H.E.Bates Short Story Competition

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First Prize Winner           Moira McGrath  -  The End


As our car pulled up outside the house, Tom and I exchanged a fleeting glance and I took a large intake of breath. We had come to see one of our best friends; in fact, Daniel had been our best man almost ten years ago to the day. As I applied a quick slick of lipstick, I knew it would be our final visit.

‘Here we go then.’ I pulled back my shoulders, fixed on a smile and walked up the path towards Daniel and Kate’s modest semi. Through the wrought iron side gate leading to their back garden, I noticed Daniel sitting hunched inside his shed. He had his back to us so was unaware that we could see him vomiting violently into a square, blue plastic washing up bowl. It’s strange how one remembers odd little details but looking back, I suppose it was only normal that I would want to capture every last image of this day.

Tom, Daniel and myself had met at University and through our shared love of drinking games, sport and doing as little study as possible, we realised that our three years would be unashamedly academically unproductive. I first became aware of Daniel in one of my English lectures. I had come in late and had managed to sneak into the end of a row next to him. He gave me that wry smile and silently slid a handwritten note to me: ‘Fancy a weekend with the climbing club in Snowdonia?’  was scrawled across a sheet headed Medieval English and Related Literatures 1066-1550.

‘Emma! Tom! Good to see you. Not sure where Dan is…around somewhere.’

‘In the shed. Throwing up,’ replied Tom as he placed a kiss softly on Kate’s cheek.

‘The effect of the drugs. He was on great form this morning.’

‘I’m on even better form now, having seen you two. Come here Emma, give us a kiss.’

As I hugged Daniel, I could feel his fragile, bony frame beneath his clothes and smell the lingering aroma of vomit on his breath.

‘Drinks, anyone?’ Kate was always the perfect hostess and as Tom presented her with a bottle of Moet, I thought back to when I first met her.

‘Well, what’s she like?’

‘Not his usual type.’

I had just got home after meeting Daniel and his new girlfriend in a wine bar in Ealing and although the three of us had left university five years previously, we still tried to catch up at least once a month. Daniel’s former girlfriends all seemed to fit a certain stereotype: tall, blond and ridiculously attractive (in a generic sort of way). This didn’t surprise either me or Tom since we both agreed that Daniel was incredibly charismatic: a witty raconteur, a talented musician and an outstanding sportsman. His good looks combined with his easy charm proved irresistible to most women. Tom once asked me if I thought that Daniel could ever be more than a friend to me. ‘I’m not beautiful enough for him,’ I replied. The topic was never raised again.

Looking at Daniel now, sipping his champagne, it was hard to imagine the person he had once been. The treatment had resulted in him losing his hair and it was difficult to ignore the large horseshoe shaped scar which seemed indelibly printed on the side of his head.

‘I’m now officially known as ‘the twat in the hat’ which is marginally better than people staring at my head.’

‘And wondering what hospital you’ve escaped from after your lobotomy.’ I was beginning to warm to the subject.

‘I also get to wear sexy elasticated support socks.’

‘Nora Batty, eat your heart out.’

Kate smiled as our banter continued. I sometimes wondered whether she was jealous of our relationship and our shared history. Had Daniel told her about the drunken night when he persuaded me to climb the university’s water tower with the rest of the mountaineering club. ‘In preparation for Snowden,’ he laughed as we scrambled up the red brick tower, oblivious of any danger. Or the time he bundled me into the side-car of his clapped out motorbike and drove like a madman for miles up the M6 before we ran out of petrol and had to hitch a lift back to the campus. Had she heard about all those freezing nights spent camping in a leaky tent pitched precariously on Snowdonian mountain ledges? Did she know any of it?

By now Kate had disappeared into the kitchen with Tom to prepare the lunch leaving the two of us trying to outdo each other with our attempts at black humour.

‘The worst part was waiting for the results of the brain scan. Spent most of those weeks crapping myself.’

‘Not a pretty sight.’

‘Anyway, the outcome was inevitable. Had the tumour removed a couple of weeks later. They said I might lose some co-ordination…’

‘Wouldn’t make any difference to your footballing skills. You were always rubbish in goal.’

‘…And some memory loss. Now, where was I?’

Gradually, our conversation started to take on a more serious tone. Daniel continued.

‘The biopsy confirmed it was melanoma. I had two lesions excised. Lying still for three hours while some spotty young twenty-year-old doctor does an archaeological dig in your back is no joke.’

‘Could’ve been worse. Could have been Tony Robinson and his Time Team.’

Two years before he met Kate, Daniel had been staying overnight with us in Chiswick. He had an interview in central London the next day for a teaching position in an international school in Madrid. Tom and I always suspected that Daniel would end up working abroad; after all he was a free agent: no partner, no children and he’d never been particularly close to either his sister or his parents.

‘When I get the job, you’ll be my first guests.’

‘Nothing like a bit of confidence,’ I said as we headed out of the flat the following morning.

‘And Dan, let us know how you get on.’

He never made it to Madrid. When I returned to the flat that evening after work, I was shocked to see Daniel, in obvious pain, slumped against our front door. He was still dressed in his interview suit with his brief case by his side.

‘My chest, he wheezed. ‘Can you get me an ambulance?’

Later that evening at St Thomas’s Hospital, it became apparent that Daniel’s lung had collapsed and a chest tube would need to be inserted into the pleural space between his ribs.

‘Bloody painful,’ he replied when I asked him how it felt. ‘Oh and by the way, can you bring me a packet of Benson and Hedges when you come and visit me tomorrow?’

Kate took the lasagne out of the oven as Tom opened a bottle of Merlot.

‘You know he’s insisted on finishing the grouting in the kitchen. Been going like a maniac since his last consultation.’

‘Can’t have done his dodgy knees any good.’ Tom had begun decanting the wine into four bulbous glasses.

‘He’s booked The King’s Arms for afterwards. And he’s chosen the songs.’

‘Yeh, he told me. ‘Highway to Hell,’ ‘Another One Bites the Dust’ and ‘Burning Ring of Fire’.

Kate looked at Tom as if to say, ‘That’s Dan for you,’ before continuing.

‘Did he tell you he’d been driving? He wouldn’t be insured if there was an accident. Can you have a word with him, Tom?’

‘Maybe leave that to Emma.’

After lunch when Daniel got out his guitar, I felt a coldness creep along the back of my neck. I knew what was coming. The University’s live music evenings invariably ended with him surrounded by a gaggle of admiring women begging him for one last song. Of course, being the perfect gentleman, he always obliged before choosing the girl who would spend the rest of the night with him.

As Daniel began to play, I recognised the tune immediately; it was one of his original melodies. A warm sadness seeped into my consciousness as I realised that I would never hear that song again. He knew it was my favourite.

‘So what happens now, Dan?’ I asked as Kate scraped the remnants of the lasagne onto one plate.

‘They’ll leave my lumps alone. Said they’d only touch them if they become a nuisance.’

‘What, as in trip over them?’ I quipped.

‘As in it’s got to a stage where the cells are sub-dividing. More small tumours will appear.’

‘Is there anything else the doctors can try?’

‘Like shark’s cartilage? Vietnamese pot-bellied pig marrow? Vegan stew? Nah, I don’t think so.’

Sharing a student house with Daniel was never dull and in later years, Tom and I would often reminisce about the outlandish stunts he initiated: forming a five-metre-high human pyramid (with me on top) whilst several of our friends drove their motorbikes at high speed around us in the back garden; the all night cellar parties, often interrupted by a visit from the local police, and the infamous human cannonball escapade.

However, Daniel could also be incredibly irritating. He was fastidiously tidy which often resulted in spectacular rows especially when the cleaning rota was discussed. These arguments were soon resolved over several bottles of cheap red wine and the odd joint or two. He could be selfish, arrogant, stubborn and confrontational but he was also a loyal and supportive friend. He even helped me make sense of my numerous failed teenage relationships.

‘Better to have loved and lost, than never to have loved at all.’ He was so sensitive and sagacious, I thought. He dispensed this advice prior to our Tennyson module.

It was now late afternoon and the November sun was beginning to sink lower behind the garden shed. After lying motionless on the settee and staring blankly into space for some time, Daniel had taken himself upstairs to bed. According to Kate, he was now sleeping in the spare room: his choice.

‘Better say goodbye to him before we head off. Are you ready to go, Tom?’

As Tom nodded in agreement, I noticed an almost imperceptible twitch at the side of his mouth.

‘He’s probably watching the match,’ said Kate as she began to gather up the empty wine glasses.

‘Selfish bastard. Could have made more effort to entertain his guests.’ I couldn’t resist one final attempt to make light of the situation.

‘He was so pleased when you phoned to say you were coming,’ Kate responded gently. ‘He wanted to make a real effort for you. For both of you.’

Tom had turned to look through the patio doors out onto the garden. He was still. He was crying. ‘You go up to see him, Emma. I can’t let him see me like this.’

The television in the single bedroom was showing a football match but the room was unnaturally silent. Daniel’s glassy eyes followed mute men around a pitch and as I entered he lifted his head slightly and smiled.

‘Hold my hand, Em,’

I sat on the edge of the bed caressing his clammy hand, trying to avoid making eye contact. I had to break the heart-rending silence.

‘Look after yourself, Dan. No sneaking out to Stringfellows.’

‘I might get mistaken for Peter.’

‘Both wrinkly old geezers with dubious hairstyles.’

Daniel laughed weakly as he slowly let go of my hand.

‘I’ve had a great day today.’ He paused briefly, and with his wry smile added, ‘I must die more often.’

I stood up slowly, ran the back of my hand tenderly along his cheek, turned and without

looking back, closed the bedroom door quietly behind me.



Second Prize Winner      William Brakes  -  Hokeham St. Thomas


Hokeham St Thomas is an anomaly, an aberration. Saying that reminds me of Oliver, as do most things.

My daily journey into the city takes a little over an hour. It’s a fast train, stopping only at major towns, those jewels in the commuter belt. With one exception. In addition, in both directions, it stops at Hokeham St Thomas.

Which is not a major town.

The station platform has seen better days. It has stray strands of withered grass breaking through cracks in the tarmac and it’s too short to accommodate the full length of our train. As far as I am aware, as far as I have seen, no-one ever gets on or gets off when we stop there. But every day, twice a day, for some reason that escapes me, the fast city train stops at Hokeham St Thomas.


Oliver would have celebrated his first birthday this month. But he escaped.


Lately I’ve been thinking about escape. Probably it was the anniversary that triggered these thoughts. It brought it all back – that’s what you’re expected to say – although to be honest it has never gone away.

You can’t explain it. There’s a constant aching that underpins everything and also overlies everything. You see, I said it couldn’t be explained.

So what did I want to escape from? I wasn’t exactly sure until this morning. Then I realised that what I needed to get away from was everything: yes work, yes marriage, yes memories, but also the other ingredients of my life, my life itself needed to be replaced by something else. On the journey to work this morning I had a moment of clarity, when I saw the commuter line as symbolic of the life I needed to escape from, the treadmill if you will, and Hokeham St Thomas as the gateway to a different type of future.


By the time he had existed for one month, my son – we hadn’t chosen the name Oliver then, not knowing he was a boy – my son had already achieved the size of a small worm, a tadpole, a peanut, and had acquired a beating heart.


It has been stiflingly hot in the train this evening and the carriage has been packed with hot, odorous bodies. I’ve been standing by the door, my  briefcase between my feet, computer under my arm, newspaper folded to the crossword; wedged between some kid, nodding to tinny music, buds in his ears, and a chunky, thirty-something woman with glasses immersed in a thick paperback. Some of those lucky enough to find seats had their computers open and were tapping away. Everyone else seemed locked into their phones. I loosened my tie, wiped my brow with the back of my hand; I looked out of the window and thought about how much I hated the heat, the humidity and the stink of humanity, hated the day I had come from, hated the evening I was heading for.

And that’s when I made my decision.

We stop at Hokeham St Thomas, as usual. I open the door and step onto the platform, slamming the door shut behind me. The train leaves the station.

I am alone on the platform. Already I feel cooler, freer, looser. I have never been to Hokeham St Thomas before. It is such a desolate place that it would be easy to believe no-one else has ever been here either. I walk through the empty waiting room.

There’s a lane running alongside the track, no people, no traffic, just a narrow road with hedges and grass verges, a few trees and the scent of foliage. A signpost points to the left: it reads ‘Hokeham St Thomas’. I walk in the other direction, to the right, slowly, with gentle steps so as not to disturb the quietude. There are no houses, no telegraph poles, no street lights, none of humankind’s footprints. After a hundred metres or so I see a wooden gate on the left, hanging by one hinge, and a finger-post points through the bushes, saying simply ‘Footpath’. I step away from the tarmac of the road onto the rough stoniness of the footpath. The path runs straight for a while, then bends sharply to the right and leads on to another straight section. It’s wide and flat, the walking is easy, the air is delicate and my mind is emptying.

I walk slowly but with purpose.

It’s half an hour now since I left the train and I’m beginning to feel the separation releasing me, lifting me, bringing cool calmness. I stop and sit down on a triangle of grass just off the path, I clutch my knees to my chest, raise my face to the sky and close my eyes. I breathe. I wait. I wait for my thoughts to catch up with this new style of existence.

I am not a country person. I am no lover of farm smells, of patchwork hills, of muddy lanes, of birds or animals, of exotic plants or woodland. The attraction of this alternate setting is nothing to do with it being in the country, it is simply that it is somewhere different, it is alternate, not the same. It provides me with all that I need: peace and freedom and unboundedness.


By the time my son Oliver was two months old he had acquired facial features – eyes and nose and mouth – and he was working on building some muscles. He had grown to be over two centimetres tall. His head was almost as big as his body. He had a brain so he could begin to think.


I open my eyes. There is no-one in sight. There are no sounds. The smells are open and light. The breeze is a silky brush across my face. This is all good.

I stand up with my computer in my hand and hurl it like a Frisbee over the hedge. I do not see it hit the ground but it would be appropriate were it to have landed in a cowpat. I take my wallet and my phone out of my pocket and place them on the grass. I take off my jacket and tie and toss them both over the hedge. I take off my shoes and socks and launch them too, as far away as I am able. I unbutton my shirt and pull it free of my trouser-belt. I sit back down, my wallet in my back pocket, my phone in my fist.

There’s a field with a crop of tall cereal spread out before me: it looks ready to harvest, but I could be wrong. I know nothing about the rules and conventions of this setting, and that too is a good thing.

I delete the messages on my phone without reading them. Then I launch my phone over the hedge so that it joins my computer and my clothes and I sit back down.

This is not about my wife. This is not about work, promotion, career path, redundancies. It is not about stuffy trains. It’s not about the state of the nation, the state of the world, global warming, nuclear weapons. This is not about Trump or Brexit or Isis or so-called talent shows on TV. This is nothing to do with those friends who have died or those who persist. This is not about my family, my wife’s family, my dogs (past or present), the days of gold or the days of dust. This is not about drinking too much or abstaining, smoking or not smoking, putting on weight or worrying about getting fat. This is not about fitness or the lack of it. This is not about gardening, the lawn that always needs cutting, the weeds that keep multiplying, this is not about DIY done badly; this is not about car maintenance. It is not about Christmas, not about Christmases past or Christmases to come. It is not about house prices or interest rates or debts or loans. It is not about switching service providers. This is not about the internet. This is not about medical check-ups. This is not about happiness or sadness, not about sex and of that I am certain. This is not about being selfish or being unselfish.

It’s not about me.

It’s not about them, any of them.

The truth is, this is not about any of those things, it’s about the whole fucking lot, along with the many millions more things that will occur to me at any moment if I don’t block them out. All the fragments of life in their myriad combinations, in their proliferation and all-pervasiveness, in their never-ending, overwhelming, inter-connected fucking complexity: that is what I must escape from. I want simplicity. I want emptiness. I want nothing, zero, zilch.


By the end of his third month, Oliver had grown four limbs and he was nearly ten centimetres tall. He had functioning organs of various kinds. He could put his thumb into his mouth.


I sit on the grass and I wait. Slowly the earth revolves around its axis and this particular patch of the world is turned away from the sun. The amount of refracted light diminishes, the shading of blues across the sky fades and clouds thicken. By the time night properly arrives the sky is black. No moon, no stars. I find this blankness pleasing. I am able to draw this blankness into my body and mind and it is soothing. I am no longer hot, but neither am I cold: this also I find pleasing. I am alone, in isolation, and that is the fact that pleases me most. I lie down and fall asleep. I do not dream.


Later the earth has turned further and the sun shines once again on Hokeham St Thomas. Birds wake up and spread the news about the dawn through their song, so that I, in turn, am awoken. I stand up. I am still alone. I am still calm.

I take my wallet from my pocket. It contains credit and debit cards, various receipts and other slips of paper, membership cards, loyalty cards, my driving licence, an obsolete AA membership card and a few ten and twenty pound notes. I have no need of any of these things, nor of the aspects of life they remind me of. I throw the wallet into the field of corn.

I retrace my steps from yesterday, feeling smooth and relaxed, taking pleasure from the continued solitude. I arrive back at the station. It is still deserted. I jump off the platform. Choosing a direction at random, I walk along the track. I admire the precision of the parallel lines that stretch toward the horizon and the way the sleepers, lying between the rails, count the steps to infinity with such precision. I have escaped.


When Oliver was twenty weeks old, he decided he’d had enough. The effort to grow further, to prepare himself for the trauma of birth, to face the consequential years of complicated life: this future he rejected. He’d already had enough. He decided not to do what they all wanted him to do. I sympathise with his decision; I support his choice.


Most of the fast city-bound commuter trains stop at Hokeham St Thomas, but the first one of the day, on the up-line, does not. It travels along the curve of track that passes through Hokeham St Thomas at around 90 mph, without stopping. There is no reason for the driver to imagine that there might be anyone walking along the railway line at that time of the morning. By the time he glimpses the figure of Oliver’s father on the track, by the time his brain interprets what he sees, it is too late. He applies the brake but its effect is insufficient to slow the train to any significant degree. The train ploughs into the instantly shattered body and drags what remains of it for eighty metres along the track.



Third Prize Winner     Karen Baker  -  Hijab


We are muffled up against the frost, my son and me, and as we board the bus our breath steams out of us. Once settled into our seats for the sixty minute journey, we snuggle into each other for warmth and comfort.

My son is not yet five, not yet at school. He takes his book from my bag for us to look at together and as we turn the pages I read the words out loud as they appear two or three at a time, strung beneath bright tableaux of everyday events. My son's questions about these happy scenes are hesitant, uncertain, nervous, as if to him the antics of the dog, the family in their car or the children going to school are knife-edge performances for which the direst consequences are a distinct possibility for the protagonists. He wonders in earnest whether the dog will chase its ball into the road and under a car ...  On the way to the park, will the children get kidnapped? That's not his word - yet it seems that beyond the edge of every picture, a 'bad man' lurks, ready to ruin lives.

His anxiety breaks my heart. I try to address it lightly but head-on with motherly assurance. The knock-on for me, though, is the resurrection of my own sadness and dizzying trauma - and wondering how much he remembers. He was only six months old when it all began, but who knows how much little ones recall subconsciously?  I'm thankful his sleep seems restful, but in the daytime I often see a nightmare behind his eyes. I have considered this could be my own nightmare, a projection of my own fears. Those questions I perceive in his tight little features – could they be mine? What if I'm planting the seeds of insecurities that will swamp him as he grows? While dealing very carefully with his emotions I find it a challenge to maintain an even keel as I strive constantly to establish some semblance of normality within our life together, as we chart our way forward.

Oh, loving him is so easy... I draw him close to me, pull off his woolly bobble hat, kiss the crown of his silky hair and try not to tremble as the bus pulls up at the next stop.

Several people get on and two of them take seats close to us. In front of us, a man occupies one of the raised benches behind the driver - those high-up perches I always avoid because the sideways motion makes me nauseous. The other passenger is a large, dour and familiar matron who settles in her usual place across the aisle slightly ahead of us. I see her quite often on this the 9.30am bus into town. She usually gets off where we do, near the library. We have never spoken.

"Shall we put the book away for now?"

The eyes of my darling little boy are large and dark in his pale face as he closes the book and pushes it towards my bag. I put it away then pull him into my lap. His tiny frame reminds me of a hatchling and as he leans into me my arms encircle him, protective. We pass through the glorious, spectacular landscape and, as ever, I'm awed by the mountains through which we cut. They are flecked, just now, with drifts of snow but their sweet, vibrant green still prevails. For me, that green is the signature of this whole land. It fills me and feeds my soul - as it has since I was first overwhelmed by its radiance when I came here as a student direct from the desert, only ten years ago.

I was proud, then, to be accepted by the University of London and an inundation of advice rained down from congratulatory friends and family who had already been on British soil. They all extolled the virtues of the countryside.

"It's so GREEN" was the mantra I came to expect from them all.

My thoughts pause to make way for the internal spasm which can still take me by surprise when I think of my home. Where are all those people now? Scattered, I fear - at best - and I do so hope the best for them, but many have probably ... I blink away the threat of tears.

I pull myself together and drink in the green - if only for the very sake of those who populate my memories. Regretting now having been so irritated by their claims, I remember my retort to them:

"We have green cypress woods and olive groves," and also my youthful annoyance that they'd seemed to imagine I was leaving the planet.

"Just wait," was ever the reply. "You have never imagined green like it ..." And then when I got here I found the rich emerald was indeed a whole world away.

That very first journey, overland by Tube from the airport, had been a revelation. Surreal and vibrant beyond belief - as if the colour had its own life! - it inhabited fields along with the fat, contented animals which ate it. After the desert, it was almost blinding and thus I discovered my treasured olive groves were indeed not green at all. The remembered innocence makes me smile. It was a lifetime ago.


"Look! The sheep are coming down for their breakfast." We watch a Landrover approach the gate to a field. "That's the farmer - see? He's brought their food. Look - he's putting it into the troughs so everyone gets some." He watches with concern, my baby, until the bus takes us past them.

"Did they sleep in the snow? On the mountain, all night?"

"Yes, but Nature is very clever. They have thick wool coats to keep them warm" and I make a mental note to take him to a neighbouring sheep farm to see for himself. For now, though, we test his scarf and his hat and the gorgeous handwoven square on my head to prove the warmth of their coats. I watch him considering the possibilities of sheep welfare before I glance into the malevolent hostile glare of the nearby male passenger. My hand flutters instinctively to my throat to check the security of my scarf fastening.

"You're in Britain - why can't you learn to bloody speak English?"

His contemptuous aggression shocks me and for several moments I'm stricken. How dare this man, this stranger, speak to me like this? How dare he invade the intimacy of a mother and her child? What does he know of my life?

My stunned immobility is shattered by my heart beating against my ribs and drumming up my anger. It rises, revving, from the soles of my feet - a St Elmo's flame of it that sears a sense of injustice into every last atom of my being. This man has no notion of what brought me here - of how I am making a new life away from my ancestral home ...  It never featured in my plans nor my worst imaginings that in a single day I would witness my husband beaten to death in the street and then - before we could bury him - endure a direct bomb strike which killed my little daughter. The grief of it threatens debilitation but a looming sob is easily displaced by the ferocity of my inner fire.

The surfacing of this man's entrenched conclusions as he makes his cursory assessment of us are possibly media driven. Yet somehow that possibility sharpens the barbs of the insult and worsens the pain inflicted. We are made worthless by his refusal to give us any deeper thought. His herd instinct is clearly as fine-tuned as that of those sheep running on cue for their breakfast.  Does he think he's going to feast on me and mine?  

I do speak English. I teach it. Ironically my achievements with this wonderful language form the very reasons we find ourselves here now. This particular place with its healing properties, peace and bracing air called me back when we so desperately needed sanctuary after the disasters which had befallen us. Ten short years ago – as yesterday - I first discovered this beautiful haven when its systemic serenity and community spirit touched me deeply. I never forgot, little knowing that its discovery would be, one day, a homecoming and that it would receive me, open-armed, in my hour of need.

It was strange to me, back in the day, when I observed that women here routinely wore headscarves. I made an instant association with the hijab prevalent at home. Voluntarily worn for religious reasons, it was attire that I had suddenly recognised as symbolic. To my very young mind, it represented a warm welcome, stability, being mothered, fabulous cooking! A deep-seated impression, I discovered, that provided a backdrop to my inner security - essential for me, but a  rare sight here, at that time. I truly missed that familiar, comforting sight of older women in scarves. The Grandmothers. Missing them made me very homesick.

Then I discovered this place where a large square of woven fabric or a knitted shawl, traditionally served to insulate against the harsh mountain climate. I gathered – and loved the fact - that over generations the headscarf became a badge of the stoic endurance of  the women and their strength within the community. Varying the reason for wearing it, didn't stop my rejoicing to find my key to memories of home. I badly needed the symbolism. It find it sad that now, while the hijab itself has increased in evidence in this country, few local women wear their own version, fallen as it has from fashion and favour.

For all that, it isn't usually part of my own attire either, yet, here - now - today, the scarf I wear to counter the elements meets with ill-conceived judgement.  I watch – everything in slow motion - as the man synthesises his supposed power. I see that his empty raging against someone he supposes to be helpless, puts him on a roll. His gaze sweeps fellow passengers for approval as he grows a full two inches on his imagined moral high ground.

I draw a deep breath to quell my hyper-ventilation and engage my wits. Besides with my little boy so close - an extension of me - I must disguise the high charge of my defensive emotion.

Before I can shape my first retaliatory syllable, my endeavour is quietly, gloriously and triumphantly thwarted by the emphatic, musical tones of the grande dame across the aisle.

"She's on Welsh soil" she points out "and she's speaking Welsh. Can you do that?"

My adversary is hoisted at every level by his own ignorance. His metaphorical fall from his perch of delusion besets him with self-inflicted confusion and he presses the bell to get off the bus at the next stop. The Middle of Welsh Nowhere is very remote and the woman catches my eye as he goes. She winks, without expression, and vapourises the anger in my soul. The minimalism of her gesture, so vast in reach, makes me smile as I pull my little Youssuf close, into my coat.

"Was that man angry with us?"

"No. He was upset."

"Because of us?"

"No, because of himself."

I glow for the rest of the rest of the journey warmed by the motherly, protective solidarity of a stranger.

I pull my son's hat back on over his dark hair - the library is looming - and as we clamber off the bus I drag off my scarf and shake my own hair loose to savour the invigorating, cleansing, icy blast.

I turn back to see my saviour. She has also alighted and I smile at her as she ties her scarf beneath her chin.