starting to cry. Especially when she was driving to work. On the motorway as well. But there was the comfort of it being an early morning in January so it was dark. No one could see her feeble attempts to stem the tears that trailed down the side of her nose. Bugger. Her handkerchief was in her trouser pocket. No chance to get at that through all the layers of winter coat and scarves and jacket. She wiped at her face with a gloved hand, hoping that the black suede didn’t leave her with smudges of dye on her face. That would be the last straw.
The slight movement next to her was disconcerting. She cast a quick glance across. No. Nothing there. Just her handbag dumped as usual on the seat. The roads were busier than normal for this time and with tears still threatening to distort her vision she tucked the car in behind another one in the inside lane. No need to hurry today. It wasn’t as if she had anything important to do now was it. Another five minutes on the journey would give her time to compose herself. To think about what she was trying to do and maybe where she was going wrong with it all.
Going wrong. The thought made her eyes fill again and she cursed and shook her head. with despair. It only made the tears slide down the outside of her cheeks instead. She scrubbed at them angrily hoping that she had left some make-up in the bag she was using. Damn. The sniffles were annoying as well. She didn’t mind tears, but sniffles were one thing that she really hated. She reached out almost blindly to fumble at the black canvas bag in the hope that there might be a handkerchief in there, easily accessible.
Her hand touched his leg.
She knew it was him, there in the silence, in the darkness. The mere fact that she wasn’t startled or scared was enough to tell her that it was him. There had been no sudden magical appearance, no flash of light, no puff of smoke. He had arrived without fanfare or ceremony to sit there beside her in the car. She took her eyes off the road for a moment to look at him. His hands were joined on his lap, the seatbelt fastened, his eyes staring ahead.
She sniffed and wiped her eyes again. The road was still busy.
‘Here.’ A hand reached out.
She took the proffered handkerchief and wiped her eyes, shook it open and blew her nose. ‘Thank you.’
‘No problem. I don’t like sniffles either.’
She drove on. He would talk when he was ready. He didn’t seem angry this time, or even anxious. There was more an aura of sadness about him, as if he understood what she was feeling and she wondered if that was the reason he was here. She wondered how this conversation would end.
The traffic slowed down and she pulled back a little and then moved out into the middle lane, pushing the car to the speed she preferred and ignoring him for the moment.
The road curved and the landscape changed. The town appeared ahead.
‘Don’t you think you should slow down a little?’ The dry voice seemed amused rather than concerned.
Shit. She was too close really. She eased off and moved back to the inside lane ready to take the slip road.
‘Thank you.’ She could hear faint laughter in his voice. Not something she was used to hearing.
She sighed. ‘You’d better tell me why you are here. I’ve only got ten minutes before I get to work.’
‘Why am I here? Don’t you know?’
‘No. I don’t. Don’t make my life any harder than it already is, dammit. Just tell me.’
She could hear him sigh. ‘I’m sorry. I thought you wanted me. I’ll go.’ She could see him start to fade, as if his body was reducing itself to mere pixels and dots and atoms.
‘No. Don’t. Please. Stay.’ She forced the words out. ‘I’ve…. missed you. Terribly.’
He solidified, sat there, smiled at her. The sky lightened with dawn. She pulled up at the traffic lights and blew her nose again.
He gave her a quick look. ‘We have time. I’d like to see where you work anyway. See if it has anything to do with what you write. And I think we do need to talk don’t we?’
The lights turned green and she drove on, giving him brief glances as she changed gear, changed lanes, headed for her usual parking space. He was silent now, eyes watching her, hands still in his lap.
She pulled up, flicked off the cd player; her usual track had played and repeated and she had been unaware of even hearing it. ‘Wait there.’ She rummaged for the parking fee.
‘Want some change?’ But he didn’t move, as if he knew the answer and was only asking out of politeness.
‘No. I’ve got it sorted.’ A two pound coin and a twenty. Organised. That was her problem wasn’t it. When it all came down to it. She walked to the paystation, brought the ticket back. Stuck it on the windscreen. ‘Coming then?’
He unfolded himself from the seat, a tall, slender almost lanky figure and she noticed that he was, like her, dressed in black. She always dressed in black. Practical and sensible. Easy to wash. She could hide behind the absence of colour. It made her invisible.
His black made him stand out. She felt small and insignificant as she stood beside him. Growing old can be a cruel thing she thought, and bit her lip to stop tears forming again. ‘This way.’ She pulled the wheeled briefcase behind her. Another concession to age she thought as she led him across the small carpark and into the main building. ‘Straight along this corridor to the very end.’
They attracted some attention as they walked. At least, he attracted attention, but he appeared unaware of the eyes that followed him or the heads that turned to watch him walk, long-legged and confident down the drab hospital corridor. She had to scurry to keep up with him. The briefcase rattled behind her and she had a sudden loathing for the petty-minded officials who refused to provide the resources she had begged for.
They reached the end of the corridor and he paused and smiled down at her. ‘Half a kilometre. I suppose it’s exercise, but it seems an unnecessary waste of time and energy.’
She shrugged. There was not much to say really. He was right. She swiped her fob at the door and pushed it open. ‘I’ll tell them you’re from Education if that’s all right?’
‘Don’t worry, they won’t ask.’ He followed her through the unit and she saw his quick glance sideways at the small beds in the bays, the single rooms with their small occupants. She saw him flinch and stop and then turn away. His hands clenched into fists.
She touched his elbow. ‘I’m sorry. I hadn’t thought….’ Children’s ward. She was so used to it that she never saw the patients, not until she had to teach them. And then only the fitter ones. A memory of a beautiful girl flashed into her mind and was gone, as the child had gone.
‘It doesn’t matter. It was a long time ago. I just hadn’t considered the reality of what you do.’
‘I’m sorry.’ Damn, she was standing there like some bloody idiot, repeating herself. ’My room is this way.’
More swiping, more doors to open, codes to punch into keypads. He was smiling again by the time she opened the last door and turned on the lights. ‘Better security than headquarters.’
She shrugged. ‘I’m used to it by now.’ She gestured. ‘Take your jacket off and sit down. It’s usually hot in here as well.’ She started unlocking cupboards as he took off his jacket and looked for somewhere to hang it. ‘Sorry, just stick it anywhere. Do you want a drink? I usually have a coffee when I arrive.’
‘Sure.’ He pulled out a chair and sat at the table, watching her with interest as she got mugs and coffee and sugar cubes out of a box. ‘You have to provide your own coffee?’
She shrugged again. ‘One minute.’ She took the mugs to the small kitchen and used some of the ward milk for his coffee. That was alright. They wouldn’t mind that. Not this once. He was standing by the window when she walked back in, his jacket slung over a chair.
‘Not a very attractive view. Rooftops and scaffolding. I thought you could see the zoo from your room?’
She handed him the coffee and stood next to him. ‘Used to. but this is a new room. It’s caused a lot of problems.’
‘It’s not the only thing is it? That’s caused problems.‘ He pulled out a chair. ‘Sit down. We need to talk.’
‘So? Think you’re the only person to do that?’ His voice was stern now. There would be no escape and, perhaps she didn’t want to.
She looked at her watch. Eight o’ clock. She had an hour and a half, maybe two hours, before she had to do anything. ‘Very well. As long as you promise – ’
‘No promises. No excuses. We need to sort this out. For once and for all. What the future holds for you. And also for me.’ He put a hand on top of hers. ‘Agreed?’
She looked down at her hand under his, her bitten fingernails and rough, uncared for skin. He was right. It was time to sort it out. Properly. Once and for all. She looked into his eyes. ‘Agreed.’
He gave a slow sigh and leaned back. ‘Good. Now. First things first. Shepherd. How is that going?’
‘It’s going.’ She looked away.
‘Come on. Tell me the truth. Do you hate it?’
‘Hate it? What on Earth makes you think that? I love it. It’s been the best thing I ever did.’ She thought about the work involved, the hours spent on it, the rewrites, the tears when it didn’t work out, the sheer joy when it all fell into place. ‘I had so much fun doing it. So much. And …’
‘Ah. That explains a lot.’ He sipped his coffee. ‘Not bad. A decent brew for once.’
She grinned, embarrassed. ‘I never used to drink coffee until I met you again. I can’t drink cheap stuff though.’
He put the mug down and ran one finger around the rim. ‘So. Shepherd . Why is it still unfinished? Surely you are over that silly ‘ending a story’ syndrome? You were near the end in October as I recall. So why the delay?’ He frowned at her. ‘Don’t tell me that it will end in tragedy. For a start I don’t believe you and secondly it wouldn’t be right.’
‘No. It will end happily. I owe you that much by now. ‘ She smiled at him. ‘If I had to be honest,….’ It was her turn to fiddle with the rim of her mug. A cheap mug. The blue striped one. She’d given him her favourite Denby mug, the one no one else had ever used except her.
‘Be honest then. It’s why I am here. To sort things out. It goes no further than this room. You know that.’ He folded his hands together. ‘Come on Lightcudder. It’s about time you were truthful. With yourself as well as me.’
She stood up. It would sear her to tell him, and not only her. He might be hurt as well. And she couldn’t bear to do that. ‘It’s hard.‘
‘Think I won’t understand? We’ve known each other long enough. Try me.’ He had leaned back in his chair and was watching her, his fingers steepled together.
She sat down.
‘It all comes back to Shepherd. In a way I wish I had never –‘ She held up her hand as he started to speak. ‘No, hear me out. Please.’
‘If I hadn’t ever done Shepherd I would have carried on with short stories. Doing things like Breathless and Moonlight and Stopping. Fun stories, that didn’t threaten the equilibrium.’ She bit her lip. Looked at him with eyes that had filled again. ‘But now I want to do more. I want to do huge stories, long and involved and complicated plots with characters that are satisfying and real.’ She waited. He was silent. She ploughed on. ‘And doing you in Shepherd was one of the most satisfying things I have ever achieved in my life. Shit. Isn’t that sad.’ She reached for a tissue.
‘No. Why should it be sad? It’s something you have always wanted to do. An accomplishment; a milestone in a way. Not many people can say they’ve written a novel. And it’s a good one. You know that.’
‘I do. But it’s like doing that scene in Glitch.’
‘Sex with a dragon?’ He grinned at her and she blushed.
‘Or Breathless. Serious violence for a real reason. Once you’ve crossed that boundary there is no going back is there?’
He sighed. ‘No. There isn’t. I think I see the problem now. You think you’ve gone as far as you can don’t you. That there are no boundaries left to cross.’
She shrugged again. ‘I don’t know. I know my limits though. Know what I am comfortable writing and yet I want to write. I want to do more than UFO and yet I also don’t want to. Not if it means losing you. Perhaps that is the problem.’
‘That you are deliberately moving away from me, without even realising it? Trying to distance yourself?’
‘Am I? Is that what I have been doing? I thought I was trying too hard.’
He took a deep breath. ‘It seems to me that you are trying to do too much too soon. Your mind is full of ideas and plans and ambitions, all mixed up, all fighting to get to the front. You can’t do everything. Not all at once. And the more you try to do everything, the harder it gets.’ He fiddled again with his mug, not looking at her, not meeting her eyes. ‘Do you want to stop writing me? Be honest. Please.’
The words were a shock. And worse, there was gentle sadness and yet acceptance in his voice as if he had expected this to happen.
‘Oh god, how could I stop writing you. That’s the root of all the problems. When it comes down to it, I don’t want to write anything other than you. And yet Shepherd eats away at me. I am so proud of it. Perhaps that’s a terribly boastful thing to say. But it’s the truth. I want to share that with other people. To see if I can do something like that again. And let’s face it; Shepherd only worked because I could write you. It would have been crap if I’d done it with anyone else.’
He grinned at her. ‘No doubt. So. Why are you struggling now? What is going wrong with everything you do write? Let’s face it. You have lost it in the last few weeks.’
‘Lost what exactly?’ She frowned.
‘Everything. The spontaneity, the joy, the love of writing. You started that Artemis story again, and it’s as if you are back at the beginning. Afraid to let yourself free, afraid to let the words onto the page. What scares you?’
‘I don’t know,’ she lied.
‘That’s a lie. You do know. Think about it while you make me another coffee.’
The kitchen was tiny. Enough room for one person only. She washed out the mugs and took them back to add coffee and sugar, before going to fill them with boiling water. Her own teaspoons even. This was part of the problem as well. She was as isolated and distant as he was. Sitting in her room sometimes for three hours with no-one to talk to. Reliant on him to help alleviate the monotony. Was that fair on him? She stirred the coffee and handed his over.
He smiled his thanks. ‘So. Back to my question. What scares you.’
‘You don’t give up easily do you?’ She put the teaspoon back in its proper place and sat opposite him. ‘Small spaces. Spiders.’ She paused. Looked out of the large window with its view of scaffolding ‘Not having something to write. Not being able to write.’
‘Yes. Don’t laugh. I’m serious.’
‘I can tell. I sympathize with the spiders as well. But…writing. How hard is it not to write? I mean…’ It was his turn to shrug his shoulders.
‘You think it is easy? Coming up with a new idea time and time again. Nope. It doesn’t work like that. At least not for me. I need to feel that the story is right, that, even if I don’t know exactly how it will work out that there is some substance to it. And right now I don’t. I don’t feel much at all. And that scares me.’
He laughed. The sod laughed at her. She wanted to walk away from him, would have walked away from anyone else but he reached out and took her hand again. ‘Sorry. I wasn’t laughing at you. Not really. It’s just that you are so intense about all this. As if the world will end if you don’t write ten thousand words every week.’
She blushed. How the hell did he do it. See right into her. ‘Five thousand,’ she muttered and he laughed again.
‘See. You do know what scares you. You’re just too afraid to say it. As if by some means if you say it then it will come true.’ He squeezed her hand. ‘I’m right aren’t I?’
She looked away and reached for the crumpled tissue that she had stuffed in her pocket. ‘The truth? Okay.’
He waited while she composed herself. There was no hurry.
When the words came they were rushed, as if she was unable to stop them. ‘What if I can’t do another Shepherd story? What if that was the very best thing I ever do? If I can’t write another UFO story that means as much to me as that one did? ‘Island’ was wonderful to do, but it was too short, like having one biscuit and wanting a whole packet. What if I can never get under your skin again like I did with John Shepherd? And……’ she paused and hid her face. ’What if you hate me for what I do to you.’
‘Vodka? I presume you mean that story?’
She nodded too afraid to look at him.
‘Why should I hate you? I thought we’d had this conversation some time ago? I thought we agreed that it didn’t really matter. It doesn’t matter. Not to me.’ He lifted her chin in his hand. ‘Look at me. I would rather you did all those things than simply leave me. It’s not as if you make me into something that I am not. In your stories I am me. Ed Straker. So your skill lies in one direction. Fair enough. It’s a small price to pay for such love.’ He wiped her tear away.
‘I have to tell you….Vodka.. You and Dimitri.. ‘ she faltered. ‘There isn’t love in that story, not that sort of love.’
‘You silly thing.’ He smiled to take any sting out of the words. ‘Go and write it. I didn’t mean love between Dimitri and me. I know what you have planned, and I approve wholeheartedly. I was talking about your love.’ He kissed her gently. ‘And stop worrying. The ideas will come. They always do. All it takes is a word, or a picture. Like that advert.’ He grinned at her. ‘And maybe you should stop trying so hard and just allow yourself to enjoy writing. It doesn’t matter what they think. You know you can do it. The proof is there in Glitch and Breathless and all your other stories and, of course, Shepherd.’ He touched her face with his fingers. A simple caress of farewell. ‘Now, haven’t you got some pupils to teach?’
And he was gone.
This was written in January while I was struggling to write the very last part of Shepherd.
There had been several huge changes in my job – which is very stressful at the best of times – and I was finding it difficult to concentrate on writing. It is a personal account, not a story, but I hope that it goes some way to show readers of the Herald how much I admire and respect Straker, and of course, his creator Ed Bishop, and how I hope my stories reflect the character we saw in every episode of UFO. It was not a planned piece of writing. I simply sat down and let the words write themselves.