For a large part of this past year I've been carrying our dream key around with me, wherever I go. Remember when we made the decision to buy our own place together in happier days. You had just started back to work and were looking forward to impacting those many little lives, trying to bring a little joy, a little hope into otherwise tragic existences. We'd also be earning that little extra money to enable us to get a place of our own. Remember that walk we went, when we planned out our future together, so grateful that God had blessed us as he did, so grateful for each other. I never told you this, but once we reached the top of that hill, I wanted nothing more to buy the plot of land we were standing on and build our house there and then, our house with that fantastic view looking out over the bay, looking out over our future, not a cloud in the sky.

The very next day I went to the estate agent's. Amazingly, there were still one or two plots still available exactly where we wanted to build our house. I asked for the papers to be drawn up immediately. I guess I felt any delay would be fatal. It was on our way back I saw that metal key in the bric a brac shop. I couldn't resist the temptation. It seemed so lonely, just as if it needed someone to buy it. That was to be our key. I swore there and then, if we ever did get our house, I'd have all the locks fitted to take that key.

The estate agent phoned up a few days later. The papers were ready. We could sign when we wanted. Things moved quickly from there. The estate agent himself recommended a suitable entrepreneur and plans for the house were soon drawn up. Dad was so pleased at the news that he immediately announced he would finance half the project, as he had done for Andy and Philip before. What more could we hope for. That evening we announced the news to Ron and Janice at church and had an impromptu prayer session, giving thanks to God for so much goodness. We were his children and he was showering his love and blessings on us.

How little did I think then of those who weren't so well off as we. Did God not love them in equal measure? Or was he simply not really Lord over all, fateful chance also exercising its mighty power and somehow limiting God's ability. I remember hearing one of those believe and God will bless preachers and thinking how wrong it all sounded, yet here I was thinking the same thing in my life.

But this was no time to succumb to such macabre thoughts. We had the whole of life and the whole world before - and, as we knew God on our side.

The evening before your birthday I was still riding that cloud. Then I came home. I saw your face, your tears. I heard the words. And I couldn't believe. We had a future ahead of us. This ugly monster was rearing its head in the wrong story. It just couldn't be true. Our world was breaking down, yet you seemed so calm, so sure. And where was God now? Strangely enough it didn't even occur to me to ask the question. I guess, that was the first real sign of his love for me; he knew full well I'd not have been able to cope with that question then.

Then came the tests. All that waiting at the hospitals. Then waiting for the results. And finally the long, final wait for to get the specialist's view. How often in those long dark days did we waver? It was only human. We were only human. Yet, again we experienced God's grace amidst all that pain. Never did we waver together. One of us was always just strong enough to hold up the other.

I remember that old woman in the specialist's waiting room. I doubt she realised what we were waiting for. Even there, you're smile and assurance was able to bring some warmth to another. And the news wasn't as bad as we'd feared. It wasn't good but it could have been worse. An operation and good chances of a complete recovery. Is the doctor telling the truth? Will I see you again?

That key is still around my neck. Maybe if you wake up tomorrow, I'll bring it to you and we can dream again. But our dream will be different. It'll be about people, not possessions. And our confidence in God's love will be even stronger without all he's given us.

In this assurance I wish you a blessed sleep. I'll be with you throughout the night and I'll be there when they bring you back tomorrow. I love you.


Dudley's eyes were glued to the TV. The close observer would have noticed they were getting wider all the time. What no one could see was what was going on inside him. His insides were being repeatedly churned over as the short story unfolded before him. Yet, this was no horror story, Dudley was watching. It was a meagre item about preparations for a ceremony to take place the very next day in his home town at which Jonathan White was to be granted the keys to the city. Dudley had absolutely no idea who Jonathan White was, but he knew all about the key giving ceremony. Miss Walsh had told them all about it in school that morning. Dudley loved history. He loved stories of far away places and far away times and his lively imagination had no trouble in transposing these stories to his own place and time. He could imagine himself riding around the streets of Welwyn on his strong black steed, his polished armour glinting in the sunshine and striking fear into the hearts of all who wished badly on the city. New York may have had Clark Kent and Batman, but Welwyn had Dudley Kimball to protect it.

A theatre group were touring around various schools in their county, performing a play based on a famous siege of a town in France. Miss Walsh explained all about sieges and what happened during them. And Dudley had listened particularly carefully. Sieges were usually awful times as supplies failed to come through and whole families were destined to die a slow and terrible death because they had nothing left to eat. Unless help came from outside in a bid to oust the besiegers, the usual outcome was surrender, but some considered dishonour far worse than starvation and refused to give in. For those who did surrender, a ceremony was arranged during which the gates to the city were opened and the defeated citizens humbled themselves before their conquerors, handing them the keys to the city gates as a token of their submission.

That afternoon, after finishing his homework, Dudley once again visited the grounds of the now ruined castle which stood at the edge of the city. This was one of his favourite haunts and he often tried imagining how the citizens of Welwyn used to live in days gone by. Today, he sat on on the floor and imagined the hefty meeting taking place all around him. Speaker after speaker urged their fellow citizens to resistance. The invading army was not a strong one, they could be resisted for a time, time enough to get word to their allies and enable the siege to be lifted. But who would go? Who would be willing, if necessary, to sacrifice their life for their city.

A deathly silence fell over the assembly. No one came forward. Everyone knew the chances of getting through the enemy lines were, at best, one in two. It had to be done, but no one wanted to do it. It would be best to send a small boy because whoever went would have to leave the fortress by the water conduct. Every mother's heart stood still, hoping and praying that their son would not be sent.

Then a small, high-pitched little voice spoke up. “I'll go.” All heads turned to see Dudley racing to the front of their assembly still shouting, “I'll go, I'll do it. I'll be the one to save our city. Just tell me what I have to do.”

A few hours later some grim-faced meant let Dudley down into the well on a bucket. The moment he came to the passage, he gave the signal and started crawling along the narrow conduct until eventually he saw a speck of daylight up front. Dudley knew from the men that this would be the most dangerous part of his mission. The invaders may well have discovered the exit of the conduct and would certainly be expecting someone to appear in its mouth. Dudley looked around carefully. He was now only a few feet below earth and up above he could imagine the feet of the detested enemy soldiers pounding the earth of their beloved fields. He looked around and found another gap between the rocks. From here he was able to climb to a little alcove from which he could discern another speck of daylight far to the right.

The men had been right. There were other exits to this passage. In no time Dudley was crawling on his hands and knees through the rocks and out into freedom. Carefully, he observed the terrain around him. No soldiers to be seen. He climbed up a hill and hid behind some rocks. His vantage point afforded him a good view of the surrounding terrain, and he was quick to see that the exit to the conduct had indeed been safely guarded. His greatest wish now would have been to show himself to his enemies and taunt them with their inability to let him get out. But that would hardly be the expedient thing to do right now. Instead, he took to his feet and sailed across the fields on his way to the next settlement.

Dudley's news was greeted with excitement and resentment. Word was being sent to the surrounding settlements and soon an angry horde was on its way to relieve the siege at Welwyn, a glorious looking Dudley at their head. The battle was short and sweet and Dudley and his troops were greeted with honour by the citizens of the now liberated fortress. A great banquet was held and there was singing and dancing all round. At the end of the banquet Dudley was asked to state his one wish and the veil of his beloved Miss Walsh was laid at this feet when...

“Dudley, Dudley! Mother said if you don't come home at once, there'll be no dinner for you.”

Why did Kitty always interrupt him just as he was to receive his ultimate accolade. “Bother her!”

But Dudley loved Kitty really, just as he loved the whole of his family. So he raced home, putting off his wedding to Miss Walsh for another day and another adventure.

It was that evening that he saw the news item about Jonathan White on the news. It worried him immensely. Here was this enemy villain coming to claim their city, and the authorities could only bow down to him and surrender. No talk about resisting, no meeting to find that hero who could save them all from the ignominy of surrender. They were just letting this dastardly being take over their city. True, Dudley hadn't seen any other troops come with him, but doubtless they were there somewhere hidden away and ready to pounce and slay them all. His mam, his dad, Kitty, Miss Walsh, all his friends and neighbours. No Dudley couldn't just sit there and let them have their way without putting up a fight. He would slip out of the village and persuade the inhabitants of the neighbouring towns to come to their rescue. He'd wait until it was dark and set off on his deed. He went up to his room and sneaked his dad's atlas with him. Here he spent several minutes, pouring over the roads leading to the nearest towns and villages. He tried to memorise the routes and the direction he would have to take. Of course, he wouldn't take the roads, he was that stupid. He knew full well that the White Knight's forces would be lining the roads, waiting for anyone who tried to get out in advance of their attack upon the city the next day. And he knew they would be ruthless with him, if they caught him.

He went to bed with his clothes on and pretended to be asleep. He heard his mum and dad come up the stairs, open his door and wish him a good night. Will I ever see them again after tonight, he wondered. And Kitty. The though of Kitty gave him the courage he needed. He waited until he was sure his parents were asleep and descended the stairway. The key to the back door was in the lock as usual and he silently turned it and slipped into their back yard. Before long he was racing down the alleyway and out into the street leading to the playing fields and the river beyond. He was in luck, the bridge was not guarded. He raced across and set off on his mission to save the world.

It was about 2.15 that morning when a startled Sergeant Tomkins was accosted by a young boy whose head scarcely reached over the top of the reception counter Newtown police station. The boy was extremely excitable and muttering something about “grave danger to all”. Sergeant Tomkins sat him down in his office and fetched him a cup of warm milk. The poor lad was shivering al over. It took almost two hours for Sergeant Tomkins to figure out the whole story. At first, Dudley had thought this was all a waste of time. It wasn't until the Sergeant had assured him that reinforcements were at hand and would be sent to Welwyn that he started to tell his tale. After all, the new troops would have to know exactly where to go. The sergeant couldn't help but smiling at Dudley's story. He was an adventurous little boy, much the same as he'd been once, out to save single-handedly all he knew. The one problem was that he'd got hold of the wrong end of the stick.

Sergeant Tomkins sat down beside Dudley and poured him out his third cup of warm milk. The shivering was beginning to subside and Tomkins was beginning to suspect that the cold hadn't been its only cause.

“Dudley, you're a hero, a true hero. But you see, times have changed. Today, we no longer hand over the keys of the town to our enemies but to our friends. We do it as a sign of our honour and respect. Jonathan White isn't an enemy spy. In fact, he's one of Welwyn's greatest citizens. He went to school at the local comprehensive and was the first ever pupil to win a place at one of the country's greatest universities; He went on to shine at his studies and soon became one of our country's leading medical researchers. He's discovered cures for several serious illnesses and last week he was awarded the Nobel prize for medicine, the greatest honour any doctor could wish for. He's coming home to Welwyn because he's to be married tomorrow. And the town authorities want to honour him in their own way by giving him the keys to the city.”

Dudley found it hard to take this all in. If the truth were told, he was fighting another battle, not against enemies but against a welcome sleep. Sergeant Tomkins carried him into his inspector's office and laid him on the sofa. The next day when he woke up, he gave Dudley the important news. His parents had been contacted before they realised Dudley had gone missing. They knew he was safe. But something far more important had happened. Welwyn's Mayor had heard all about Dudley's adventure and had been so touched by his willingness to sacrifice his life for the town that he'd given Dudley a front row place on the podium at that morning's ceremony. He would be seated right next to Jonathan White.

Dudley sat on the podium and look down at the cheering crowds. He knew full well that they weren't cheering for him, but one day they would. Oh, he probably wouldn't go to war to save them, but there would be other ways to serve his people. He certainly wouldn't be a doctor, he hated science and biology and all that stuff. He would have to become an explorer or something of that sort. As he looked up, he say Miss Walsh in the front row smiling and waving to him. Then, he sat wide-eyed as she was let through and arms wide raced up the podium steps to the cheering cries of those present, before throwing her arms around her fiancé. The next day she would become Mrs. Jonathan White.

Mundane Joe

Mundane Joe was, as you might guess a pretty ordinary kind of guy. It was almost as if the nickname had forged out his destiny instead of just reflecting it. The epithet was first labelled on him as a young man at university. Along with a small number of fellow students, he'd been asked to participate in a research program to test the limits of the human mind and body. They were put through some pretty scouring tests, after which each had to find some creative way of describing how they'd felt under such extreme circumstances. The volume which arose out of the volunteers experiences made for some pretty arresting reading – with the exception, that is, of the contributions made by Mr. Joseph Sheperdson. It wasn't just his bland prose and his lack of any imaginative power. You just felt that whatever the circumstance, it was just a part of everyday life as far as Mr. Sheperdson was concerned. It was a reviewer of the book who coined the name Mundane Joe, and it stuck. It accompanied him for the rest of his life, never giving him a chance to break out of the mould, no matter how hard he didn't bother trying. So it was a pity that of all the earthlings who could have been picked for the trials, the lot fell on Mundane Joe.

It was a frustrating time in the world of space travel. The Americans, having beaten the Russians to the moon, had great new ambitions. For the moment the technical means to put these into practice were missing. The Russians could provide a some of the expertise needed, but the age of glasnost and the thaw had not yet dawned. What neither Russians nor Americans could be aware of, was that far out into the universe another power was amassing the know-how needed to transcend worlds and send a manned mission to the earth. After several tests, the space authorities on UFOUNDLAND were preparing to send an advanced probe to our earth in order to examine life-conditions here. It had not been all plain sailing. The operation had been costly and the parliamentary review body had often put the squeeze on their financing; The space authority's chairman was still bore the bruises of many a parliamentary skirmish over much needed funds. But now they were on the point of launching a manned mission to the blue planet earth, as they called our habitat. All that was yet needed, was some inking as to how the bluelings lived, and whether they would prove friendly or hostile to visitors from outer space.

Pete Cardigan sat in his fourth flour office and poured of the millions of names on the various lists in front of him. He knew that the success or failure of his whole mission could depend on what he was about to do. He had to chose an blueling who provide them with a unique insight into the life and civilisation of the planet. He knew it had to be an intelligent person, open to new experiences and willing to undergo experience never before imagined. But how to find his man amongst the millions of bluelings on his list. He quickly whittled them down the numbers by only taking into consideration those who had been to university, obviously a venerated institute of learning on the planet. But this still left him with a painfully large number to chose from. It was then that he'd heard of the research project which had projected Joe Mundane into the limelight for such a brief period of his life. He had even obtained a review of the published volume, written by a fairly mediocre journalist who had not even taken the trouble to read the whole work. It was his conclusion which prompted Pete Cardigan to make his choice.

“These experiences show the heights to which the human mind and spirit can raise itself when pushed to extremes. Beginning with the more mundane group members the book slowly reveals the full extent of enterprise and resistance as it relates, one after the other, the awesome experiences of the young men and women, culminating in the indescribable narrative of Mr. Joseph Sheperdson, the last member of the group, and by far the most fascinating.”

Pete Cardigan his man and he knew it.

Early next morning Mundane Joe rose early as was his habit. Lightly kissing his wife on the forehead he exited through the back gate, leading out onto the vast moors. Every morning he would jog the three miles to the neighbouring farm and return some 45 minutes later with fresh milk for the kids breakfast. Sandy would be up by this time, coffee on the boil and she and Joe would enjoy a few undisturbed minutes together before the kids would begin their descent. Shortly before 9 a.m. Joe would pack them all into the car and deliver them all to the red-brick county school which stood right next to the library where he worked. Sandy would join him at midday and they would grab a bite to eat before she went off on her various errands and Joe return to his beloved books and documentary archives. Joe's life may have been mundane, but are we to say that it was not a happy one.

That was all to change on this cold November morning. As he reached the crest of the hill that lead to the farm, Joe saw car headlights approaching him in the distance. It never crossed his mind that this wasn't exactly a normal occurrence on the moors and he continued on his way... almost getting away. It was only when Pete Cardigan realised that this man did not show the inquisitiveness he expected that the alien party was despatched to bring Mr. Sheperdson into the capsule by other means. Once inside Joe had a face to face interview with a kindly looking man who seemed to have jumped directly out of a James Bond film. After explaining who he was and the purpose of his mission he came to the point. He offered Joe a key, apparently a very special key. With this key he could go anywhere he wanted on the blue planet, breaking down all barriers of space and time. All he had to do was to concentrate his mind on the scene he wanted to visit, introduce the key into the lock of the wardrobe which that very moment was being delivered to his house, and in the blink of an eyelid he would be where he had imagined himself. It was all so very simple. All that was required of him was that he carry this little box with him wherever he went. The box would enable Pete Cardigan's men to monitor all that was going on during his adventures.

“Oh, and one more thing, I almost forgot,” went on Peter. “Each visit you make, will last a maximum of 60 minutes. So make the most of your time.”

Joe thought little about what had happened as he continued on his way to fetch the milk. But he was very put out by the fact that this fifteen minute diversion made him late. Indeed, it was the most unmundane thing to have happened to him that month and his worried wife was so relieved when he finally burst through the back door and sat down to a hasty breakfast without a word of explanation.

The day went off pretty much as usual. Yet Joe and Sandy still found a lot to to share as they shared a warm embrace on the sofa that evening. Sandy had been excited all day. Her favourite filmstar, Cameron Diaz was on TV last night, and she was hoping to persuade Joe, to forego their usual reading and watch the film instead. Joe had no real desire to watch TV but he acquiesced gracefully to Sandy's wish. But as the film went on, he became slightly unnerved. He was suddenly aware of the key in his pocket and of the little black box. All day he had carried these around with him without a thought; Now they began to worry him. He kept wondering what it would be like to... but he quickly repulsed these thoughts and turned back to Sandy. But all the next day the what ifs returned to plague him. What ifs have no real power over us, but what if they really can be transformed into reality. By the next evening Joe was ready to launch himself into the adventure. It was Sandy's night out and she was going to visit an old school friend who had recently come back live in the area. Joe watched her drive off and then stretched his had into his pocket. But where was the wardrobe? He had to put the key into the lock of a wardrobe, but he couldn't remember seeing it anywhere. He looked all over the house without finding any trace of a new wardrobe. Maybe he had misunderstood. Maybe it was his normal, old wardrobe which was meant. He took the key out to try it in that lock but the moment his fingers touched the key, a new wardrobe appeared before his very eyes. Gingerly, he placed the key in the lock and thought long and hard.

Cameron Diaz's bedroom on the night after a long Hollywood party, he thought and instantly, he was beamed across the Atlantic and found himself in a strange unoccupied room. Outside he could hear screaming voices and as he entered the next room he saw his new-found heartthrob in the midst of a raging argument with her latest conquest. Clothes were strewn all over the floor and empty bottles and upturned furniture told their own story. Evidently, the latest Hollywood party had taken place in this very house. But Joe didn't get the impression that it had brought much joy to either Cameron or her partner. And it certainly wasn't the exciting scene Joe had been expecting. After a few similar pleasantries of a similar genre Cameron's partner agreed to help tidy up. But their heart wasn't really in the task and their attempts were only half-hearted, compounded by the fact that Cameron's way of tidying up the bottles was by emptying whatever of their contents remained inside, into her own body.

She flopped down exhaustedly into an armchair and ordered Roger to come and give her a massage. He began around her neck and his magical hands soon had the desired affect upon Cameron. She loosened her robe somewhat as Roger's hands began their slow and soothing descent down her body. Joe moved in to get a better view but suddenly found himself back at home. His first sixty minutes as a peeping Tom were over, and to be honest he was not impressed. Give me the mundane life any day, he thought.

But it wasn't long before other thoughts began to interest Joe. He had always been keen on rhetorics and listened avidly to Any Questions and similar radio programms whenever they came on. It wasn't so much the different political opinions that interested him, but the way the were presented and the force of each participant's arguments. What wouldn't he give for the right to look in on that most sacred of debating chambers, the cabinet room. To attend a session of the cabinet would be a real education. He resisted this temptation for some time, not forgetting his first disappointment, but with the little box in his pocket to continually remind him, his resistance once again soon wore down.

He went to his desk where he had hidden the secret key, and started to meditate on the cabinet room. He'd never seen the place but he forced his mind on all those ministers he knew would be present, and before long he saw himself floating past the policemen guarding the entrance to Downing Street and up to the door of number 10. The door melted before him and he found himself on the hallowed turf of the Prime Minsister's residence. He listened carefully. Why couldn't he hear anyone speaking. Where was the sound of all the cut and thrust? He concentrated his mind once again on those oh so familiar faces and pushed open the door which led to the Cabinet room. What he saw inside, surprised him. The ministers were huddled together around the table trying to decide what gloss to put over the latest Home Office figures blunder. Most seemed totally apathetic. One or two even seemed to be asleep. One really was asleep. As the meeting went on, few had anything really siginficant to say. Government policy was passed by the shake of a drooping head with very little reflection. And as to the quality of the debate, the least said the better. Joe looked at his watch. He'd been here just 10 minutes. He still had to endure another 50. What on earth had given him the idea of coming here. He ended up falling asleep like two of his government colleagues and was woken over an hour later by the first customer arriving at his desk in the library.

For any normal person the Cabinet experience might have been the last nail in the coffin, but Mundane Joe was now hooked. He immediately thought of what to try next. He wanted to experience some real passion and immediately thought of Welsh rugby. Where could he find more ardour and zeal than at the Arms Park, as he still referred to it.

Wales had just played one of their most important games of the professional era. The reward was a place in the quarter finals of the 2007 Rugby World Cup. During the first half of the game they had been completely outplayed by an wonderfully exciting Fijian side who threw the ball around like the Wales of old. But when the team came out for the second half, they were as if resurrected. Within no time, they had clawed back the points difference and seemed to be reasserting their game upon a stunned Fijian side. A battle royal then developed and Fiji did actually run out as winners of an exciting game. But more importantly, what had the Welsh trainer done to renew his side's strength and faith in themselves. He wanted to assist at that dressing room talk, to hear the fire only the Welsh can muster, and perhaps have some of it rub off on him.

But it was a sorry sight that greeted him inside the dressing room. The team was totally demoralised and the trainer was already beginning work on his resignation speech. He wanted to get it finished in time for him to resign before being given the push - the honorable thing to do. No one was talking to each other. No one looked each other in the eyes. It was a complete disaster. Once the ten minute break was were over, the team trooped back into the tunnel. As they appeared onto the field, and well out of the hearing of a very disappointed Joe, a fan shouted at his former idol: "Get off the field you bloody cripple."

Shane Williams looked up into the stand and saw the fire in the eyes of the man who had come to the stadium with such great hopes. And this same fire spread to him. So as Wales were putting in a second half performance of a lifetime, Joe was passing the agonising minutes reflecting on what he would do, once his 60 minute purgatory was over.

It was all the fault of that infernal black box, he realised. The moment I get back I'll smash it to smitherenes. Then I'll be back to normal, with nothing to worry me.

Meanwhile back in UFOUNDLAND Colonel Mankins was venting his anger on a cowering Peter Cardigan.

"Do you mean to tell me, that all those years of research and preparation was all in vain!!!? We were making plans to invade one of the greatest superpowers in the whole universe and we've ended up with a bunch of nicompoops."

His phone rang and Mankins picked it up with a start.

"No I'm not going to calm down, and I don't care if I trigger of ten nuclear explosions! At least, it would rid me of you all. All I've ever lived and worked for up in smoke, because our govenment doesn't consider their planet worth invading. We have to start all over again... and you expect me to stay calm. Get off the line!"

And thus it was that Mundane Joe settled back into his normal life without no one ever realising that he was, in fact, the saviour of planet earth.

Locked Out

For the next few days I went around in a stupor. It was soon evident to one and all what the cause was. Violette Bouclier. I soon became the laughing stock of the old village. It was little consolation that I was not the first, and according to common gossip, certainly would not be the last to have fallen under her charms. But perhaps, none had fallen so quickly and so heavily as I. Since meeting her, I'd read through Romeo and Juliet three times and was now embarking on my fourth. I tried to recreate something of the beauty of that language, as my mind composed sonnets to my love, but though they were quite cleverly thought, they could never recreate full extent of the emotion, that was raging in my heart and desperately looking for a way to express itself.

I hadn't actually seen Violette since that fateful night of our meeting. As I stood there stammering before her, she smiled and turned back into the flat that was behind the shop. It was the smile of one used to conquering others' hearts; a smile which acknowledged yet another wounded victim laying at her feet in the hope of some slight acknowledgement that they might dare to hope. But did that smile permit me to hope? A hundred different answers to that question existed in my mind, and I knew not which would eventually prove to be the truth.

Among the younger generation I was considered as a fellow warrior, honourably wounded in battle. My older friends, however, merely shook their heads in amusement at my plight. No one seemed to take seriously the possibility of a relationship with Violette. It was rumoured she ate a man for breakfast at least once a week, thriving on the chase of the hunt but growing bored quickly once the eating started. However, like a lovesick child I refused to listen to sense. I would prove them all wrong. I would catch Violette and not give her up.

A number of my friends began despairing. During these few weeks I was more or less good for nothing. I went about my few duties without really being aware of anything, so you can imagine how well my duties were done. I didn't even make a serious attempt to get to court Violette, who by now had come back to the village for good. True, I went to the shop whenever I could in hope of catching a small glimpse of her. But I never dared enter and only once did I leave her a letter, to which I got no reply. It was generally considered all round that something drastic was required to pull me out of my plight. And that's precisely what happened.

And that's precisely what's happened. Two dramatic events both within the space of a few hours of a cold icy winter's day which sent the shivers into all of us. We were sitting in the pub just before closing time, when news of John Lennon's assassination was flashed across our radios. A deathly silence fell over us all. I had grown up on the Beatles. I listened to their music whenever I could. I sang their songs at school competitions. I even started guitar lessons, inspired by the Beatles. And although, I always was and always will be a Mcartney fan, there was no denying that it was Lennon the musical genius of the group. He was the great innovator who turned the Beatles from teenager heartthrobs to avant-garde rock musicians worthy of the name.

I remembered the one time, I'd been to see them in concert. I was just eight and went with my mother and aunt to the 1966 concert in Deri. The crush outside the theatre was terrible, especially for a little eight year old like me. I remember holding on tightly to my mother in one hand and my aunt in the other. But I still felt like I was suffocating. Then a pair of strong hands pulled up above the crowds and sat me down on his shoulders. I felt like the king up there, surveying all and sundry in front of me. And soon there would be a gala performance to be given in my honour by the world's most famous musicians.

Unfortunately, I was soon brought back to earth, when we entered the concert hall and the man placed me gently back on my feet. My mother thanked him kindly and there was an awkward pause before he somewhat sheepishly asked my aunt if she'd like to have a drink with him before the concert begun. We didn't see her again that evening. But another man came and took her seat, explaining he'd exchanged tickets with a young lady who'd wanted to sit next to her brother!

The concert itself was awful. Firstly, there was hours of second-class music groups before we even got to the Beatles themselves. And there, the moment they got on stage, every single... - I think I'd better delete the adjectives I put in here - ... including my mam, got up and screamed their heads off. We couldn't hear a thing. Correction! We couldn't hear any music. I could cheerfully have throttled every single female in the hall single-handed if I'd had the strength to do so. As it was I just sat in my chair watching all these normally sane beings and crying. That night I resolved never to go to a Beatles concert again. Records would be good enough for me.

And now, Lennon was dead. The group's break-up had come as a bitter blow. Never again would the wizards of music perform and create. Over the years there were multiple rumours that the group would come back together again... for one last farewell concert, or perhaps even a tour. But now that would never be.

We were just beginning to digest the news when Violette and her mother burst into the pub.

"The espace loisirs has been closed by order of the town council!"

We looked at her in amazement. We knew it couldn't be true. Mayor Demille had courted the votes of all those in the old village by promising greater funding for the centre. Regular activities would be extended and there would be more concerts, exhibitions and the like for the people of Gensdouce. Not that anyone had any doubts that this sudden change of heart on the Mayor's part was just a piece of cheap electioneering, but who would have expected this?

"He can't close it. He's just promised to give it a new lease of life."

"The double-crossing bastard! I bet you he had intended to do this all along."

"I don't believe it. Even he couldn't pull this off!"

"Well, all the doors are closed and there's a big sign across the front."

We rushed out and almost knocked over Mrs. Ledphine who was supposed to be leading the water-colour painting group that very afternoon. It seemed the news was true, after all. It took us just a few minutes to see for ourselves what had been done. But we weren't going to take this lying down.

"I'm not letting him get the better of me again. Wait here, I'm getting my keys. We'll opening this afternoon and we'll be open for business until they come and drag me off to prison."

I raced off to fetch my keys and was back within a few minutes. But the keys no longer fitted.

"The damn bastards have changed the locks."

I sank to the floor shaking. Jean and Annie took my keys went round to the back entrance and tried that. Same result. We soon found out that every single lock in the building had been changed. Mayor Demille had got the better of us yet again.

I took off toward the hills. I had to get out of here and burn off my anger somehow. I still couldn't believe he'd actually done this. I took off so quickly, I failed to see the sparkle in Violette's eye as I passed her. This was no time for girls and for lovey-dovey. This was time to act.

I didn't return to the pub that night. I was too shaken up. When I did make it back to Gensdouce, I went to straight to the espace loisirs and took out my keys. Once again I tried each lock, knowing full well how useless it was. At least, it gave me something to do. But I couldn't spend the rest of the night walking around the building, so I I sat there keys in hand and tears in my eyes. I heard a train rushing past in the distance and couldn't help recalling that first time I'd arrived in the village. So much had happened since then, but now it all over. A soft voice came from out of the darkness behind me.

"You seem really cut up about this." It was Violette.

"This village has given me a new lease of life. Its people took me in when I was on the run and had nothing."

"On the run," she replied hesitatingly.

"I'm not an escaped convict, if that's what you were thinking. I just had to put everything behind me, strike out on my own, make a new start. These people made that possible. And this centre was all I had to give them in return. Now, it's all over."

She came up and put an arm round me, turning my face toward hers. "Simon, it's not over. You mustn't give up now. You've fought to make this place a success, all of you. And you succeeded. If you only knew how often my mother sings your praises. She loves your English classes. She can't speak a word, but she still swears by your abilities as a teacher."

"You mean, she's doing my wooing for me?"

A laugh was her only reply.

"Simon, now is the time to stand up for this village. We can't let it be taken over by the likes of Demille and his petty provincial politics. If we do, the village will be ruined within years. It will just be another suburb of the great city metropolis. We can't let that happen.


"Yes, we. All of us. All those who know and care for this place. But you're the one to lead us on. You're young, you've got the vision and the energy. Fight back, Simon. You'll have us all with you."

Lucian sat on the bench by the roadside. In front of him stood the two offices to which he had been given the keys. To the left, the Inkwell Translation Agency and to the right Kalam Language Services. It was long past nine o'clock and behind both closed doors, people were waiting for him and his expertise. This was his first day at work.

How had he come to be in possession of both keys? It's a very story; the story of a man who had never learnt to make a decision. Until this point in time, life had been easy. His birth and upbringing in the small Staffordshire town of Ashley, his schooldays during which his hatred of all things scientific and outstanding ability to express him in almost any language he turned his hand to. Yes, Lucian was a very talented young man, and would normally have received several offers at some of the country's leading universities. But his antipathy to Maths had meant his only just gaining a GCSE in the subject, and that at the third time of trying. This weakness actually played into Lucian's hands. For of the five he had actually applied to, four didn't have anything but a very basic language program, because in order to avoid having to make a decision, he'd opened his book at random and without looking stuck a pin in order to pick the names from the list. As a result he'd only received one firm offer, and had reached the age of 18 without ever having to take a major decision in life.

But now, he'd come to the end of his course and things were getting complicated. His speciality at university had been German and Russian and he'd also taken courses in Arabic, French and Italian. Not only that he'd been active in the school writer's group and had won several prizes for various pieces he wrote. So great had his success been, that a journalist had been dispatched to the university to interview him, and as a result two companies had contacted him about a job interview.

Kalam Language Services was the country's leading language specialist offering language services to those working in the Middle East and other Arabic countries. The local branch had recently taken on an import/export business dealing with both Middle East and Eastern Europe countries. After an informal introduction, they invited Lucian for an interview and he offered a contract without further ado. He would begin on Monday and take his first trip to Saudi Arabia the following week. Both Lucian and the local director were delighted. He did not know of Lucian's propensity for avoiding any kind of decision making.

This came to the fore when Lucian went the next day to be interviewed by the Inkwell Translation Agency a small family company with dreams of picking up trade from the emerging Eastern European markets. They were very impressed with Lucian's ability in Russian as well as his writing skills. They asked him for an interview but signed him up within five minutes of arrival. Again, he was to start work first thing Monday morning. Like, Kalam Language Services they'd already given him an office key, so he could come and go at will.

What was Lucian to do? It was the first time he'd ever had to ask himself that question and he felt tormented by it. For three days he'd agonised over what to do without coming to a conclusion. At first he'd hoped someone else would come to his aid. But there were no flashed of lightening and no genies appearing from nowhere with magic messages telling him exactly what he needed to do. Agnes had been no help either. She had also gotten a job in town, so he couldn't use her as an excuse and take a job where she went. Agnes was also something he'd stumbled into without really knowing how. They'd met at a blind date. Both Lucian and Agnes had been asked along to make up a foursome and when the two others vanished, they were left together. They'd stayed together since. That was almost six months ago, now. And Lucian always thanked his lucky stars that he'd got a girl without actually having to chose one.

Inspiration came early Sunday evening. Sally would help him and he quickly picked up the phone and dialled his sister's number.

"Hi Mark! It's Lucian here. Could I speak to Sally, please."

"What's it about this time, Lucian. Don't you think it's about time you decided to make your own way through life. You won't have Sally next to you all the time, you know."

Lucian tried to think when he had last called Sally. Of course, there'd been that question from the family's solicitor about his share of the inheritance. He hadn't wanted to do anything without her approval in case he impinged in any way on her share of the inheritance.

"Come on Mark, just let me speak to Sally okay. This is an emergency."

"But she's upstairs making music with the kids, I don't want to disturb her now. We don't have enough time together as it is."

"Well, just get her to phone me back when she can, will you."

Mark hung up with a promise, but Lucian somehow doubted she would ring back. He picked up the phone again and punched out her mobile number.

"Lucian, Mark told you I can't speak to you now. I'll call back this evening. Now, please leave in peace!"

It was almost ten o'clock before Sally did phone back. Lucian explained the situation, but how on earth could she help him? She asked him lots of questions to get him to try and compare the two offers: how much each employer was offering; the workers hours; how much travel would be involved in each; what additional benefits would there be. But Lucian knew nothing about any of these. Since he wasn't going to make a decision, he'd not even asked any of these questions. They just didn't interest him.

Some eight hours later Lucian arrived at the bus stop in front of the two offices. He looked over the road at the two buildings before him. It was only now that he noticed that they actually shared the same entrance. He would simply have to go in through the arched entrance and turn either right or left, once he got to the stairs. A simple decision really. But just imagine the consequences if he made a mistake. Lucian took the latest edition of Writer's Monthly and started to read. If he didn't get these thoughts of failure out of his head, he would have a massive panic attack. That was the last thing he needed, this morning. He was slowly calming down, when the town hall clock struck 7 o'clock. Just two more hours before he would be expected in one - no, in both - of these offices. And he still didn't have a clue which one to chose. As time passed, he realised that the only option open to him would be to toss a coin. He got out his wallet and searched for a coin. He found two. Which one should he use. They were different sizes, one being far bigger than the other. What if one of them falsified the results by coming down more often on heads than the other. He'd get it all wrong. No, he couldn't toss a coin.

He sat there on the bench and looked up. The two offices looked quite different, yet there was nothing in their aspect that made him favour the one over the other. At 8 o'clock lights started to appear in the various windows. Despite the spring coming early this year, it remained quite dark until 9 o'clock. Watching the lights coming on one after the other, he thought that would be his sign. He would examine the two offices carefully and see in whose windows lights would first come on. He only had another 5 minutes to wait. At 8.07 a secretary working for KLS flicked on the lights. Lucian had his sign. Unfortunately, he couldn't decide what the sign actually meant. Was he to chose that firm, or the other? The former seemed more conscientious as they arrived earlier. Would they work him too hard? Was Inkwell too lax, so that he wouldn't advance as he had hoped. How on earth was he to know?

So he remained seated on his bench. The clock struck nine and still he couldn't decide. Maybe, he should go home and try again tomorrow. Perhaps try phoning Sally again. Surely, something had to come up. 10 o'clock rang out. It woke him out of his lethargy. Now was the moment of decision. He got up and walked slowly across the road. He didn't run but he did step out determinedly. The time had come to make up his mind. For the first time in his life he would take a decision. He stepped past the few passers by and pushed open the big double door leading into the block. Left or right...? He still didn't know but kept on going down the passage towards the stairs. It was right now that he saw the advert that helped make up his mind. Arriving at the staircase he went neither left nor right. Instead he went down to the offices of the Castle Tower Job Agency. That's where he would go. They would find him his job.


One of the strangest keys in Halden's collection was the key to a Cardiff hotel room. He had bought this key at an auction. It was embedded into the cover of a small book which contained probably the strangest tale, you are ever likely to hear. Yet, it all began simply enough with an overnight stay in Cardiff.


It was the evening of March 18. The next day would see one of the most important games in the history of Welsh rugby. Wales had already won a first Grand Slam earlier in the decade and were now on course for a record breaking second Grand Slam. But between them and glory was match against arch-rivals France. Wales had beaten France before and confidence was high. The one problem was that this game was to be played in France, and winning in the Parc des Princes had eluded the Welsh princes for many a year. Like thousands of other Welsh fans I'd come down to Cardiff the night before the game. Unlike the others who could but hope for a spare, or resign themselves to watching the game in the bar, I actually had a ticket for the big game, as well as a plane ticket flying out of Rhoose airport early next morning. Not that I was admitting it to anyone. It would have been more than my life was worth. But I did join the others for the traditional pub crawl sing-song as we made our way around the town publicising our love for Wales and our confidence that we would put all-comers at our feet before the season was out.

I turned into my hotel room well after midnight and was soon sound asleep, having placed a wake-up call for 7 a.m. the next morning. I can't say when exactly the visitation came, and to be quite honest, for a long time I doubted even that it had come, but as the days and weeks went on, my doubts evaporated before the indisputable changes in my life. All I can remember was talking in my half-sleep to a man who stepped into my room and left a newspaper. It would be this newspaper that would make my fortune. What he looked like, who he was, where he was from, and above all, why he had picked on me, remained unanswered questions. Indeed, by the time my wake-up call came, I had completely forgotten all about the visitation. And yet, there was the newspaper he had promised me.

Despite my wake-up call, I was late, so I just tossed it into my bag on my way out of the room. It wasn't until I was safely seated in the plane that I took it out and started perusing it. So it wasn't until then that I realised something very strange had happened. This wasn't today's newspaper, at all. It was tomorrow's. I read through a number of sections, glancing at the headlines, all of which confirmed my first impression. How on earth had I got hold of tomorrow's newspaper, and more importantly, how could I be sure, that what it announced, was actually the truth. Up until now, I had resisted the temptation to flick to the back page and find out the result of the game. But resist I could no longer. It just wasn't in me. France 7 - Wales 16 it proudly announced, in both Welsh and English. The boys had done it. They had beaten the French on their own turf and captured that second Grand Slam.

It was only now that I thought of the possibility of turning my knowledge into a fortune. I could place a bet on the game. It was a certainty. I had the result before me. How could I lose? And yet, could I trust the paper? Was this not simply an elaborate hoax being played on me, to ruin me? On the other hand who would want to play such a hoax on me? It wasn't as if I was so rich, they wanted to bring me down a peg or two. And even if one of my friends were just pulling my leg, how did they manage to set up such a thing?

The thought went back and forth in my mind and soon formed one of the longest rallies in the tennis world. It was ended decisively when the captain announced, we would soon be coming into to land in Paris. The ball was in the "risk it" court. My mind was made up.

As soon as I got out of the airport, I searched for a bookmaker. He took my cheque without a blink of the eye. £ 5 000 - all I had. Everything on one pretty outside bet. That was my hope, because even if the stake was small, the odds would multiply my winnings. As for the bookmaker he probably thought it was easy money gained. Mind you, I wasn't in the least bit sorry to disappoint him some 5 hours later when I returned to claim my winnings. Wales had won 7-16. It was only now that I realised that in predicting the actual score my winnings were far larger than I could ever have imagined. I was a made man.

Well, celebrations went on until very late that night, so I had only been back in my room some five minutes when my mysterious visitor put in another appearance. I tried thanking it, and probing it with all sorts of questions. It didn't utter a word. It just left another newspaper. One glance sufficed. It was again tomorrow's newspaper. It was the eve of a famous Paris horse race, so first thing in the morning, I went out and placed all my winnings on the race, predicting this time the first three, in their finishing order. My winnings ran close to £1 000 000.

It was now I started to worry. I had always dreamt of breaking into society. Now I had the means to do so. But what if I never again saw my mysterious friend. Added to that was the fact making my fortune through gambling was hardly - as Lady Bracknell would say - conducive to gaining a recognised place in good society. I would have to change my profession. But what could I do, that would enable me to make good use of my advanced knowledge, without sacrificing my position. It was only when early Monday morning I got Tuesday's newspaper that I hit upon my idea. The Stock Market. That was the solution. The paper was full of financial news, little else having happened the previous day. That was what I'd do. I'd speculate, buying and selling stocks and making a huge profit. Call it gambling, if you like. Indeed, it probably was gambling. But wearing a black suit, top hat and going into the city every day with a dark umbrella, made it acceptable gambling. I had, at last, found my way in life.

My rise was meteoric. With my visitor how could it have been otherwise. Of course, I often tried to engage it into conversation. I wrote long letters, which I left on the table, I asked for a visiting card. But whatever I did, the being remained silent. And every morning I had but a vague recollection of its ever being there. But, as if to prove my doubts wrong, there was the newspaper, folded nicely into two, for me to read. Within a few weeks I was one of the richest stock-brokers in the country. Journalists phoned me up, begging me for interviews. Everyone wanted to know the secret of my success. I smiled gently and put it all down to intuition. I must have received more from my mother at my birth than from my father.

I began to get invitations of all sorts. I was to be seen in the best of houses, and was soon declared to be one of the most eligible bachelors in the country. The world was at my feet, and many a young lady too. And even my great indiscretion of announcing my engagement didn't change things. Suddenly I had gone from great favourite to public enemy number one, because 99.9 % of those mothers who were throwing their daughters at me, no longer had any hope.

Yes, I met my beloved at a big society ball. She was not one of those rich, young girls I had grown so scornful of. She was a simple governess to one of the country's greatest families. Yet, her beauty took my breath away. The moment I first set my eyes on her, I knew we were destined for each other. Our courtship was short, leaving little time for the press to discover what was going on before the announcement was made. And once made public the marriage would soon follow.

This, dear reader, is my mysterious and remarkable story. I am to be married tomorrow and I am spending my last night as a bachelor in that very same hotel room where my story began. Anita is waiting for me in a secret location, far away from the eyes of the world's press. The announcement of our marriage will not be released until several hours after the ceremony, when we are safely hidden away on an island paradise for our honeymoon.

Tonight, a strange thing happened. Determined to get one last try at discovering who my mysterious benefactor was, I determined to stay awake and confront him. With all my wits about me, I could surely force him to speak. He came at about 2.30 a.m. and despite all my efforts refused to answer even one of my questions. He just came into the room , folded the newspaper, and turned towards me. With tears in his eyes, he bowed slightly and said "Good Bye" before slipping slowly out of my presence.

I bounded over to the newspaper, convinced that the announcement of our wedding would make front page news. There was nothing there. I flicked through the other pages - nothing at all. It was only when I got to page nine that the following headline grabbed my attention:

Leading society figure found dead in Cardiff hotel room.

Hi folks,

I'd love to begin this story by introducing myself, but I'm afraid that's not possible, at least, it won't be possible until tomorrow. You see, I've not been born yet, so I don't know what my name is. I'm not even sure if I'm a girl or a boy, although I do have my suspicions on that one. Today, I want to tell you about something that happened, not only long before I was born, but long before I was even thought of. You might call it my fight for existence.

You see Mum and Dad had very little going for them. They lived thousands of miles apart in two different countries. They spoke two different languages and moved in very different circles. You can imagine the uphill task I faced in bringing them together. Now, I'm sure there are some sceptics out there, who feel that my story is too far-fetched to be true. An unconceived child can't do all the things I'm going to claim to have done here. So you think I'm making all this up. Well, just reflect a little. If it really is all made up, then imagine the amount of creativity required to make such a story work. If you attribute me, such an incredible creative faculty, then why can't you attribute me the same amount of creativity in actually bringing these things about, as opposed to merely making up.

Well, let me tell you, with all these obstacles facing me, I needed to get to work at once. The first thing to do, would be to make sure, that Mam and Dad would be able to converse with each other, if and when I succeeded in bringing them together. You see, Dad came from New zealand and Mam was from Austria, so somehow I had to get them to learn each other's language.

For Mam that was quite easy to achieve. German speakers love learning new languages, and most of them are required to take English at school. The moment Mam first heard the language, she fell in love with it, and spent all her spare time trying to find ways of improving her fluency. But as for getting Dad to learn German, that was another kettle of fish. In New Zealand people suffer from the same illness that exists throughout the English speaking world - an innate hatred and lack of interest in language learning. Let the whole world speak English - that's their motto. And since the whole world obliges by so doing, then why bother trying to learn any other language. I did, however, have one thing going for me. Dad was naturally inquisitive, and loved literature. He fell head over heels for Shakespeare the moment he heard his very first verses. So when he discovered, that such beautiful literature also exists in other languages, he jumped in with both feet. The problem was finding the right teachers. French was easy, as a number of French people had emigrated to New Zealand and were looking for teaching jobs. But German! And when I finally found one and got him up to the Northern Island, then Dad had already made his choice of second language, and decided to do Latin instead of German. I was devastated. How on earth was I to get him to learn German, now?

That's where the language teacher shortage played right into my hands. After just two years of learning Latin, their teacher decided to move on to new waters. And of course, they couldn't find anyone to replace him. So all those learning Latin had to move to either the German or the music class. Now, it's true that Dad loves singing, but the moment he opens his mouth then everyone else darts immediately for cover. So at last, I had him learning German and a second stroke of luck came when Dad won a scholarship to spend one year studying at a leading European university.

So with Dad busy learning German and on his way to Europe, it was time to get working on Mam again. She had made good progress in English and had even learnt a bit of French, but when it came to arranging her future studies, she turned her back on languages and decided to go for maths and biology instead. But I wasn't unduly worried. If I could just get them in the same place, then there would be plenty of opportunity to meet. And I knew exactly how I was going to bring that about. I had the key all ready. Mam took a long time in making up her mind, but in the end decided to go to university in Strasbourg. In so doing, she could begin studying biology but if she so wished, she could even move to medicine after the first year.

So with Mam in Strasbourg, the way was clear. What better place could there be for a language student majoring in French and German. It was also a major arts centre and sported several theatres, a first class opera house and some excellent music ensembles. All I had to do was put in a request in Dad's name for information about the city and the rest was child's play, the moment he got the brochures, his mind was made up. My plan was slowly coming to fruition.

Of course, it was not all plain sailing. Mam was a really pretty young girl and wherever she went, suitors followed close behind. I really had my hands full trying to keep them away and keep Mam concentrated on her studies. Added to that was the fact that Dad had a quick head, that turned at the sight of almost any pretty girl. And the moment he saw one, he believed himself madly in love with her. I suspect that in a previous life, Dad must have been the guy Shakespeare modelled his Romeo on, except that Dad wasn't quite as handsome as Romeo. Indeed, the more in love he was, the less likely the young lady in question was to take up with him. True, we did have one or two close shaves, but we negotiated most of them without too many problems.

Well, time was ticking on, and I decided it was about time to bring the two together. My first chance was when the world's greatest tenor gave a gala performance at the Strasbourg Opera House. As was his custom, a number of tickets were made available to young students at a fraction of the normal price. Both Mam and Dad snapped one up, but they were too far from each other to meet. Later that year, I got them both an invitation to a dinner party at a cosy little restaurant in the heart of the old city, but despite the fact that they were seated at the same table, they scarcely seemed to notice each other. Well, if normal means weren't enough, then I was going to have to try something drastic. A Europe-wide, multi-disciplinary conference was being organised with a view to bringing together some of the greatest thinkers on the continent to discuss the many problems the world was facing. But as well as featuring experienced and tried minds, a deliberate decision was taken to bring in younger, lesser-known talent from various disciplines. Both Mam and Dad were chosen in their respective fields and were to spend 5 days in Berlin discussing various issues with their fellow thinkers. Here was my chance. All I had to do was to bide my time and to bring about a mix-up with the hotel keys at precisely the right moment in time.

Dad was the first to arrive, and I managed to get a look at his key number - room 512. A nice glass of wine was enough to put the old porter off to sleep and I soon managed to obtain the spare key to Dad's room. A quick dash back to the reception just in time to see Mam arrive. A glance at the reception book revealed Mam had been given room 396, so I slipped the spare key to Dad's room into her pigeon hole and made off with the real key before anyone could discover what I'd done. Mam took the elevator up to the fifth floor and set off in search of her room. Just as she arrived in front of room 512 Dad came out and gave her the fright of a lifetime. Mam burst out into tears and the hotel security guard almost marched Dad off to the manager suspecting him of something untoward. But Mam soon calmed down and the mix-up was discovered. Later that evening an unusually shy Dad knocked on Mam's door to ask after her.

"Well, if I taken away your room, maybe you'll let me buy you dinner."

And from there it was all plain sailing. They saw each other every evening during the conference, and soon realised that they lived within just 2 kilometres of each other in Strasbourg. That summer Dad took a holiday to Vienna and spent every evening with Mam on the floors of the city's famous dance halls. They announced their engagement before the end of the year, and were married just two months later. My task was complete. All I had to do was sit back, wait nine months and... another nine months... and another nine months...

What on earth was wrong with both of them? It was when they started talking about adoption that I really started getting stared. And it was that self-same night under the starry heavens above Mam and Dad's holiday campsite that my waiting came to an end. The nine-months will be up tomorrow. That's when the fun will start.

Towards the end of October I received two important communications from the Town Hall in Gensdouce. The first informed me that my Resident's Permit was ready for me to pick up. Even in these modern times it had taken almost six months to deliver, a feat unseen in any other country. At last, I was now a fully recognised citizen of Gensdouce with the right to travel wherever I wanted throughout France. The second was altogether more surprising. It was an electoral card, issued in my name and authorising me to vote at the forthcoming municipal elections. This was obviously a mistake, for I was not a French citizen. I contacted Guillaume to ask what I should do about it. Of course, the obvious thing to do, would be to take it back to the Town Hall and explain the mistake. But Mayor Demille was still not favourable to my being in Gensdouce, and I didn't feel like providing him with a reason for trying to get me kicked out, especially just when I'd received the all-coveted residence permit. And who knows, the card may even have been a plot on his behalf to have me ejected. But Guillaume reassured me, it was nothing of the kind.

If plot there was, then it was one levelled at Margaret Thatcher and her determination determination to block any moves leading towards further European integration. The French government had decided that all citizens of the European Common Market, as it was then known, would be given the right to vote in local government elections. It was a move that brought anger from London but would have passed by Gensdouce unnoticed, if Javert Demille had not decided to sieze an opportunity to take another shot at me. This time he had to be careful, however. Campaigning for the election was heating up and Mayor Demille was claiming credit for one of the most innovating moves of his first period in office, the espace loisirs. If the truth were told, then not only had he had nothing to do with it, but had fought against it tooth and nail, claiming it was a waste of public money and if the people of Gensdouce wanted any culture, then they should go to Besançon for it. But with almost half the voting population of Gensdouce now members, it was being hailed as a great success. As a result, it would hardly be expedient to launch a personal attack on of the centre's teachers. Instead, in typical elephant like fashion he gave an interview on the local radio, to be reprinted in the next day's paper, attacking the government's policy which enabled good-for-nothing Britishers to vote in a country for which they cared but little, and against which they fought tooth and nail whenever they could, as could be seen in his own village of Gensdouce. A simple letter to the paper the next day informing him of the difference between the British and the Irish left the mayor with a fair amount of egg on his face.

But a third letter which arrived a few days later, was the cause of some considerable pain. It was news from Ireland and bore a black stripe around the envelope; news from my sister – my grandfather had died. It had all happened far too quickly for them to let me know in advance. He died peacefully in his sleep. He'd taken his usual glass of port before going to bed one night and never woken up again. I say the news caused me pain, but only because I knew I would never see him again. Knowing my grandfather he would already have taken heaven by storm and would be having the time of his life up there. He was that kind of a person. He'd always lived to the full. He was 97 when he died and he left a widow of 88. They'd been married 72 years... and each day better than the other, he'd always used to say.

I sat in my favourite armchair and relived the many experiences we'd had together. The card tricks he'd taught me, and the one whose secret he had never revealed. I'd never know how he did it now. The day we'd cycled into the hills and ransacked an old, unattended orchard, stirring up a hornet's nest in the process and counting ourselves lucky to get out intact. I remember him on his bicycle cycling off to mass every morning. He'd return with the day's shopping and after a hearty breakfast off he'd go again to get some more shopping for the old people who couldn't do it themselves. These old people were 10 – 20 years younger than him, but he could get out. But most of all I remember the wizard on the bowling green. He loved his bowls and played every day when the weather permitted. Before I was born, he had even represented Ireland at a number of international competitions. He'd been the member of Doylydawn bowls club, one of the greatest in the country and had won all there was to win there. Then, upon retirement he had dismayed all and sundry by moving to Whitebridge, their great rivals, where he had similar success. The one championship to have eluded him here, was the coveted singles title. After several attempts he got to the final just a few weeks before I left for France. The whole family gathered together for this final match when the heavens opened. Destiny had played its hand. The final was put off for one week and would now be played on the 2nd October, the day of his 60th Wedding Anniversary. True, when it was played the match was quite close; at one point it even looked as if Grandfather might lose. Had he done so however, there were several hundred supporters waiting to lynch his opponent, and I guess the intimidation was too much for the poor guy. Never mind, next year's championship would adequately compensate him for his loss. Today, the glory belonged to my grandfather.

It was after the match that he'd presented me with the key to the little box he'd given earlier that year.

“I'll not be around much longer, and I don't want my secret to go the grave with me.”

I stared at him wide-eyed. What secret could Grandfather have? His only reply was the devilish grin he reserved for those very special moments. He gave me the key, but made me promise not to open the box until he was gone. Now the time had come.

I went into my bedroom and took the little box from inside my bedside cabinet. It had pride of place there. I liked the idea of Grandfather being there beside me. Now it was something greater still, he'd be watching over me from heaven. I took the key and sat down upon my bed, slowly inserting it into the lock. I waited over half an hour wondering whether or not I should open the box. What if it's secret was something terrible, something that would change him in my eyes forever. I wanted to remember my grandfather as he was, not as he may have been about to become. Finally, I found the resolve to open the box. Surely, if Grandfather had given me the key, then it was not to have himself demeaned in my eyes.

Inside, was a small piece of paper. The moment I saw the first words written out in careful, deliberate handwriting which my Grandfather reserved for very special documents I burst out laughing. So this was his secret. In fact, it was no secret at all. It was the way he'd lived his whole life.

Andrew Frank's Secret of Longevity

Take per day:

  • one teaspoon of cod liver oil
  • one clove of garlic
  • one glass of port
I'd witnessed this ritual every evening for as long as I could remember. Now I understood its significance. Well, seeing as my Grandfather had lived for 97 years, 4 months and 13 days, then there must be something behind it. I'd start that very evening. Surely, Mme Bouclier would have all the necessary ingredients in her shop, and even if she didn't have the port, a trip to the pub would solve that problem. After all, Grandfather was up there in heaven having a great party with all the saints and angels, so why shouldn't I have a good time in his memory.

I put on my coat and left the house. It was a nice clear night with a nip in the air. Looking up, I wondered which of those stars Grandfather was exercising his charms on at that very moment, and I could swear, I saw one of them twinkle in reply.

I pushed open the door to the grocery store and was struck by an angelic vision. Just behind Mme Bouclier stood a creature so perfect and so wondrous, I couldn't take my eyes off her. She was tall and curvaceous, with long dark hair and a sparkle to her eyes.

“Simon!” greeted me Mme Bouclier.

But all I could do was stammer a few unintelligible sounds. I was smitten.

One of the smallest keys in Halden's collection was one bought for him by his father. It was the key to a small safe-deposit box. It came from an auction of personal effects of one of the country's biggest publishing houses. It was only years later that together, we discovered the story behind this insignificant little key.


And I make one final bequest to my grandson, James.
To him I bequeath the key to a safe-deposit box
with all its contents.

James never forgot these final words of his grandfather's will. It was the last thing he had expected. Indeed, he'd been quite taken aback at Mr. Dumont's insistence that he should attend the reading of the will, but he had not suspected anything like this. What did it mean?

His uncle and father were just as surprised as he. As far as they were aware, there was no secret treasure horde stashed away anywhere. Their father was a self-made man, working hard and earning himself a the few promotions he was given not so much through business skill and flare but through diligence and loyalty. Like most people of his generation he had spent frugally and saved furiously. Both boys had gone through college at the expense of any extra comforts their parents might have given themselves. Fortunately, they had both obtained business grants enabling them to further their education in post-graduate studies. This had enabled them to soften the later years of the father's life, especially after the death of their mother some 7 years since. But now, they were both curious and surprised as to the mysterious bequest.

James needed money. They all knew that. He had graduated from Oxford university with a first class honours degree in Classics and Literature. This was his passion in life and he wanted to share it with others. Already, he had organised several seminars at the library in their small, nondescript village. Nothing ever happened there, so they proved to be quite an event and James' abilities were widely proclaimed.

That's what had persuaded him to go into teaching. He was going to bring literature to the children of his classroom, he was going to teach them to read, to write and to enjoy both. His enthusiasm was boundless, his fall startling. It's not that he was a bad teacher, far from it. But what James didn't understand was that young people had other interests than Shakespeare and Molière. They didn't share his passion and he couldn't understand them.

James went back to live in Villanon his tail between his legs. He helped out occasionally with the writing group which had sprung up following one of his seminars, and wrote occasional book reviews for the local newspaper. He was even co-opted to the committee to appoint the new librarian to replace Mrs. Willis who after 45 years in the job was finally making way for some fresh blood.

Interestingly enough, he had not spoken in favour of Sarah Keyes. He had no doubt as to her professional capabilities and her references were excellent, but he wondered whether a small village library was really the right job for her. Life in Villanon could be stifling, and unless you came to terms with the unresponsiveness of its population, trouble lay ahead. Yet, she had proved him wrong, not only endearing herself to all she met, but also capturing James' heart with her simply unassuming way. James and Sarah were engaged within six months, and suddenly James found a new lease of life.

Following his failure as a teacher he had done nothing of real value. The book he had promised himself to write remained firmly locked up in the farthest recesses of his mind. Within weeks of his asking Sarah to marry him, he was putting the finishing touches to the first draught and sending it out to a number of London publishers, of which only one replied.

Several meetings took place, yet James never mentioned a word to any of us. When we asked about his book , he said he doubted it would ever be published. He did, however, spend more and more times walking through the hills with Sarah. It was obvious he had something on his mind and she had become his one and only confidante. It wasn't until a few months later that he came to see me at the bank. He needed money, somewhere in the region of £ 100 000. His publisher friend wanted to expand. He was on the point of making a great breakthrough and he needed a partner. James was that partner. As he sat there explaining this to me, I realised this was a different James than the one I had previously known. He was just as enthusiastic, but also more reflective, deliberate. He was determined, yet less headstrong. This was not the James that would fall at the first obstacle. This was the James that Sarah was forging.

Yet, there was nothing I could do for him. Our bank was going through a rough patch and a credit squeeze was on. There was no way I could justify a loan of one hundred thousand pounds £ 100 000 on the small security he could offer. It was not a pleasant task to tell him so, especially as we had been friends since for years. I recommended one or two other banks whom I thought might be interested. To be quite honest, it was me who was fighting back the tears. When he saw this, he took out an envelope and told me the story of his grandfather's strange bequest.

This was all the deposit-box contained,” he said warmly, gesturing me to open it. I did so. It contained a small coin and the following letter from his grandfather.


When I first came to this country after the war, I had nothing but the clothes on my back. In order to earn some money I went into a small tailor's shop and offered to clean the windows. He paid me with this penny. I went back the next day. I don't know what I expected. There were certainly no more windows to clean. The tailor was missing one of his trustiest workers. He never returned from the concentration camps. He offered me the job. It was a hard life, but I made it. I never spent that penny but always kept it to remind myself of what I had achieved. I bequeath it to you now, as a sign of my trust in your ability to master your world.


Grandad Leonard.


Hi everyone,

My name is Littlewood and I'm the author of this book. I'm really grateful that you've bought this book. You see, my wife and I are off to Geneva this weekend and we need the money that the sales of this book will generate. Last night we spent a couple of hours pouring over the computer looking for train prices, cheap accommodation, things to do places to eat, and a hundred and one other things you have to check out before leaving on a trip. After a lot of searching and discussion we just about had everything worked out. We'd leave on Friday morning take the car to Geneva where we'd spend the afternoon visiting the old city, and its wonderful, historic buildings. We would stay in a cheap motel just across the border in France and just 10 miles from the city itself. We could use public transport to get into Geneva, so all we had to do was find somewhere to park the car. Well! That's the reason I'm decided to write another book. One look at the car park prices sent us into doom and gloom. We stayed there for about an hour, before figuring something had to be done. So I'm writing my first book. I figure if I sell about ten copies of this, then we can just about cover the cost of parking our car. So, dear reader, before you stifle another yawn and wonder, what on earth motivated you to read this dribble, please think of the two of us on our romantic weekend in Geneva. You, in your kindness, are contributing to this.

So, I'm going to write a book. That's how I'm going to raise the money. But writing a book is easily said; actually doing it is not so easy. It requires a lot of time and thought. It's not to be just dashed off on the spur of the moment, event if that's precisely what I'm doing right now, hoping inspiration will come from somewhere. If I write a book, then it has to be about something. You all want to hear a story. Now I love story telling, and I'm not that bad at inventing stories. So why not try a book of stories. Sounds like a good idea to me. You see, a long, thought-out, well-planned novel with plots, sub-plots, characterisation, mood, themes - the kind of stuff that makes up real novels - that's all too difficult for me. I'm not there yet. But stories! That's another matter. So stories it is. I'm going to write a book of stories about... about what?

That's when fortune stepped in. Just as I was thinking what to write about, the doorbell rang. Of course, you don't always recognise fortune when it comes, and I wasn't exactly pleased at the interruption. As it happened, the interruption was to be short-lived. You see, it was just my friend Halden coming round to leave us the key to his apartment. Halden and I had spent 3 years together at university. We were inseparable in those days, and both found jobs in the same city. Even after our respective marriages we kept in touch regularly and our wives soon became good friends. Halden was off to Denmark for the week. His mother was half Danish had lived in Denmark until her marriage. She had gone back there following the death of Halden's father. Halden and Jennifer tried to visit her twice a year, as she had no other children. I'd promised to drive them to the airport the next morning, but he was, saying that would no longer be necessary. A colleague was off for a week's holiday to Spain, and they were driving to the airport and leaving their car at a relative's who lived close by. Halden and Jennifer would drive with them. So we shared a nice drop of brandy together - probably the true reason for the visit, since he could have said what he had to say on the phone - and Halden returned.

I rejoined Margaret in the living room. She was watching some tear-jerker on TV and I once again fell into thinking what on earth I could write about. It took a particularly corny advertisement on the TV for the penny to drop.

"Cornupia - your key to success," it ran.

Key, of course, I'd write about keys; Halden's keys. You see Halden had the most amazing collection of keys you'd ever seen. He'd been collecting them ever since he was a boy and he must have hundreds of the things by now. I remembered with what pride he'd opened up his box and shown me those first keys he had garnered here and there. We'd been together at university for a few weeks and he'd asked me down to the country for the weekend. His collection was still quite small at the time, but the light in his eyes showed how precious it was.

Then one day, the local antique dealer knowing his interest in keys, left him a small collection he'd found inside a piece of furniture he'd just taken possession of. That was when the collecting began in earnest, and before long Halden was scouring antique dealers and bric-a-brac merchants in the hope of finding more keys.

"Every key has a story." How often had he claimed that. It was his reason for collecting. Well, it was time to prove him right. If every key had a story, then I was the one to write those stories. I saw myself pouring over the collection. The car key with which the collection had begun; the key to the wine cellar of a famous chateau; the key to the door he'd received at 21; the cutout in the shape of a key, revealing, so it claimed, the key to a long life; the key to a chastity belt - now that would provide scope for the imagination. The list goes on and on... Hundreds of keys, hundreds of stories hundreds of flights of imagination. The difficulty would be knowing when to stop.

So before continuing with your reading, how about pouring yourself a drop of brandy and raising your glass to my friend Halden, without whom none of this would be possible. Happy reading!

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