Our reviewer for the challenge was Paul Newton-Palmer who is in the final agonising all-consuming throes of publishing his first book. Paul has an MA in Creative Writing from the University Chichester, UK. He is also an accomplished short story writer and has a high interest in poetry, although, he stresses, he is primarily a novelist. His first crime thriller will be released shortly.

The challenge for April/May was open, that means it could be about anything in any genre and style. The only constraint was to start the story with the letter ‘D’. We had five delightful entries that our reviewer Paul, said he found a pleasure to read. He has provided detailed and insightful commentary to each of the writers, that I think they have found both useful and encouraging.

I shall place a photograph of Paul as soon as I receive one.

Here, without further ado are the stories in the order I received them:

I Spy with My Little Eye Something Beginning with D

By Glen Stansfield

“Dragons’ eggs?”

“Yes, in a cave.”

“There’s no such things as dragons,” Danny said.

“Is too, and I found their eggs – in the sand.”

“How big are they then?”

“Not that big, but I know they’re dragons’ eggs, ‘cos, – ‘cos they’re all knobbly.” Brian was confused. He thought Danny would be excited by his news.

“They’re probably seagull eggs.”

Sometimes, Danny didn’t know why he bothered with Brian. He was only eight, Danny was ten and so much wiser, almost grown up, or so he thought.

“Bet you’ve not even found a cave.”

“Did so too. At the far end of the beach.”

When the war ended, two year old Danny met his father for the first time. Brian hadn’t quite been born; the product of a forty-eight hour leave pass, eight and a half months earlier. Living next door in their two-up, two-down terraced houses, it was inevitable the pair would grow up together. They spent hours kicking a football around the streets, or playing cricket with an old bat and a ragged tennis ball. And despite the numerous warnings from their parents, they would sometimes play on one of the bomb-sites still littering that part of Coventry.

“Show me.”

“Now? We can’t go to the beach on our own Danny. We’ll get into trouble.”

“I suppose, but when we go this afternoon you’d better show me that cave, or else.”

Their fathers worked together before the war, employed as handymen in the nearby Alvis factory. After demobilisation they started a business in the building trade. Plenty of that to be done in post-war Britain, especially in a heavily bombed city like theirs.

They did well for themselves, and after so many years of hard work, arranged to take their families on a well-deserved holiday. Two weeks on the south coast of England, in the county of Dorset.

“I still say you’re making it up,” said Danny.

Brian responded the way little boys do when doubted. He thrust his hands in his pockets, pouted his lips, looked at the ground and scuffed the toe of one shoe on the floor. A little boy in a sulk can be difficult to deal with, for a minute or two. Then they forget all about it and move onto something new.

Brian tapped Danny on the shoulder and shouted “You’re it!” starting yet another game of tag. Brian set off along the boarding house corridor, squealing in delight with Danny in pursuit.

ooOoo

Even though on holiday together, the two families agreed from the outset they would not spend all their time in each other’s company. After all, the two men worked alongside each other, and their wives, being next door neighbours, spent a lot of time together. A little time apart would do them no harm. And that is how Brian had found himself wandering the beach without Danny.

The previous afternoon, his parents decided to spend a bit of time in the sun, while Danny’s parents took him on the bus to Weymouth to do some souvenir shopping.

Brian didn’t like sitting still in the sun. He soon got restless and wandered off along the beach.

“Don’t go out of sight,” his Mother called.

“I won’t.”

He went further than he intended. At the end of the beach, he clambered over the rocks beneath the cliff face and that’s where he came across the entrance to the cave.

A hundred and fifty feet high, and jutting out some fifty feet, a rocky outcrop protruded from the rest of the cliff, as if trying to reach the sea. It formed a natural barrier between the beach and the continuing shoreline. From a distance it looked to be a part of the rock face. It was only when you got close you realised it was there.

In the corner, between the promontory and the cliff was a dark hole, visible only when you had passed by and looked back towards the town. A sandy patch stretched from the sea and extended into the cave as if someone had cleared a path.

Like all young boys, Brian had a fascination for things he knew might be dangerous, so he slowly made his way towards the void. He was aware things were different here. The sea was quieter somehow. He was becoming uncomfortable, but his curiosity got the better of him.

Cautiously, he went inside, hesitating at each step. He had no intention of going too far. It wasn’t a shallow cave. A dark, gaping hole, both beckoning and intimidating at the same time. He would go inside for a few steps, no more. As he did so, he tripped over something sticking up out of the sandy floor. Two egg shaped objects, partially buried, knobbly and green, and very strange. Brian bent down to take get a better view.

The squawk of a gull echoed in the cave, startling Brian, and he fled before he had chance to examine what he was now sure were dragons’ eggs. They were smaller than he expected, maybe this was a small dragon. He wasn’t going to look again. The noise had spooked him. He wouldn’t go back in there until Danny came with him, and wouldn’t he be surprised when he saw the eggs. Brian couldn’t wait.

He scrambled back across the rocks and back onto the beach. His Mother was looking for him and he waved, she beckoned for him to come back.

“What did I tell you?”

“I only went on the rocks, Mum. I could still see you.”

“Well I couldn’t see you, so you can stay here now.”

“But, Mum…”

“Brian, don’t argue with your Mother,” came a voice from under the newspaper. And with that Brian sat down and began digging a hole with his spade.

ooOoo

In the afternoon both families gathered up the beach mats, buckets and spades, and all the other paraphernalia that makes for a pleasant afternoon in the sun, and set off for the beach. Pleasant for the adults that is. A bucket and spade was all the average child needed as long as there was an ice-cream van nearby.

After half an hour, Brian could take no more.

“Can me and Danny go beachcombing?” he asked.

“You better not disappear like yesterday.”

Brian knew better than argue. That would be the quickest way to get the answer ‘no’.

“We won’t. Promise.”

Despite Danny’s thoughts about him being young and inexperienced, Brian wasn’t stupid. If he and Danny made a bee-line for the cave, his Mother would suspect something. So with all the wiles an eight-year old can muster he grabbed Danny by the arm.

“Come on, let’s go down there.” He pointed with his free hand towards a patch of dried out seaweed, a hundred yards away on the tide-line.

“I thought we were…”

Danny got no more of the sentence out as Brian stamped on his foot and nodded his head towards the four adults lying on the beach mats.

“Ouch.”

Though not happy about the method of silencing him, he knew Brian was right. Maybe he was a bit more grown up than he thought.

After ten minutes of rummaging in the sand-fly-ridden seaweed, the pair checked on the nearby adult supervision. No signs of life, other than the occasional wave of a hand to ward off a particularly persistent fly.

They worked their way along the tide-line towards the cliffs and soon reached the promontory. Every few steps they paused to check on the adults.

Danny knew you couldn’t rely on adults, they were always doing the unexpected. This time they didn’t spoil things. They wouldn’t be long at the cave. Just enough time to prove Brian wrong about the eggs.

“Brian! These aren’t eggs you idiot, they’re hand-grenades.”

After gently removing the sand from around the two green orbs, Danny had his suspicions confirmed when he saw the release mechanism. He had seen hand-grenades in pictures his dad brought back from the war in North Africa.

“They must have been left over from the war. My Dad says they did exercises all along the coast. He says they practised for D-Day somewhere around here.”

“Are you sure?”

“Of course I’m sure. We need to get out of here and tell someone. We could be blowed up.”

“I was sure they were dragons’ eggs,” said a disappointed Brian.

“I told you. There’s no such thing.”

Something moved inside the cave. They both froze. Something being dragged across the sand.

“Don’t be too sure about that,” said a deep, resounding voice from inside the cave. It resonated and echoed, in their bodies as well as their ears.

The boys were motionless, their eyes wide and their mouths open.

A light flickered, seemingly floating in the air. A flame, building in brightness until they could see it reflecting off the gold and blue iridescent skin of what was unmistakably a magnificent specimen of a dragon.

— The End —

Dear Vikki 

Seumas Gallacher

It was more than fifty years ago now, but it’s as clear in my mind as if it were yesterday.

At fourteen, most of my non-school hours meant kicking a football with my pals on the spare ground close to our home in the Glasgow slums. An open piece of grass where piled jackets served as goalposts, was bounded by tenement buildings. On weekends, the noise of up to twenty or more of we lads reverberated for hours. Somehow, we never felt tired. One of the buildings which housed exclusively older, retired folks overlooked our makeshift pitch. Singletons all, either spinsters or widowed individuals, well beyond even the age that I’m now skirting with, they lived in a comfortable, protected environment.

One day I heard a call from the third-floor balcony of the unit facing where we played. A petite, white-haired lady waved to me, and beckoned me to come up. It was the first time I met her. Miss Kerr. Even at this distance of time, I know she must have been approaching her eighties. I had to pass by the caretaker’s office and get permission to go upstairs.

“Aye, up you go, son. That’ll be Miss Kerr, wanting you to go do a few errands for her,” he said. The wooden strip on his door bore the name, J. Cassidy. Mister Cassidy fitted in perfectly with the age group of his charges. A big, broad-shouldered ex-docker, he and I would have many conversations in the ensuing months. His well-worn hands could convert to massive fists if ever needed, but the gentle giant in him showed his caring skills.

The elevator to the third floor opened onto the corridor running the length of the place. At the end, the diminutive Miss Kerr already stood with her door open.

“Hello, Miss Kerr? Mister Cassidy told me your name.”

“Come in, come in,” she said. Her tiny hand motioned me inside. The winter sunlight glared in to brighten a small, one-roomed area. A neat table set near the window gave her panoramic access to the goings-on up and down the street, including our football patch. In the corner near the window, a gas stove fitted against the wall, partnered with a low bank of shelves.

“You’ll have some tea?” she asked, pointing at the shelves. It was more a command than a question. “There’s some fresh brewed there. If you’ll just take out a couple of cups and saucers. And in that wee tin on the top, you’ll get us some biscuits.”

I put the cups on the table and my elderly hostess brought over the teapot.

“My back’s killing me,” she said. Her slow gait looked painful. “I’m waiting for a hip replacement, but the time they take here is so long, I’ll be pushing up the daisies before they get round to me.”

I sat on the chair opposite her sentry-watch position.

“What’s your name, son?”

“Jimmy.”

“Good. Jimmy. I had a brother called Jimmy, but he died during the war.”

I realised she meant the First World War. While she talked, my eyes took in the rest of the apartment. The worn bits of carpet stretched to the inside of the unit, all the way to her bed tucked against the far wall. A chest of drawers and a white cupboard completed the furnishing.

I took a sip of the tea. Then something caught my eye. A small movement on top of the bed. A teddy bear? No. Teddy bears don’t move on their own. A small terrier dog lay, wrapped in a piece of blanket. Miss Kerr saw my surprise.

“That’s my dear wee Vikki,” she said. “She’s not very well. That’s why I asked you to come up.”

My face must have displayed my puzzlement.

“I need you to help me to take Vikki on the bus to the Vet.”

Then the penny dropped with me. The Veterinarian for the district held surgery in a mobile unit parked in the shopping area about ten minutes down the road from where we lived.

“Aye. No problem, Miss Kerr. “So, what’s wrong with your doggie?”

“Just a wee cold. The Vet’ll fix her fine. They did the last time.”

We had nearly finished the tea.

“Shall we go now?” she said.

“Sure.”

Vikki made a quiet moaning sound as I picked her up from the bed, but made no resistance to being carried in the blanket. Miss Kerr busied herself in readiness to go out. A grey coat, which had seen better years, would have fitted a small schoolgirl. Dark blue shoes, which my mother would have described as ‘sensible’, showed the scuffing that no amount of polish could hide. A maroon beret protected her head from what was, despite the sun, a biting, cold, morning wind.

A lick of pale, pink lipstick and she was ready.

The bus conductor nodded to Miss Kerr as we boarded. No need for her to show her pensioner’s free pass. She made to pay for me, sitting beside her, cradling Vikki. The conductor smiled and refused her pennies.

Similar courtesy appeared at the Vet’s office, where the surgeon’s assistant clearly knew Miss Kerr.

“Doctor won’t be long, Miss Kerr. Is this your grandson?”

“No, just a young friend from near where I live,” she said, with a smile. I felt strangely pleased to be thought her relative. A few minutes later the assistant ushered us through to the Vet’s area. Doctor Beattie was a middle-aged lady, with a terrific smile.

“Hello, Miss Kerr. What’s wrong with your wee dog, then? Let’s have a look.”

I handed her pet over as gently as I could. The dog barely moved. I noted the change of expression on Doctor Beattie’s face. Something was badly amiss.

“Hmm. Vikki is very sick, Miss Kerr, Do you want to leave her with us?”

“How long until she gets well?” asked my new surrogate grandma.

The Vet spoke as gently as she could. “I don’t think she has much longer to go. We can take care of her, if you want?”

Miss Kerr’s demeanour changed instantly. Her voice hardened. “No. I’ll take her back home. She’ll be okay with me.”

She was firm in the way older people convey when they want to do things their way. Stubborn, resolved, determined.

Doctor Beattie knew it was pointless to try further persuasion. She administered an injection to alleviate the dog’s symptoms. No payment was asked.

We retraced the bus journey back to Miss Kerr’s apartment. She didn’t speak at all, and I didn’t attempt any conversation.

When the owner and her dog were settled back in safely, I sought out Mister Cassidy.

“Hello, son. How did it go?”

“To tell you the truth, Mister Cassidy, her wee dog’s dying, almost gone already according to the Vet, but I don’t think she’s able to accept that. It’s not good.”

“Okay. I’ll keep a close watch on her. Thanks, lad.”

Two days later, Miss Kerr appeared again on her balcony and waved for me to go up. I knocked on Mister Cassidy’s door and he signalled to go ahead. When I entered the apartment, a foul smell caught my nose.

“Jimmy, I need you to go and get some medicine for Vikki,” said Miss Kerr.

I went to the bed where the dog lay. The eyes were staring, lifeless, probably dead since the day we brought her home from the Vet. The smell was from the decomposition already setting in. Miss Kerr had obviously been sleeping on the same bed as her pet.

“Miss Kerr, Vikki’s dead,” I said. “We need to take her out of here.”

Her chin pushed out, lips a straight line. The edge returned to her voice. “No she’s not, Jimmy. She still hears me when I speak to her. Look at her ears moving when I talk. Now will you go to the Vet and ask for some medicine?”

“Okay. Okay,” I said. I left her and went to seek out Mister Cassidy.

I told him what I’d seen and the rancid smell in the unit. Good man that he was, he immediately made a phone call. Twenty minutes later, people arrived from the local animal shelter. The lead officer was excellent in the way he appeased Miss Kerr. He explained they were taking Vikki to the hospital to get her well. In the meantime, Mister Cassidy and I took our charge to lunch. The fumigation team moved in while we were away from the place. Of course, Vikki was never coming back. Miss Kerr had lost the most important companion in her life. During lunch with us, she was even more subdued than usual, the reality probably settling in slowly.

A week or so passed in which I wasn’t able to visit. Eventually, I went to see how she was faring. Mister Cassidy wasn’t in his office, and I went straight up to her apartment. My knocking went unanswered. I went downstairs again and found the caretaker back in his usual place.

I started to tell him there was no reply to my knocking at her door.

“Sit down, son.” His voice wavered. He shook his head. “Very sad news, I’m afraid. Miss Kerr passed away two days ago.”

As the years drift by, I think of her often. A lady I met and knew only for a matter of days, but that brief encounter has remained with me. My new grandma for a week. In the intervening years, I‘ve owned many dogs. Always a terrier, and always called Vikki.

— The End —

Note: There are two point I need to make as a preamble: One there was some confusion in the writer’s mind between the piece we were to share at the last Workshop and the Challenge that was to start with the letter ‘D’. So this entry is a short one. The second is that the entrant wishes to remain anonymous.

On Grief

By Anonymous

Darkness started to envelop the beautiful red and yellow sunset just moments earlier. The surreal sky with its vivid colours suited the dream-like state everyone was in. Shocked, in disbelief, in denial, in a dream. Yes, let’s pretend none of this was real. It’s easier not to feel anything at this moment. Ouch, the cigarette I forgot about, burnt my hand; forcing reality upon me. I stubbed it out and lit another one, immune again, inhaling deeply. I hadn’t smoked in a while but it came back to me like second nature. I took a long drag from the cigarette and stared at the house. The air was humid and all I could hear was the buzzing of a lamp by the pool and the distant sound of people at the house. I stared hard at the lit up pool, at the house, at the people. I still felt numb. Someone had seen me despite my efforts to keep my distance. They started walking towards me and I stubbed out the cigarette. I stank of smoke but who gave a shit, what did I care about my reputation at this point? When she came close I saw it was a close family friend, she gave me a long huge hug, my head nestling into her black abaya. I teared; it hurt to cry at this point. ‘I’m so sorry’ she said and I nodded in acceptance but words couldn’t come out of my mouth. She turned and walked towards the house I couldn’t stay in. I felt sick, I wish this wasn’t real. At this point I felt as if nothing mattered, anything material was worthless. How could he die so suddenly? There was so much I didn’t tell him, so much I didn’t know about him. This wasn’t fair; he was too young to go. I was angry, fuming mad now. How could you do this to me, to us, I asked silently staring at the black sky.

— The End —

Dear Life

by Muneera Fakhro

Dear Life,

You have been so unfair to me, by bringing me to this life,

I grew up in an agonisingly cruel environment, but had been fighting with all my might,

I was poor, weak and fragile, barely scraping through you and finding something to eat.

I was young, I had big dreams to realize, and bigger obstacles to beat,

just to be recognised, despite those who bullied, beat, and cursed at me, saying I will not make it far,

that only made me fight, against words, diseases, time and went through further distances than soldiers in war.

 

I grew older, I had seen many things, experienced many other,

But then I saw … great injustice in you, towards those who believed in you,

I saw your reality, and how -to you- they were not much of a bother,

You are just a rollercoaster of ups and downs that somehow all, including me, are so into.

I had seen how you manipulated us, dividing us into different societies

that would cast some outside if they did not fit into certain categories.

 

I had had enough of your games, fortunately it was just a phase,

For I had gone away, never to return to this place, I had simply left this maze…

 

Dear Mom and Dad,

You brought me life, my question is why?

You barely got along, or had enough to get by.

I was one of 5, so that makes it five mistakes,

neither of you ever liked kids, how long did it take

for you to lose your patience? And to start beating us

for the very first time?

 

We were always disrespectful, in your mind,

and did not deserve yours, you thought, but oh were you so blind

of what we did for you, we slept on time and studied hard.

Amongst them, I was the hardest worker, sometimes going overboard.

However, to you, I had been and always would be the biggest mistake, the ignorant retard.

 

Truth be told, you were the ignorant fools,

too negligent to take responsibility of your mistakes!

No longer would I go by your rules,

and for that I would do whatever it takes.

I had decided, what needs to be done is for

me to quit it all, and change the five into four…

 

Dear Friends,

I had lived my whole life alone, detached and friendless,

up until a while back, you came along and changed it all from a curse to bliss.

I had dealt with it all, for twenty years long…so empty.

But when you came you shared, bore and chased that pain away, and I thank you plenty.

You broke the shell that I had always lived in, and shattered the chains that pinned me down in my place,

You showed me how life is like, and taught me how to communicate face to face.

 

When I started talking, it was hard to hear what I say, all that came out was a mumble.

I tried speaking louder, but then I stuttered. It was not too easy to come out of my bubble.

I would always get misunderstood, though you were more understanding,

until they showed up, and changed you with whatever they would bring.

I would not blame you, since we live in a life ruled by materials.

Despite that, throwing me aside like we never been, was worse than any betrayal.

 

Now I am alone once again, with no more paths to take and follow.

There is nothing more for me to do after I have become so hollow…

 

…Boss,

You were the head manager of a respectable company,

the reason it flourished actually.

I was told I will be in good hands,

and be in charge of the marketing brands.

You were fair with all the costumers, and attended to all their needs,

and towards enemies and competitors you never pay no heed.

 

However…

To colleagues in this office, you were such a flirt.

to that, I had not been alert.

You gave special attention to the ladies,

in no time would you forget all about your mateys.

When there were eyes on you, somehow I became the one to blame.

I have lost my rank, and for that, my resentment and fury turned to a blazing flame.

 

Before I leave this world I left a little gift for you, a ‘flaming touch’ to your house décor

I could do the same for your car, but your salary will not handle any more.

I could leave this life with no regrets,

since I had faced the only one I was up against…

 

To my unrequited love,

You were my college buddy, my closest buddy,

we shared our notes, food and money.

We would meet on every break, and talk about random things,

you had kind eyes and make a cute giggle at every topic I would bring.

Whether we talked or sat still in silence, it would be enjoyable.

All the moments that we shared will always be memorable.

 

Your hair up in a bun, never took off your glasses.

Had a fair skin, usually seemed deep in thought.

You would dress nicely, and wear accessories that matches,

often sitting there, eating the snack you have bought.

After we met, that bench became our usual place.

We joked, laughed, cursed and gave each other praise.

 

I had the deepest of love for you, yet you never felt the same,

it drove us apart and turned my life into such a waste…

 

This would be the end of this maze…

 

Lastly…

 

Dear God,

Why did you create a life that is so unfair?

One which gives us hopes and dreams only to be shattered away,

no matter how long, how much we say the same prayer.

It will only give so little thought before throwing them, and us, away.

Why did you grant couples who can’t raise children with kids of their own?

They will grow to be nothing but trash to be thrown.

 

Why create people to be easily swayed by a materialistic life?

You gave everyone a rateable value which is worse than handing each a knife.

Also giving high ranks to people with the worst of traits

who would take advantage of others when they are in for questions and debates.

And what good would love someone so bad do if they do not love you back?

I could not have described it better when saying one would become a punching sack.

 

All these questions I have come to ask of you,

In a little while I will be hearing your answers right in front of you…

— The End —

 

 Drowning in the Gulf

by Gordon Simmonds

This is part of a story whose full title is Flying in the Gulf (or something similar), which is a follow-on of another real life tale I called Cruising the Gulf.

Somewhere between the clay pigeon shooting and the bungee jumping, a visitor to the Chatsworth Country Show may notice a big sign promoting helicopter rides. For a small fortune, you too can experience a ten minute tour of Chatsworth House from the air. Wow! This is a true story about how the largesse of the off-shore oil industry allows its employees so much more than this, and not only is it free, but they will pay you to enjoy the delights of travelling by chopper.

Of necessity, this story doesn’t start in the Gulf, but in that great city of culture and opulence, Kingston upon Hull. More commonly known in the local dialect as ‘ull, (pronounced ull) it is famous for its fish docks and, er…fish.

To qualify for free helicopter flights, you become subject to the oil industry Health & Safety regime, which means that if you die on the job, they can wash their hands of any culpability. So your first requirement is to prove yourself fit enough to cope with the demands of North Sea travel – this means a trip to the local quack. You know the score; read this chart, pee into this, and as us gentlemen know, cough – while doc stares at your dangly bits. Then, with a clean bill of health, you can move on to the next stage of the process, which is survival training.

As the name suggests, you are taught to survive most benign incidents. As for the catastrophic ones, I’m reminded of the old parachuting joke.

A young soldier is to make his first parachute jump. He is instructed to release his main chute after he exits the aircraft. If that fails, he is to release his reserve chute. If that also fails, he is to shout GEROMINO!

So he jumps out of the aircraft and releases his main ‘chute – it doesn’t work.

He releases his reserve ‘chute – that doesn’t work either.

Then as he hurtles toward the ground he passes his instructor in mid air and shouts over “What was the name of that bloody indiannnnnnnnn?”

The first part of the course is a cruise around Hull docks, otherwise known as escape capsule awareness. You are directed to a site deep inside the dock complex, and you know you are close because forty or fifty feet in the air is a bright orange boat. Your first thought is “that’s a long way up,” but some time later, you are assured that they won’t be dropping you from such a height because a quick change into bright orange overalls and you are invited to embark on a boat/capsule they launched earlier.

It’s not really a boat, (which is why they call it a capsule). True it is boat shaped and floats, but with a roof the same size as the hull, a hatch in the side to get in and out, and a glass bubble at the top which allows the ‘driver’ to see where he’s going. It’s probably 20 foot long, and boasts a capacity of 50 people and you can’t help thinking that they must be very thin people, because the ten or twelve people on the course seem to fill it to capacity. Put another way, it is tight enough to hope that your neighbour hasn’t had a strong curry the night before.

The instructor runs you through the procedure for lowering the boat from a 40 foot platform and releasing it from the cables that lowered it. He omits to mention how to start the engine, at which point you might ask “How do you start the engine?”

He might reply that “The coxswain will do that for you.”

Which begs the question ”What if the coxswain isn’t here?”

That elicits a funny look which says, “If there is an incident and the coxswain doesn’t make it, you won’t be here to worry about it.” He stops short of mentioning Geromino.

The instructor then twiddles a few knobs, starts the engine and takes us all for a tour of the dock. Half an hour later you’re back on dry land and ready for the next part of the course. So you jump in the car and make your way to the headquarters of the training company where you are told that the next lesson is first aid. You arrive at a classroom and are confronted by a body on the floor – but don’t panic, it’s only a plastic dummy. What follows is like a scene from Casualty. You shout “Can I have some help in here?” check to see if the dummy is dead yet, punch the poor guy in the ribs and start pumping his chest to the tune of “Nelly the elephant packed her trunk and said goodbye to the circus.” Of course, your efforts are all in vain, but if you get it more or less right, you pass that session and it’s now lunch time.

A bite to eat and it’s on to fire fighting for dummies. You get to dress up like a fire-man – great if that’s a childhood ambition – not so great if it’s a hot day and you’re kitted out in fire-proof overalls, steel capped wellies, gloves and helmet. They tell you all about fire extinguishers and how to use them, and then they light a few fires. First there’s the chip-pan fire – throw a blanket over it without getting yourself charred in the process. Then there is the oil spill where they light up a big tray of fuel, maybe one or two metres square, and invite each of you to put it out with an extinguisher. Now I don’t use the word ‘dummies’ lightly – because there’s always someone who will insist on chasing the last remnant of flame around the tray until the extinguisher runs out, whereupon the whole lot starts up again. Mark him down as someone to avoid in an emergency.

Next is the smoke chamber, where they dress you up like Darth Vader, with breathing apparatus, and send you into a series of shipping containers which are blacked out and dark, very dark, and full of smoke. They want to teach you to find you way out of a building with zero visibility. Your team forms up in a line. The lead guy is meant to run one hand up and down the wall looking for an exit; his other hand moves up and down in front of him to detect forward obstructions, while his feet shuffle along looking for holes and hazards. The rest of the team place one hand on the wall and the other on the guy in front – a bit like a conga line without the party. It’s not that difficult, so a minute or so after entering, the lead man finds the exit door, and you’re back in the light. On the other hand, if your lead man is one of the dummies mentioned above, be prepared to shuffle round and round until they send in a search party.

If you manage to escape, there endeth the lessons for day one. A quick change and an early drive home.

Next morning you are introduced to the pool where you will carry out the underwater escape. The pool is no bigger than a typical municipal swimming pool, but the water level is maybe four or five feet from the top, and the water is much deeper. Suspended above the pool is a big red fibre-glass helicopter-looking contraption – but that comes later.

You’re invited to select a survival suit from a rack of what looks like yellow space suits. You’re then fitted out with a life-jacket and another bag like thing that they call a re-breather. Suitably attired, the first lesson takes place in a life raft which has been inflated in the corner of the building, where you are told how it works – it will inflate automatically on contact with the water – if not, it can be deployed manually – if that fails, shout GEROMINO! They didn’t actually say that last bit, but it does cross your mind.

At this point I must digress to explain something that us North Sea Tigers don’t necessarily mention to our spouses. Helicopters can move in every direction, up, down, left, right, forward and back, but what many people don’t realise is that if the engines fail, they can glide, just like a fixed wing aircraft – the only problem is that the glide path is straight down.

In ideal circumstances, the engine dies, nothing falls off and the chopper auto-gyrates to land gently on the surface of a calm sea. The helicopter floats inflate automatically, as does the life raft, you open the cabin door and everybody steps out without getting their feet wet. A rescue boat arrives within a few minutes and its back to base and home in time for tea.

A more likely scenario is that; assuming the rotor blades remain intact and the gearbox is sound, the chopper auto-gyrates and hits the sea like a sack of potatoes. Since calm seas in the North Sea are rare, it’s more likely that the immediate danger is that the still spinning rotor blades will hit a wave and disintegrate, sending shards of carbon fibre flying through the air. Survive that and the next probability is that the engine, which is mounted above the cabin, make the chopper top heavy and the next wave will cause the whole thing to roll. You then have to fight to get out of the upside-down doors and windows to reach the surface where the life raft may, or may not, have inflated. If you are stuck in the water, even at summer temperatures, hypothermia will set in within minutes rather than hours. But what’s that compared to spending 60 or 70 quid at the Chatsworth Show?

Catastrophic failure is where one or both of the rotors fall apart or stop turning. There is only one course of action if this should ever happen – shout GERMINO!!

You are told how to operate the life-jacket and instructed in how to use the re-breather. This is a bag about the size of a large envelope that you wear round the neck with a diver’s mouthpiece. You take a deep breath, blow into the bag and this stores enough oxygen to let you breath normally for about half a minute. So it’s into the pool for the first practical exercise.

At one end of the pool is a platform about a metre wide complete with hand rails and about four feet below the surface of the water. You are required to inflate the re-breather and swim underwater for the seven or eight metres width of the pool. The survival suit is what divers call a wet-suit; which means that it is meant to fill with water, but initially is full of air which tries to make you float. So you have to use the handrail to keep yourself under while breathing from the bag. If you are too slow, you notice the gradual loss of oxygen, but normally, it is easy enough to get across without coming up for air. You must now drag yourself up the ladder at the far end. I use the word ‘drag’ because now, you are carrying an extra half ton of water in the suit. If you get through that, you’ve passed another test.

(NOTE: This was a much longer piece, but as there was a natural break here, Gordon said he was okay if the rest of the story wasn’t included and so I too am ending this here.)

— The End —

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