Making the Future Female

DOG Sharon: The Future is Female Chapters 1-5


1

6TH APRIL 2012

‘Get ‘ere now!’

Sharon smiled at the young woman who’d shouted at her two small kids. ‘What lovely children,’ she said. ‘And so obedient – it must be hard bringing them up round here.’

The woman blushed. ‘They play me up blind in the flat,’ she mumbled without making eye contact. ‘It’s the start of the holidays and I’m already knackered.’

Sharon offered the children pound coins. The boy had blue eyes and blond hair and his sister was dark. They gave the money to their mother who put it in her purse. Sharon winked and waved to the little lad.

‘I’m getting a new brother for my birthday!’ he whispered, swinging on the queue divider.

‘So when’s your birthday?’

‘August the fourth.’

‘And mine!’ She squatted down until they were at the same level. ‘What’s your name? Mine’s Sharon. How old will you be?’

‘I’ll be seven. Are you seven?’ He smiled and half winked an eye.

Before Sharon could explain she’d be fifty two, the next customer was called and his mother screamed, ‘Adam, Evie – get here now!’

Sharon waved as they left and was pleased they waved back. The mother kept her head down and dragged the children out of the Post Office. Sharon moved to the vacant window and placed a package on the scales.

‘Who’s this – some bleedin’ social worker?’ Ellie had a throaty laugh and a voice loud enough to hear outside. ‘You’re wasting your time with ‘er,’ she said, tilting her head towards the door. ‘Each one’s got a different dad. She’s ‘ad more partners than Elizabeth Taylor – and that’s just last week. I’m telling you Shaz, the girls round ‘ere are worse than effin’ rabbits! Sterilise ‘em all if I had my way. I mean, what kind of life is it for them kids?’

Sharon purchased her stamps and signalled the guard to open the door.

‘Have a happy Easter – and remember the bunnies. Keep off the shandies at that wedding tomorrow – and don’t come back up the bleedin’ duff!’

Sharon held up two fingers in reply and left laughing. The precinct was as depressing as usual, even in the bright spring sunshine. As she walked she listened to an instrumental version of Too Much Too Young by The Specials broadcast from a flat above the shops. When the song finished, she was surprised to hear it begin again. She shrugged her shoulders and waved to Graham in the hardware store. As he stepped from the gloom of the shop, his neighbour and rival for the lucrative pre- and after-school sweets and drinks market, appeared from his doorway.

‘Heard the news?’ shouted Mo, waving to Sharon at the same time. ‘Obama’s had a heart attack. It’s touch and go…’

‘…don’t talk to me about politicians,’ Graham shouted back, ‘they’re all the bloody same!’

‘Ha, you say that now, yet you voted the last lot in and everybody knows what they did to the country…’

‘…hang on mate; it was the banks and their casino capitalism that caused the problem. They’re still not lending much to local businesses – I mean look at this place, it’s dead in the water. The only companies expanding round here are private security firms – because your lot have sacked half the police…’

Sharon left the men arguing and slowly walked back to her office thinking about which tasks to leave until after the holiday weekend. She still felt nauseous from a migraine the previous night and decided to finish early. Her partner had suggested she kept records and eventually the doctor diagnosed menstrual migraines; explaining it was very common and prescribing tablets. But the medication had a narcotic effect and usually left her hungover the next day. In addition, her period was due and she’d had what felt like the weirdest dream the night before, yet couldn’t remember the details. She guessed it must be a side-effect of the medicine. If the tablets made her feel drunk when awake, they probably messed her head up while asleep.

Manny woke with the mother of all hangovers. After a few minutes he realised Sharon wasn’t lying beside him. At first he was merely surprised, but became more anxious on finding the house was empty. He’d made himself a cup of tea and was trying to remember the last time Sharon had got up before him and gone out, when he spotted a large egg on the TV. She’d written, Happy Easter Clifford in felt pen on the box. It was her joke after sitting with his family at the reception last night. His mum always used his full name, as Manny imagined mothers did all over the world, but he hated it.

He gulped his tea and sat thinking, absentmindedly eating chunks of egg, eventually deciding she’d either gone to visit her mother or to the boat. He decided to check the old folks’ home first.

Then he found Sharon had taken his coat: they were the same colour although his was considerably larger. ‘Strange,’ he said to himself, ‘she’s never done that before.’ The old Land Rover Defender was still on the drive so he guessed she wouldn’t be far. He started the vehicle and headed for the Coppice Residential and Nursing Home for the Elderly.

Sharon had always been terrified of heights, so much so that she avoided sitting upstairs on the Outer Circle bus. Now she was paralysed with fear, because she was standing high on a ledge, looking out over buildings far below. To her left, standing just out of reach, was a figure dressed in black. Sharon imagined it was another weird dream.

Then a voice sounded in her head. You have been chosen to receive special powers for thirteen moons. Any questions?

It was a deep and masculine voice, loaded with power, menace and ego. It made Sharon feel sick and reminded her of all the salesmen and tinpot managers she’d ever met, rolled into one – and that was saying something. This is a number one arsehole, she thought to herself. But she couldn’t speak and didn’t dare look down, so stared at the horizon while trying to work out what was happening.

Ignore me if you choose, but you will regret it.

‘W-who are you?’ she eventually stammered.

I have been called many things, but that is not important now. Understand that periodically individuals are chosen to receive special powers. It is my role to advise you on how best to benefit from this situation. Follow my instructions and you will become rich and powerful beyond your wildest dreams. You can influence people, command followers, raise armies. Gold, treasures, property – this land for as far as you can see could all be yours. Please watch: I suggest you stare into the centre for the best view…

Images suddenly filled her entire field of vision. First she saw a man in ancient costume. He appeared ordinary but then a pale blue halo of light shone around him. Soon he had all the trappings of power; beautiful women, houses and other men to serve him. Things speeded up. She saw a succession of similar blokes get the makeover. Because of this secret advantage these men rose to the very highest positions in society. Sharon realised this power created some of the worst examples of humanity: and, she reminded herself, after working in sales and advertising, she knew a thing or two about evil.

Just when Sharon thought it couldn’t get any weirder, a female voice whispered her name. At the periphery of her vision she half saw a small, hooded figure, and a name formed in her mind – Sophia.

Look to the side… the voice advised.

Now, the images were of war. Men, often cowards before obtaining the power, became great and terrible leaders. She saw them march with thousands of troops in victory parades across the world. Great empires rose and fell. She saw pyramids, Greeks and Romans, but mostly she didn’t recognise the scenes. Wish I’d paid more attention in history lessons, she thought, then remembered what the female voice had suggested and peered to the side. What she saw made her gasp and her heart sank, for the costs of war were displayed at the edges of the visions. Sharon witnessed the maimed and dying soldiers, watched women and children abused and millions murdered by imperial armies, using sword and spear, club and gun. Then she saw a woman in armour leading a great crowd of people. It was as if she was actually there; she could hear the screams and shouts and smelled smoke, blood and terror. Now she understood the terrible price of war on people and the environment.

Without warning the tone changed and Sharon now saw herself as head of a great family. Her numerous offspring quickly reproduced and lived healthy and successful lives.

Think about your family, the voice said, your children and your children’s children. Everybody wants to be rich and successful.

In another tableau, Sharon was an international celebrity. People hung on her every word. She wrote books, sang and played exquisite music, mingled with kings and queens and was truly one of the beautiful people. Next she was a wealthy and influential investor and a globally-celebrated sponsor of artists and exhibitions. She also collected passionate young lovers dedicated to immortalising her beauty and wit. In the final vision Sharon was dancing with a group of women wearing white ribbons and she briefly spotted Sophia. She recognised a couple of faces but it played out more rapidly than the previous scenes. There was a pale light shining around her and her eyes were glazed. She was speaking to a great crowd while other people, especially men, were barking. Then she saw herself walking in countryside she didn’t recognise amid a jumble of images and faces from every race of humanity. She saw crowds and demonstrations set against tourist views of London, and finally, a loud bang and a terrible pain and it was over.

Are you ready to choose?

Sharon, momentarily forgetting her lofty perch, snapped, ‘Why show me children when there’s so many people in the world already, and most of them are too poor to…’

The poor will always be with us…

‘…and another thing mate – I’m nearly fifty, too old to be messing about with babies. I’m knackered most of the time already and I only work in an office. I’ve got no family to speak of – dad’s dead, mum’s got dementia, and my so-called brother can’t even be bothered to ring each month – so don’t talk to me about families! Finally, the doctor says I need a hysterectomy, so I’ve neither the desire nor the womb to create a bloody dynasty!’

I shall recap for you Mrs Brough…

‘That’s Ms Brough, whoever you are…’

Ever since life began, (Sharon heard impatience in the voice) Ms Brough, there has been a periodic upsurge of psychic energy that affixes itself to and becomes controllable by an individual for a maximum of thirteen lunar months. Use the power sparingly however or it will diminish more quickly. You can have as many children as you like, more than you can count if you wish, because You Have Been Chosen! You have the power and can easily grow another womb: it is only a little thing after all. However Ms Brough, I suggest you begin by using the power to eliminate the strong regional inflexion in your diction. It is most unappealing and difficult to understand. It is, I believe, known as the Brummie Accent.

Sharon was so angry at what he’d said she turned to face him to give him a piece of her mind. It was only when she took one foot off the ledge that she remembered where she was and gingerly placed it back. Sharon stared ahead again, but the movement had made her wobble and she struggled to regain her balance. She had to admit it felt awfully real for a dream, so decided it was better talking as it took her mind off the drop below.

‘Why should I trust you when you won’t even tell me your name?’ she said suddenly.

I have been referred to as the Tempter. Others have called me Iblis, Shaitan, Lucifer or Rex Mundi.

‘Never heard of any of ‘em,’ said Sharon, thinking it sounded like a heavy metal concert. ‘And why do you keep going on about me being chosen?’

‘Be patient,’ whispered the taller angler, ‘fish may be smart, but they’re no match for the man who’s knowledgeable and well-prepared.’ Steadying his grip on the rod, he looked across the cut to see several planes departing Birmingham International Airport had already left vapour trails in the clear blue sky. ‘The only way to spend Easter Sunday morning, eh Paul?’

Behind the bridge was a plaque informing all those that cruised, walked or mountain-biked along the Grand Union Canal, that this stretch of water was his, or more accurately, the syndicate’s. The sign read:

 

Silhill Angling Club (between bridges 76-77) Hon. Sec. John S. Thomas

 

‘This is Sergeant Duncan and I’m DC James.’

Manny shook their thick hands and considered whether that was their surnames or Christian names. He looked at their hard faces and decided surnames.

‘You’re very lucky sir,’ beamed DC James, ‘there’s not many of us left after the cuts…’

‘BOGOF, sir!’ Sergeant Duncan smiled, causing Manny to wonder what the criminals must look like.

‘I’m sorry…’ said Manny, ‘I don’t understand.’

‘Buy one, get one free sir, it’s an acronym,’ explained Duncan.

‘How long has your wife been missing, mister…?’ DC James suddenly shot the question at Manny.

‘Since this morning officer, the name’s Clifford Mann. We’re not married. Her full name’s Sharon Anne Brough.’

‘Not married, eh? What happened sir?’ enquired the senior officer.

‘Well’, explained Manny, ‘I woke up this morning…’

‘Sounds like a blues song sir!’

‘Sorry mate,’ said Manny. ‘You’ve lost me.’

‘Lot of blues songs start with “I woke up this morning…” said Duncan.

‘Oh, I see,’ said Manny.

DC James took over. ‘When did you wake, Mr Mann?’

‘About 9.30, I had a hangover and she’d left.’

‘I recommend a full English sir, followed by a few pints.’

The senior officer shook his head. ‘First drink plenty of water, neck a handful of painkillers, then the full English and a few pints.’

Manny wondered if they were rehearsing a comedy act. ‘I’m worried; she’s never done this before.’

‘What time did she get up sir?’ DC James scrutinised Manny as if he were a suspect in some serious investigation.

‘I don’t know. I assumed she’d visited her mother or her mate Henri.’

‘And where does this “Henry” bloke live?’ asked the sergeant.

‘Henri’s female,’ explained Manny. ‘She lives on a narrowboat on the canal at Catherine de Barnes.’

DC James winked at his superior. ‘Sounds like a man’s name. Is Henri transsexual?’

Manny resisted the urge to scream and explained politely. ‘Henri’s a normal woman – it’s short for Henrietta.’ He tried a different tack. ‘Don’t you want a description?’

Both officers pulled pained faces.

‘Of course,’ said Manny quickly, ‘I’m not trying to tell you how to do your job.’

‘Occupation, sir?’

‘I work for Land Rover – at the Solihull plant.’

‘Your partner, sir, what does she do?’ said DC James.

‘She’s a temporary admin manager for a building firm based at the Poolway in Birmingham.’

‘How long’s she been there, sir?’

‘About two years – why?’

‘Sounds more permanent than temporary.’

‘Sharon’s still a temp strictly speaking – says she likes the freedom of being able to walk out at any time.’ Both officers looked at Manny and he realised what he’d implied.

‘Have you checked sir?’

‘How do you mean?’

‘Checked she’s not at work, sir.’

‘Well, it is Easter Sunday – I don’t think she’d go there today. She’s hardly the type to work through holidays…’ Manny realised he’d put his foot in it again so added, ‘Of course, it’s a good thing some people do, or where would we be?’

The sergeant yawned and pushed his powerful hand through his short red hair. ‘Well sir, I’d be in the lounge of The Black Boy enjoying a Guinness.’ He closed his eyes for a couple of seconds, savouring the moment.

His deputy developed the theme. ‘I’d spend more quality time with the family – shifts play havoc with the digestion…’

Eventually the sergeant asked for Sharon’s description in such a way as to let Manny know that he was still outraged at his earlier know-all attitude.

‘Er, well, she’s about average height – I’m not sure what that is for a woman – maybe five-two? Hair’s mid-brown. She used to dye it blonde but I was worried about the bleach and the chemicals…so a bit grey and short. Her face’s roundish with a small nose, a bit pointed perhaps, with quite prominent cheeks. Her mouth’s ordinary with nice lips. She laughs a lot, doesn’t wear much makeup and likes earrings. Usually dresses casually – sporty stuff, combat trousers, tee shirts, or maybe a hooded top.’

Sharon found herself standing on the towpath of the Grand Union Canal and at first assumed she was still in the crazy dream with the dark figure. However, the solid ground beneath her feet, the cool breeze and a pair of quacking ducks convinced her that this was reality.

Then her memory returned. She remembered waking up in bed next to Manny terrified of the dark figure in her dreams. She’d whispered to Manny that she was scared and needed a hug, but he mumbled something about a hangover, turned his back and began snoring loudly. So she’d rolled out of bed, dressed hurriedly and set off on foot to see Henri. Sharon recalled walking along the towpath when everything had gone black then she’d found herself high above some city. Before she could make any further sense of her predicament, darkness enveloped her and she lost consciousness.

Manny sat with Henri in the Boat Inn at Catherine de Barnes. ‘The coppers said people often go off for a few hours or days, and then turn up as if nothing had happened – most within 48 hours. Of course I told them, Sharon isn’t like that.’

‘What else did they say?’ asked Henri.

‘They’d look out for her, and circulate her description.’

They sat quietly for a few minutes, then Manny said, ‘Oh, it’s probably nothing, but Shaz took my coat.’

‘Really, are they similar?’

‘Well mine’s a couple of sizes bigger.’

‘A couple?’

‘Okay, a dozen sizes. My work mobile was in the pocket – I’ve rung but she didn’t answer. Here’s the number so we can both try.’

Pink and brown are names of colours, but this is a place before names. Here there are only rhythms and sensations, warmth and security. Then a new uncomfortable sensation arises and grows, infinite space gives way to constriction and growing pressure. And worse, a feeling quickly becomes the certain knowledge that something terrible is going to happen, and soon. Pressure, constriction, fear, bright lights, burning in the lungs.

‘Not another bloody girl!’

Darkness.

A little girl or boy; blonde or blond; playing in the sun.

That’s the house in Yardley

Darkness descends.

The queue of children winds from the aisle of the church onto the stage. A smiling minister shakes each child’s hand and gives out certificates. Somebody on the deserted balcony thinks That girl’s me, I’m nine – I remember! But how can I see myself – am I a ghost?

Someone below announces the younger Sharon has scored 98% in the scripture examination. The minister smiles and murmurs ‘very well done’, then quickly moves on to the next child, his eldest. ‘The boy achieved 99 – it’s a miracle – like father like son…’

The older Sharon remembers how the younger Sharon felt. This time she has the confidence to share her feelings with the whole congregation before everything grows dark.

A group of girls are giggling in the corridor. That’s me and Debby Murphy and Karen Campbell! Deb, Kaz, it’s me, it’s Shaz! The girls don’t look, and Sharon realises they can’t see or hear her. She notices she’s wearing Manny’s coat and there’s mud on her trainers and trousers – but none of it makes sense. How could she be at her old senior school?

Darkness descends.

Even though all is black, Sharon knows from the smell and the noise where she is – the men’s toilets at Barbarella’s nightclub, Birmingham, sometime in 1977. The Ramones’ Sheena is a Punk Rocker  is playing. She opens her eyes to see herself aged 16; pretty and awkward, acting tough but blissfully naïve. Punk-girl Sharon was sniffing speed with her mates before going back to the chaos of the Pose.

Older Sharon reaches out to catch hold of her younger self, but the girl skips past, laughing and singing, ready to pogo all night. Sharon feels as if she has lost part of herself.

All becomes dark.

When Sharon next opens her eyes it is as if she’s seeing her life on fast-forward. Years pass but nothing exciting happens. All turns black and she loses consciousness again.

She’s sitting in the passenger seat of a Mk 11 Range Rover. Grant Wiltshire – the biggest mistake of her life, is driving. Sharon watches as her ex steers with one hand and dials her number with the other. His ‘mobile’ has all the elegance of a shoebox which leads Sharon to guess it’s 1989ish. She squirms as Grant talks to her younger self who must be sitting in her office in Digbeth, Birmingham. He finishes the call and dials another number. Grant switches the phone output to the stereo speakers, then suddenly reaches across and Sharon thinks he must surely touch her. But he can’t see her and opens the glove compartment and after much scrabbling about finds a small paper package. He places the package in the cut-outs most people stand drinks in; opens it deftly with his left hand; fiddles about a bit; then Sharon sees what’s going on. It’s cocaine – that’s where all her money must have gone. With a flick of his fingers (practice makes perfect she realises) he produces a small silver spoon. Grant dips the spoon into the paper receptacle and from there holds it to his left nostril. Sharon is horrified because he takes his right hand off the wheel, (which he controls with his considerable belly) then brings his right hand up to his nose, blocks a nostril and sniffs the little heap of white crystals up into the other.

At that moment some female answers his call. From the conversation booming around the inside of the car, Sharon is left in no doubt that Grant and the woman aren’t just business associates. She feels sick and looks out of the window. They are travelling down a country lane; the hedge is a green splurge inches away from the side of the car. She can hear Grant’s spoon rustling against the paper again and looks up to see a truck heading straight towards them.

Instinctively, Sharon grabs the steering wheel and swerves out of the way.

Am I a ghost?

Sharon hears snoring and decides she isn’t. It’s dark. Once her eyes become accustomed to the gloom she guesses she’s at the residential home. ‘This looks like mum’s bedroom,’ she says out loud. She can see her mother, Shirley, sitting in a chair by the bed. Sharon walks round the bed and kisses her.

‘Well, what a pleasant surprise,’ said her mother suddenly. ‘Are you alright Sharon? You don’t usually visit at this time – I hope you’re not in any trouble…’

‘Mum I’m fine – but you’re talking, and you can hear me?’

‘Of course dear, a mother can always hear her own child – when you were a baby I could hear you breathing from anywhere in the house. If you’d be good enough to switch on the light, I could see you as well…’

After switching on the light, Sharon scrutinised her mother. ‘You seem very well mum, not that I’m complaining; it’s just a pleasant shock.’ When she’d visited the day before, Shirley hadn’t recognised her.

‘Are you sure you’re not in trouble, Sharon?’ her mother asked again.

‘Honest mum, I’m fine,’ Sharon said and smiled. She could hardly say she was in the middle of the craziest dream ever. ‘Why do you ask?’

‘Because there’s a dark figure standing behind you…’

Sharon glanced at the mirror on the wall. As her mother had said, there was a person-sized shadow behind her, and behind the shadow was a light – Rex and Sophia! Then the shadow twitched and the mirror cracked before shattering loudly. Before Sharon could react, everything went black once more and she lost awareness of her surroundings.

Sharon found herself standing beside a grave. As she bent to study the headstone Manny and a blonde woman appeared. They exchanged new blooms for old and planted small shrubs on the freshly-filled mound. They seemed cheerful and Sharon was more than a little surprised to see them holding hands. She strained to hear what they were saying but the wind rose up and drowned everything out. So she tried to approach, hoping to signal or touch them, but an invisible force made it impossible to get close enough. After a while they walked away and she was able to see the inscription:

RIP Sharon Anne Brough 1960 – 2013

At first it made no sense and might as well have been written in Chinese. Then she shuddered as the realisation dawned on her: I am a ghost! Before Sharon could consider the implications, darkness descended and she lost consciousness again.

Pastor Malcolm Grayling chose three books and noted their titles before placing two to the side. He closed his eyes while holding the Emphatic Diaglott Bible so as to let the pages fall apart at random. Then he opened his eyes and stabbed his index finger onto a passage, Acts, Chapter VI, Verse III. He read solemnly:

Therefore Brethren, seek out from among yourselves, seven men of good reputation, full of Spirit and Wisdom, whom we may set over this business.

His deputy and caretaker, Ernest Channing, looked on.

‘Now,’ said the pastor, ‘for King Jim.’ He performed the same ritual and found this in Deuteronomy. Chapter XXII, Verse V.

 

The woman shall not wear that which pertaineth to a man, neither shall a man put on a woman’s garments: for all that do so are an abomination unto the LORD thy God.

 

In the background, Channing recorded God’s words faithfully with a ballpoint.

‘Finally, the New International Bible,’ said the leader of the Regeneration Church, as his thin finger landed on Chapter II Verse I of the Song of Songs:

 

I am a Rose of Sharon, A Lily of the Valleys.

 

‘What does it mean pastor?’

‘Remember our talk about expanding the church? God has signed we will need assistance. To that end we’ll recruit seven fellows to train as preachers.’

‘Brilliant, pastor. And the other passages?’

‘The first’s plain enough. You know my opinion on females wearing trousers, both literally and metaphorically. I will preach about it this evening. I take the last verse to refer to Glenys Evans and her sister Lillian – the Ladies Section unofficial shop stewards – they’re always stirring the rest of the women up. They come from South Wales – the valleys, get it boyo, eh?’

Channing chuckled in admiration.

‘I shall keep a close eye on our closet revolutionaries,’ said Pastor Malcolm. ‘The Lord Jesus was male, thank God, and that’s how he wants his servants to remain.’

‘Amen.’

The power confers the ability to manipulate the energy that exists everywhere. Healing and growing or killing and destroying; it is all the same. It has been described variously as al, qi, mana, sisu, psykhe, nefesh and vacuum energy. In other times and places the power was referred to as prana, manetuwak, hugr, spiritus, ch’i, ki, awen, aether, can, mbec, vril and maban.

‘Why are you telling me this?’ asked Sharon. ‘Is it your job?’

I am what you would call an immortal, the voice replied. You are a mere mortal. Mortals have jobs, I do not! I am the embodiment of all that is good and upstanding. I personify the active principle. I am the very quintessence of the masculine form. I am…

Rather than let him go on all day, Sharon interrupted, ‘Perhaps there’s been a mistake; somebody’s cocked-up and I shouldn’t be here?’

Do not be a fool! snapped the voice. Look after yourself – this is your one chance.

Sharon watched some birds fly past. ‘What about people that didn’t choose to feather their own nests?’ she asked. ‘What happened to them?’

They died violently.

‘What, all of them?’ said Sharon, trying to sound unconcerned.

Every last one.

‘But folk die anyhow,’ she countered. ‘Didn’t the moneygrabbers die as well?’

There was no reply.

‘So there’s no difference?’ she asked.

A big difference; they died happily and at a great age. The power promotes longevity.

‘I see,’ said Sharon, but she didn’t know what the word meant and didn’t want to ask, so changed tack. ‘Who chose me?’

I cannot tell you.

‘So who else received the power?’

Cannot tell you that either, I am afraid, it is more than my job is worth.

‘You said you didn’t have one,’ she replied.

It was a joke, said the voice, but he didn’t sound amused.

‘And why did you mess around with my memories?’

It was necessary for you to be reborn to receive the power; subsequently I created the montage of your past, present and future to illustrate how dull your life and work has been.

‘It may be fucking dull,’ Sharon shouted, ‘but it’s my fucking life and my fucking job, so fuck off!’

In that case, said the voice, return to it…

As she fell, Sharon recognised the building she’d been standing on – the Rotunda – she was in Birmingham City Centre. Before she could think anything else, the ground rushed up to meet her and all went black.

When Manny arrived at the police station, Sergeant Duncan was chatting to a female behind the counter. When they saw him they stopped talking and stared. Manny already felt bad, so his fears were multiplied when he saw this. He was led to the same office again and offered a chair.

Sergeant Duncan sort of smiled at him. ‘She hasn’t returned?’

Manny didn’t know what to think. ‘No, we’ve heard nothing. Is there news?’

‘Maybe.’ Duncan opened a file. ‘She was seen in several places this morning…’

All Manny could think was, she’s alive! ‘That’s great news officer!’ He leaned forward in his chair and extended his right hand towards the policeman. On seeing the sergeant’s expression however he took it back and started worrying again.

‘The first report has her standing in the street, somewhere on a new housing development in Marston Green, shouting about babies. Then a few hours later, she’s in Yardley, Birmingham, scaring children and…’

Manny interrupted. ‘That doesn’t sound like Sharon!’

‘The description fits sir. She was covering her eyes with her hands and shouting she’d gone blind.’

‘Oh,’ said Manny.

‘Then she…’

‘…there’s more?’

‘Plenty, sir.’

‘Oh!’

The officer continued. ‘She scared mourners at the cemetery by jumping up from behind a recently-dug grave and waving her arms in the air. Nearly gave one woman a heart attack.’

‘Perhaps it’s mistaken identity?’ suggested Manny.

Duncan muttered something into an intercom and a colleague brought in a bag containing Manny’s anorak. ‘Is this hers?’

‘Well no, it’s mine actually.’ Manny reached out for the garment but the officer placed it behind his desk.

‘Evidence,’ he said.

‘Of course,’ said Manny.

‘Then there’s the burglaries.’

‘Burglaries – surely a mistake! Sharon’s a middle-aged woman and I don’t for one minute believe…’

The officer produced a mobile phone. ‘Is this hers?’

‘No, mine again I’m afraid.’

‘Were you in Lode Heath School this morning sir?’

‘Absolutely not!’

‘So how do you explain this?’

‘She obviously lost the coat and it was stolen by the person who broke into the school and dropped the mobile,’ said Manny, feeling pleased with himself for thinking so quickly. Then he remembered the previous interview and the officers’ reactions, so added, ‘What do you think?’

‘Has Ms Brough ever had any psychiatric issues sir?’

‘No.’

‘Next,’ said the officer with a weary air, ‘A disturbance at Small Heath Baptist Church. She started shouting during the service then disappeared before she could be apprehended.’

‘A church – I’ve never known her to go to church. Are you certain?’

‘The descriptions fit sir. That just leaves the fracas at Solihull College, a disturbance in Birmingham City Centre, a break-in at a nursing home and the mysterious crash of a vehicle in Knowle.’

Manny merely nodded at each further outrage.

‘A one woman crime wave, that’s what we have here sir. Any idea where she is?’

‘I’d hardly waste my time playing Cluedo if I knew where she was…’ As soon as Manny said it he wished he hadn’t, but it was too late.

‘These are serious allegations and I’d be grateful if you treated this matter with all seriousness, sir.’

‘All seriousness? My life’s worthless without her and you tell me to be serious. How serious do you want me to be?’

The officer continued. ‘The final incident if we may, sir?’

Manny calmed down a little.

‘Apparently, a mister Grant Wiltshire alleges Ms Brough suddenly appeared in his car and grabbed the steering wheel causing him to crash.’

‘Was anybody hurt?’

‘Thankfully not sir. The car’s a write-off, along with the other vehicles he collided with. Do you know this gentleman?’

‘Yes, he’s Sharon’s ex. She divorced him years ago. Nasty piece of work, in my opinion.’

‘Was Ms Brough seeking revenge, maybe angry with him over their past relationship?’

‘No. You say she appeared in a moving car?’

‘That’s the report sir.’

‘Impossible.’

‘I accept it’s unlikely, but she may have been hiding and sprung up.’

‘And she vanished after the crash?’ asked Manny.

‘We don’t know sir; the gentleman had no recollection of what happened afterwards.’

‘So what now?’

‘We’ll continue to look for her and ask you to let us know if she returns.’

‘Of course.’

‘And one more thing…’

‘What?’

‘Five feet four and a bit, sir.’

‘What is officer?’

‘The average British woman, sir.’ The officer winked at Manny. ‘It’s our job to know these things…’

John wound in some line before turning to his pal and confiding, ‘Fish are much the same as women. You cast your line on the waters, bide your time and when you feel ‘em take the bait – strike!’ With this he raised the rod while carefully spinning the reel. ‘Landing net!’ he bellowed. ‘Get the net, stupid!’

His companion jumped at the command and grabbed the landing net with gloved hands.

At that moment, Sharon materialised between the hapless anglers; the shockwave scattering men and equipment about the towpath. The fish swam away unharmed leaving the anglers with nothing to show for their efforts save a broken net and a new tall story to tell their incredulous mates at the Boat Inn.

After leaving the pub Manny walked home alone. They’d hardly spent a night apart for years, and then only when he was on shifts. The house wasn’t a big place, but without Sharon it felt massive. He made himself a cup of tea and then left it to go cold while thinking of what else he could do to find her. He’d never felt like this before, and started to realise just how much of his life revolved around Sharon. She wouldn’t stay away like this, so he knew something had happened to her. Rather than do nothing he phoned hospitals in the area, but none had admitted anybody of her description. He called the police again but they had no news either, telling him to ring in the morning if she hadn’t returned.

Eventually he went to bed but couldn’t sleep. After tossing and turning and imagining all manner of terrible things that could have occurred, Manny dressed and set off on foot to see Henri. At least they could comfort each other.

Sharon found herself back on the canal, half a kilometre from Henri’s boat. A near-full moon illuminated the towpath. She sat down on an abandoned fishing creel and tried to understand her predicament. Her watch was missing and her clothes were filthy and ripped. She ached in every muscle and had scratches and cuts on her hands. Her nails, never supermodel style at the best of times, were broken and dirty.

She thought about the dark figure and the crazy scenes she’d witnessed. But where was the power she was supposed to possess? She didn’t feel like a superhero. She looked at her hands again; they were just the same as last week but dirtier. It was hard to imagine these ordinary fingers having the Midas-touch or belonging to some history-changing figure.

She thought about Manny. He must be scared to death, poor man; I’ve been gone all day. I’ll phone him from Henri’s if she’s in, if not, there’s a box in the village…

Sharon tried to stand but her legs gave way and she fell to the muddy path. A great weariness passed over her and she knew she couldn’t go on. She was either insane or the experience was real. If it was real, what could she do? It would be better if she was mad, at least she could get treatment. Then a new thought grew in her mind – I could end it all now. She looked at the cold, silent waters of the canal and considered drowning herself.

Then, along the towpath, she spotted a small bright figure – Sophia! A voice in her head said:

You have the power – you have been chosen! Women and children are relying on you.

Somehow Sharon pulled herself up on the creel and managed to start walking, mechanically at first, but walking nonetheless. She reached the bridge at Catherine-de-Barnes and from the other side could see Henri’s boat. It was dark, but it was there. Sharon felt her spirits rising as she followed the mysterious figure. After a couple of minutes she was nearly at the barge and she could see the pale light hesitate by the mooring. She put everything into the last few metres until she was standing outside the boat. But when she looked again, Sophia had vanished.

Sharon looked at the narrowboat and tried to imagine how she could climb onboard. It was impossible in this state, so she softly called out Henri’s name, waking her dog, Pags, who barked back. Henri was in! Then there was a bump and she heard the dog’s feet scraping on the wooden floor.

‘Shaz – is that you?’ Henri’s voice sounded from inside the boat. ‘I’m coming babe!’

There was a click and light streamed out from gaps in the woodwork. Sharon tried to shout but her throat was so dry only a cracking sound emerged. Then, the galley door opened and Henri and Pags came bounding over the side. Henri wrapped her arms around her friend and then it happened. It was as if lightning had struck them. A massive flash of energy surrounded the two women and in that instant Sharon realised the terrifying vision was true. Now she could begin to guess at the power that Rex had told her about and she could see why such power was corrupting. It was exhilarating to feel it run through her body.

Shapes and colours swirled around Henri’s body. As Sharon watched, the images evolved into a moving history of her life. She could see how much Henri loved her and the pain and anguish of secret hurts she’d carried with her for so long. Now she knew why Henri had divorced.

It was equally mind-blowing for Henri. Until then she’d seen Sharon as the friend and girl she had grown up with. Now it was as if the sun was there on the towpath. There was nothing else in her life but Sharon – all other concerns having been burnt away in that first contact.

Sharon managed to say, ‘Make us a cuppa, Hen, I’m parched…’ Then she collapsed.

‘Henri, it’s Manny, are you awake?’

They listened as he climbed on board and with a couple of long strides was soon thrusting his grey hair into the living quarters. To say he was surprised to see Sharon sitting drinking tea and eating biscuits would be an understatement. He practically fell down the three short steps and his big frame came to rest on a small wooden stool.

Everybody waited for somebody to speak and eventually Manny said, ‘You’re safe! I’ve been so worried; we’ve both been so worried, haven’t we Henri? I’m so sorry for the hangover and not waking up. Are you alright?’

Before she could answer, Manny reached over to take her hand. Sharon shrank back against the wooden partition and screamed. ‘No, don’t touch me! Manny, love, I don’t know whether I can explain this to you at the moment, but you mustn’t touch me for your own sake.’

Henri agreed. ‘It’s true Manny, what Sharon’s telling you is true. I touched her, I didn’t know and now everything’s changed.’

Manny looked from one woman to the other. Henri seemed to be as confused as Sharon. ‘How can it hurt? How’s it wrong to touch the one I love? It’s only me Shaz. Can you imagine what I’ve been through?’ He immediately regretted saying it. ‘Look I’m sorry, this doesn’t make any sense. Hen, can I have a cuppa while you both explain it to me properly?’ He looked to Henri for moral support but she didn’t respond.

‘Shaz has changed Manny – but you’ve got to suspend disbelief and give her a chance to explain. If it sounds weird to you, think what it’s like for her.’

Sharon explained what had happened but could see Manny couldn’t believe her account. After a few minutes she felt herself becoming angry. Partly it was at herself for lacking the language to best explain what had happened, and partly at him for being so pig-headed.

Sharon began again. ‘Which part do you have trouble understanding? Because you know I wouldn’t lie to you.’

‘It’s not that I don’t understand, and I know you never lie, however, I think you’re confused or perhaps banged your head or something. You know this can’t be true. No doubt there’s a rational explanation, but I can’t believe what you’re saying.’

‘For years,’ said Sharon angrily, ‘I’ve listened to your lectures on science and mathematics; sometimes stuff that was counter-intuitive. Now it’s my turn to tell you something: something novel, not out of any book or things that other people have invented or developed – but my own experience, and you say you can’t believe it. Why would we make it up? Do you think the two of us would have delusions at the same time? Perhaps you think we’re hysterical?’

‘You said it!’

‘What do you mean by that?’

‘You’re shouting and red in the face. Look, you’re spitting mad.’

Sharon grew redder.

Henri knew she had to stand up for her mate, so stood between them. By now Manny was angry as well. He was a big man and as he grew angrier he seemed to fill the small cabin.

‘If you have these powers,’ he roared, ‘why don’t you do something interesting? Why don’t you turn me into a frog? Perhaps you could turn water into wine, or a nice pint of beer? Or,’ and this seemed to amuse him greatly, ‘why not get Henri’s boat moving? How long has it been Hen – since the great traveller actually went anywhere under her own steam?’

Henri tried to remember. ‘Er, a couple of years, I suppose.’

Sharon jumped up. ‘Don’t pick on her, because you’re not man enough to take on what I’m saying.’

‘I’m not picking on her; I’m merely suggesting something for you to do with your superpowers.’

‘Shaz, you look ill – calm down.’

Sharon moaned, ‘I’m having a migraine…’ The blood in her head pounded louder and louder and flashes of brilliant colour made it difficult for her to see. She put her head in her hands. ‘Help me please, somebody…’

Then beneath their feet, something clanged and rumbled.

Manny and Henri looked at each other. ‘See what you’ve done now!’ shouted Henri.

The old diesel engine kicked and coughed into life, causing the boat began to rock and groans to come from the ancient hull. With a giant pace Manny leapt across the galley floor to the doors. However the acceleration fooled him and he slipped and landed in a heap by the table.

Henri looked out of a porthole to see the towpath shooting past. ‘Sharon’, she screamed, ‘Shaz, stop it!’ But Sharon still had her head in her hands and was impervious to Henri’s pleas.

Although dazed, Manny wasn’t injured and was soon back on his feet although this time he held on to the handrail. He looked out of the other side of the boat and let out a bit of a scream as two night-fishermen were washed into the canal by the bow waves. ‘Sharon, stop the boat!’ Again she didn’t respond. This time Manny brought both fists crashing down onto the table and shouted, ‘STOP THE BOAT!’

The table-top split sending teacups, pot and milk to the wooden floor. Sharon opened her eyes to become aware of what was happening. She briefly closed them again and Henri and Manny were overjoyed as they felt the boat slow and come to rest.

Nobody spoke for a few minutes, then Henri said, ‘Do you believe us now?’

Manny let go of the handrail and went to check the engine.

Sharon mouthed, ‘I’ve just started my period.’

Henri was amazed again. ‘So have I!’

Manny was soon back. ‘You both okay? Talk about coincidence. The chaps at work are going to love this; that old diesel engine must have been listening!’

Henri was appalled. ‘Manny, are you serious? You saw with your own eyes; what will it take to convince you?’

‘Convince me of what – that Sharon made the boat move by psychic power? All we need is a man of clay and we could pretend to be the Fantastic Four.’

‘Look, I’m sorry this has happened,’ Sharon said sadly, ‘although it’s not my fault. I knew I wouldn’t be able to convince you but I had to try. I’m not mad, confused, disturbed or hysterical, but I am scared, excited and determined to see this through. We can’t relate to each other at present and so it’s better if you go. I’ll speak to you later when we’re both calmer.’

He made to leave, then pushed his head back through the cabin door. ‘Sorry, forgot to give you this – your Easter present – a new MP3 player with hundreds of your fave tunes.’

After Manny had left, Sharon put on the headphones and pressed the PLAY button. Only Women Bleed by Alice Cooper began.

2

6TH MAY 2012

It took Sharon a week to recover, eventually feeling strong enough to walk to Solihull Library. However Henri couldn’t relax. Everybody stared at Sharon, who was shining but oblivious to the attention. Henri knew it was her duty to protect her friend. She hadn’t told Sharon that when they’d touched, Henri had seen a hooded figure and a small voice told her what to do.

The library door opened and they stepped inside. There was a cafe to the right and the smell of fresh coffee rushed out through the open entrance.

‘Why are we here?’ Henri asked.

‘Remember that Barbra Streisand film, Yentl? I want to read about everything,’ said Sharon looking across the hall.

Henri followed Sharon’s gaze and saw a librarian serving a customer at the helpdesk.

As Sharon watched the librarian it was as if she had two distinct fields of view. With ordinary vision, she saw a powerful woman of forty years, short blond hair, largish nose, full lips and plenty of laughter lines. Yet she seemed tired and worn. However, looking to her left Sharon could see a haze of shifting colours. She concentrated on this area, and it became clearer. Now details of the woman’s life were revealed like a slideshow.

Her name’s Kate – excellent at sports when young – potential champion – no support from older than average parents – drinks to excess – lacks confidence – naive with men – poor relationship with father – husband handsome but lazy – no children – maybe good thing considering wanker husband – deep sadness…

Once the librarian was free, Sharon explained, ‘I need to learn about everything, but I know that’s ridiculous because there isn’t time. Perhaps you could help me to understand a little about most things?’

The woman couldn’t take her eyes off Sharon and nodded as if hypnotised. ‘A little about most things, of course: how long do you have?’

‘A month or so,’ said Sharon.

‘Do you have any other requests?’

‘Yes, I need somewhere to study alone.’

Kate led her to a small booth on the first floor. After a minute, Henri saw a flash and heard Sharon shout, ‘Three!’

Sharon visited the library daily, studying science, maths and technology each morning and arts and humanities after lunch. Her powers enabled her to speed-read like Joe 90, but she tired quickly. After working for an hour in her little cubicle, she’d go to the café for cakes and biscuits with coffee, tea and hot chocolate. She repeated this throughout the day.

After eating her evening meal and two puddings, Sharon said, ‘Since I’ve been stopping here with you I’ve come to realise just how beautiful Solihull is. We used to play behind the garages when I was a kid in Yardley – we’d have loved to mess about around the canal like you posh children.’ She laughed. ‘Only joking.’

‘It’s true,’ said Henri. ‘Solihull is a nice place to live. Its motto is Urbs In Rure – Town in the Country – so the countryside’s never far away. Solihull’s lucky to have a female MP and mayor. I’m not a political person, but I know both women and they’re cool. And then there’s Solihull’s excellent transport links; motorways, trains and canals, and…’

‘Did you ever work in Tourist Information?’

‘Very funny.’

‘Oh, I almost forgot!’ Sharon pulled a piece of paper from her jacket pocket.

‘What’s that?’ asked Henri, clearing away.

‘A dark woman left it on my table in the library cafe. I caught her staring at me. Take a look…’

‘Everybody stares at you – I’ve told you a hundred times already. Anyway what’s Aikido – a martial art?’

‘Yep, it means the way of harmony with the spirit. There’s a session tomorrow. Are the bikes roadworthy?’

‘Does the Pope shit in the Vatican?’

‘That’s my Henri!’

They cycled to Cofton Hackett and found the Ei Mei Kan dojo. The building had originally been a chapel and now sported padded canvas mats on floor and walls. At the far end of the room was an incense burner and racks of oriental swords and sticks.

They watched as the students went through their patterns, copying the Sensei, taking it in turns to be attacker and attacked. Sharon spotted the woman from the library.

After the session Sensei Mooney introduced them. ‘My leading student, Roni Clay.’

Sharon liked the Sensei immediately, judging him a good man who used his power wisely. ‘Thanks for the demonstration – most impressive. I’m Sharon Brough and this is my friend Henri.’

Once outside, Roni said, ‘My mate’s cafe round the corner. I’ll get changed and we’ll have a drink. Sharon thought her pretty and tough at the same time; a mix of wildness and elegance

Roni opened the café herself. ‘It’s Sunday morning, Pross was probably out last night. I’ll make the drinks – want some toast?’

Henri offered to help, so Sharon was able to examine Roni. She could see the same power and control as in Sensei Mooney. Then she looked to the side.

No wonder she looks tough – mother died in childbirth – never knew father – local authority homes – physical and sexual abuse – yet strong sense of self – victim of racial abuse – started aikido aged fifteen – boyfriend lasted two weeks – she thirty years – aikido her life and dojo her family – served police force twenty years – others promoted – superiors like to be rid of her – told commanding officer what she thought of him – quit on medical grounds.

When Roni sat down, Sharon said, ‘We’re on a mission to make the world a better place – I’d like you fighting alongside me.’

Roni said, ‘Whatever you’re doing you can count me in!’

Sharon took her hands out of her pockets and reached across the table. Roni did the same and as their hands touched, Henri saw the flash of blue-white light. She looked around to see if anybody had noticed, but the cafe was empty. Sharon shouted, ‘Now we are four!’

When Pross walked in, Sharon already knew all about her from looking to Roni’s side.

One of six children – reads – housewife and mother – kids left home – hospital chef – practical – DIY – businesswoman – women’s shoes online to transvestites – loves plants – gardens – green fingers – battled racism all life – drink – soft drugs – many unhappy affairs…

Pross couldn’t work out what was happening. ‘Have you had your hair done Ron? You look different…’

Roni laughed. ‘That’s down to my friend Sharon here. She’s the one I told you about from the library.’

‘You’ve made quite an impression on Roni,’ said Pross, nodding slowly. ‘She looks years younger!’

‘I saw the challenges she’d overcome,’ said Sharon. ‘I’m on a mission… ’

Then Pross noticed the light around Sharon. ‘You’re on a mission…’ She looked to Roni for reassurance who nodded. She turned back to Sharon. ‘Who are you and what do you want with me?’

Sharon smiled her warmest smile. ‘I’m an ordinary woman with a couple of friends. A lot of things need changing and we’re forming a group to help this happen. You’re clever, funny, enterprising and…’

‘…she can cook!’ shouted Henri.

Sharon laughed. ‘So will you join us?’

Pross nodded, too amazed to speak.

Sharon held out her hands and grasping her new friend, shouted, ‘Five alive!’

Henri jumped as the light flashed around them even though she’d only seen it an hour before. As she said afterwards, ‘It’s not something you ever really get used to…’

Two days later Sharon and Henri found their way to the restaurant at the Queen Elizabeth Hospital. Pross was sitting with two women.

‘Afternoon ladies; meet my mates. This is Flora.’ Pross pointed to a nurse.

Sharon smiled. ‘So this must be Dora!’ She looked to the side and saw the women were non identical twins who hated their names: Flora due to the margarine and Dora because hers was so old fashioned. Sharon saw them at school and watched as they stuck up for each other.

Always wanted to be a nurse – recently divorced – husband Kelvin – policeman – no children – domestic violence – conservative – loyal – caring…

Now she studied Dora the ambulance driver.

Tomboy – comedienne – union replesbian – partner Vicki – problems – practical joker – fun – often drunk – maudlin after drink – parents died recently – can’t come out as gay – excellent driver sober…

When the introductions were over Flora asked Sharon what she was planning. ‘Pross has tried to explain but I’m confused. She said you’re going to change things but when I asked what exactly, she couldn’t say.’

Sharon smiled. ‘That’s right. It’s up to ordinary women like us to solve the problems of our age. All life on the planet is in our hands. Join us and you can tend to the sick and help heal thousands of years of malaise.’

As Flora was digesting this Sharon turned her attention to her sister. ‘You too Dora – will you be part of our middle-aged girlband? I see myself in you, and love your sense of humour. I’m sorry about your parents, but we have work to do with the living.’

Sharon could tell both women wanted in but could see Flora still felt it was too vague.

Dora started laughing. ‘This is the best thing that ever happened to us, I feel as if I’m a kid again!’

Sharon held out her hands to Dora who gladly grasped them. ‘Six!’ shouted Sharon. This time there were other people in the cafe and the flash did startle them.

‘They’re old friends – always taking photos,’ said Henri by way of explanation.

‘Seven!’ shouted Sharon.

When Sharon touched Flora nobody even looked round. How typically English, thought Henri.

They went to the Gun Barrels on the Bristol Road afterwards and Dora explained why she’d been so down. ‘Vicki, my partner, is an identical twin. We’ve been together for eight years and everything’s been great. Then last year her sister Lisa had an accident during a three day event…’

As Dora was explaining, Sharon saw Lisa fall off her horse and end up with a fractured skull and broken bones in her neck. The doctors repaired her body but couldn’t bring her back to consciousness. Sharon realised Dora was looking at her in a strange way. For a moment she thought Dora could see what she was seeing, but realised that wasn’t the case. She was hoping Sharon could help her partner.

Flora took up the story. ‘Their family were wealthy once, but most of the money’s gone now. They inherited the house by the River Blythe from an uncle who was big in engineering. They still live in the place, but it’s too large for them – the upkeep alone costs a fortune. Now they’ve got Lisa in a coma at the private hospital…’

Dora continued. ‘Her parents are old now and only stay at the house for sentimental reasons. They’re lovely people but this latest tragedy has hit them hard.’

‘What does Vicki do?’ asked Henri.

‘She’s a personal trainer and aerobics instructor, although it’s hard to get her motivated recently. She’s stopped socialising since the accident.’ She looked at her own sister. ‘You know what twins are like. She’s depressed and spends most of her free time sitting with Lisa, talking to her in the hope she’ll recover. So far she hasn’t responded. Before the accident Vicki was really extroverted and lived life to the full. Lisa’s fall has really affected the whole family.’

Sharon looked Dora in the eyes. ‘I’d like to meet Vicki and Lisa. Of course, I can’t promise anything.’

‘If you’d try it would be fantastic,’ said Dora. ‘So much love and positive energy can only help…’

‘What do you think, Flora?’

She shrugged her shoulders. ‘It can hardly hurt, unless it raises false expectations.’

‘If we expect nothing we won’t be disappointed.’

Vicki and her parents were there to meet them at Blythe Brook Hall. Sharon recognized her instantly from the images she’d seen at Dora’s side.

‘What a fantastic house!’ Sharon told the old couple. Even without looking to the side she could see the sadness in their faces. ‘When was it built?’

‘It’s not as old as it looks thankfully,’ explained Vicki’s mother. ‘It’s late Victorian, about 1867. As a girl I visited my cousin‘s family here – never dreaming I‘d one day own it. Anyway, enough of that; come and have tea with us.’ She gazed at Sharon. ‘You look famished; will you have some homemade fruit cake?’

‘Now that’s an offer I can‘t refuse!’ said Sharon smiling.

She felt a massive surge of energy when Vicki was near, and knew she’d join their…group. What should she call it? And while she was thinking along these lines, she asked herself again; what were they going to do? Sharon thought it best to come to the point. After thanking Isabel for tea she enquired about Lisa.

‘She’s at the private hospital. There’s some insurance money and we top up the rest.’

‘What’s the prognosis?’ asked Sharon, realizing she wouldn’t have known the word a few weeks ago.

‘The specialist says there’s a chance she’ll recover some functions,’ said Isabel with tears in her eyes, ‘but the longer Lisa stays away the smaller that possibility becomes.’

After Sharon had touched Vicki’s hands they walked to the hospital. Lisa looked remarkably well for somebody so ill.

Dora explained. ‘The family pay for full-time care. Lisa has daily physiotherapy, is regularly turned, washed and fed intravenously. You can imagine how expensive it all is; I don’t think they can keep it up indefinitely.’

Sharon asked to be left alone. Even though an oxygen mask covered much of her Lisa’s face, her blonde hair was carefully arranged and nails were perfect. She tried to look to the side but it was cloudy and no images presented themselves. When she touched Lisa’s hand there was barely a trickle of energy and no lights. However, she knew Lisa would recover, but it would take time.

When Sharon told the family they were overjoyed. Only Flora looked at her as if to say, ‘I hope it’s true…’

Sharon went home to visit Manny that night. He apologised for getting angry and she said sorry for everything. She looked to his side and to his great credit, saw everything he’d ever told her was true. She knew from talking to other women that affairs happened left, right and centre. She also saw his meeting with the police and realised she’d have to keep her head down. She could tell he hadn’t mentioned it because he didn’t want to spoil their time together.

‘Manny, love,’ she said through tears, ‘it won’t be forever.’

‘What won’t?’ He was crying as well and their pathetic snotty voices eventually made them laugh and it was like old times again.

That was until Manny tried to touch her. Sharon stepped in and out as she’d seen Sensei Mooney do. Luckily the settee was behind her and Manny made a reasonable landing. They laughed again which she took to be a good sign.

‘We still can’t touch then?’

‘I told you, I don’t want you to become like them.’

‘Like who?’

‘Henri and the others…’

‘Others?’

‘Just a few hysterical females who share my delusions.’

‘No need to quote me again, I’ve already apologised.’

‘Know where the word ‘hysterical’ comes from?’
‘It means mad in Greek?’

‘It’s Greek, I’ll give you one point; but it comes from the word for a womb.’

This was a new experience for Manny and he wasn’t quite sure how to respond. ‘Have you been studying Greek?’

‘Not as such.’

Earlier in the week, librarian Kate phoned Henri to tell her she was splitting up with her husband and moving in with her cousin Nina. As she cycled with Henri to the flat in Kings Heath, Sharon knew Nina would be another of her women. She could see her life unfold as she pedalled.

Short arms due to thalidomide-type drug given to mother – educated by nuns – now anti-religion – passionate – alcoholic – breakdowns – parents dead – eldest of three – brother lives locally – sister in France – travel agent – divorced – children grown – job precarious – free spirit…

Their eyes met across the room and Sharon nodded to Nina. They touched hands in front of Kate and Henri, who cheered when the brilliant light flashed. As they embraced, Sharon whispered to Nina, ‘Shine my love, you’re number nine. Your alcoholism is cured!’

Sharon kept up her library visits, ate well and slept lots. When she next visited Blythe Brook Hall, Lisa’s father, Clive, talked of his wartime experiences. Sharon looked to his side and saw an enemy mortar shell land directly on his friend and radio operator. Clive was thrown into the air, stunned and left deafened some distance away. The commanding officer ordered Clive to pick up the radio gear and carry on. Sharon watched as he had to take the headphones from his dead friend whose skull had been blown apart and brains were all over the equipment. Poor Clive! All these years he’d felt guilty his friend had died and he’d survived.

Sharon whispered, ‘It wasn’t your fault; you did all you could. Your friend loved you and you loved him. Let go of the guilt.’

Isabel told Sharon they wanted to help. Lisa’s doctors were amazed her vital signs were all stronger. ‘We’re so grateful; everyone’s been so down since the accident.’

‘My pleasure,’ said Sharon.

Isabel continued. ‘We’d give you money but we’re rather short ourselves. We did think of something – there’s a summerhouse in the grounds that might be of use to you and your women. It will need a lick of paint as it’s been empty for a couple of years. Shall we take a stroll in the garden?’

‘I love gardening,’ said Sharon. ‘But my little plot would be lost in this great expanse.’

Isabel was pointing. ‘Look, there’s the Shed!’

Sharon tried to follow Isabel’s directions. ‘I’m sorry, I can’t see it. Is it behind that house?’

Isabel and Clive laughed. ‘That’s it. That is the Shed!’

Sharon was flabbergasted. ‘No wonder, I was looking for something wooden; it’s hardly a shed, it‘s a detached house!’

‘It was built for a maiden aunt of Isabel’s grandfather,’ explained Clive. ‘Then the gardener took it over. It still has some of the original furniture. It would be nice to hear laughter and music and voices again.’

As Clive had said there were many interesting details, but Sharon was especially impressed with the large circular wooden table in the main room. It was dusty but seemed in good repair. There weren’t many chairs but Sharon found one and wiping the dust from the table, pretended she was chairing a meeting. ‘This is fantastic! Are you sure we can use it? I can’t wait to tell the women.’

The next time Sharon visited her mother, Shirley was awake, and called, ‘Come in!’ She was sitting in her wheelchair completing a simple jigsaw. Sharon helped and the two women chatted for a couple hours. Shirley began to talk about her husband. ‘He was the only man I was ever close to, if you know what I mean. Of course, you were his great favourite.’

‘Are you sure mum?’ asked Sharon. ‘I sometimes thought he would rather have had a son.’

‘No, he was right proud of you. As soon as I came out of hospital, he had everyone round to show you off. But most men weren’t like your dad. I remember when I was having you, some bloke shouting at his wife in the next bed, ‘Not another bloody girl!’ The poor woman cried for days.’

Sharon was watching Loose Women and Manny was reading the paper. When the adverts started she said, ‘What is it love? I can feel you’re waiting to tell me something…’

‘Remember Tall Colin, the bloke you met on the charity walk?’ said Manny. ‘Reckons he saw you and your women dancing like nutters in the park.’ He finished his coffee. ‘Were you?’

‘When?’

‘Sometime last week, I suppose.’

‘What’s wrong with dancing?’

‘You’re nearly fifty. It’ll be all round work. He said you looked like you were on drugs.’

Sharon was torn between sympathy and indignation. ‘I’m sorry if I embarrassed you. What did you say?’

‘That it was none of my business what you did with your friends. I don’t own or control you. I said it was probably somebody‘s birthday.’

‘I never thought about being seen, we were just so happy. You see, Vicki’s mum’s offered us a house in their grounds to use as a base.’

Manny looked uncomfortable. ‘Sharon, you know I love you. I’m not being funny, but I don’t know any of these people. Even in this short period we’ve grown apart.’

‘You’re right. I’ll organize some introductions, then you’ll see what great girls they are. Anyway, Loose Women’s back on – this is one of the perks of being off work – I never had time to watch my favourite…’

She was cut short by the sound of the doorbell. Manny sloped off to see who it was then stuck his head round the door and whispered, ‘Christian missionaries – from the evangelical church in Solihull!’

Sharon smiled mischievously. ‘It’ll be nice to have some company; let’s hear what they’ve got to say.’ She studied her guests. There was a small greasy middle-aged man and a slim young woman wearing thick spectacles. First she looked to the man’s side.

From Liverpool – many brothers and sisters – former soldier – not a nice man – name Ernest – cruel to first wife and daughters – abuser of women – it’s giving me a funny taste in mouth…

Then she scanned the young woman.

Lesley – crossing support officer (a lollipop lady!) – part time Tesco worker – knocks on doors because this bloke’s her stepfather – clever girl – bright and cheerful – dad left when a toddler – mum had succession of boyfriends – lack of self-esteem…

Sharon smiled and the man visibly wilted. ‘Morning Ernest, I hope you’ve got something especially interesting to say, as I was enjoying a quiet hour with my partner after a particularly difficult week at work, coping with family problems and the usual grind of daily life. And by interesting I mean things I couldn’t just read in any bible, in any hotel room, in any city in the world…’

Ernest seemed lost for words. Sharon smiled at the young woman. ‘I guess you’d rather be dancing than knocking on doors?’

The young woman laughed. ‘Yes I would.’

Sharon’s eyes shone. ‘I love dancing. It’s one of the first things I can remember, dancing on a lawn.’

‘It’s what I’ve always wanted to do. I spend most of my free time either dancing or watching others.’

This conversation was too much for Ernest, who suddenly remembered he needed to be somewhere else. When he asked Lesley to leave, Sharon glared at him and he quickly left the house alone.

Manny was meeting his friends at the football match, so he made his excuses and drove off.

Sharon said, ‘Great change is coming – do you want to dance to a new tune with us?’

The woman did, and touched Sharon’s outstretched hands. There was a flash and the group gained its youngest member, 23 year-old Lesley.

‘Double figures!’ shouted Sharon to nobody in particular.

When Manny finished work on Saturday lunchtime, Sharon took him to see the Shed. The women had decorated and the place had been totally transformed. After a guided tour, Sharon and Manny followed the girls to the lounge. The wooden table had been covered up and Sharon could see other sheets dotted around the room. Manny lifted the sheet draped over what appeared to be an easy chair and found Dora hiding beneath. She jumped into the air and he nearly fainted with shock. After he’d recovered Sharon tiptoed over to another sheet, lifted a corner and peeped underneath.

Roni emerged with a broad grin. ‘I thought you’d never come. I’ve got cramp now.’ They all laughed, although Sharon knew Roni was joking as she could sit absolutely still and had almost total control over her body.

Soon it was time for tea. Sharon saw the women had left two chairs for her and Manny. However they were not together. The empty chairs faced each other across the table.

After the food and party games they walked in the gardens and Sharon asked him why he was sulking.

‘I’m a bit old for pin the tail on the donkey.’

‘How much was the season ticket for the Blues this year?’

‘There’s no comparison.’

‘You’re right; people don’t get beaten up watching pass the parcel.’

‘Ha-ha. It was impossible to get near you. Every time I moved, one of your ‘women’ managed to get between us. That’s why I chatted with Clive, you didn’t even notice.’

‘I’m sorry, I didn’t realise.’

‘It’s not as if anybody’s even had a drink or anything. I understand what Tall Colin meant now. You all act like you’re pissed. Intoxicated with each other’s company, is that it?’

‘Manny, you can be part of this…’

‘You’ve overlooked the fact that you can’t touch me. Also, there’s sex. I’m male, and your new friends are exclusively female. In fact, I’d guess that if you introduce men to the group things will soon change…’

‘Sulking won’t help. I said you could be part of it, and I mean it. You know I love you. I’ve explained what happened and that it won’t be forever. What would you have me do? Be a good little lady and say, “I can’t get involved, my partner might not like it.”’

‘That’s not fair. You know I’ve done my best to come to terms with all this. Put yourself in my position; what would you have said if I told you I’d got secret powers?’

‘I would have said, “Great, what shall we do?”‘

‘Okay, okay, I give in. But I’m not dancing in parks, or doing anything to make me even more of a laughing stock at work.’

‘Also, can I borrow the Landy for a few days?’

‘If you look after the old girl. Why?’

‘I want to visit an old friend.’

For three nights running Sharon had dreamed of a girl from junior school. On the third morning she recalled her name: Dippalee. She remembered wishing for a beautiful name like Dippalee instead of Sharon. It felt important so she asked Kate for help, and by the next day had a picture and address in Acocks Green, Birmingham. Dippalee was a shamanic healer.

When she answered the door, Sharon recognized the tall woman from her dreams. She invited them in saying, ‘I’ve felt your presence for some time. Many people have seen a goddess in their meditations and others are proclaiming that a manifestation of Mary, Mother of God, is imminent. I could take you to women who’ve been praying for your arrival…’

Sharon looked to the side and could see she was telling the truth and it sent shivers down her spine. ‘We’re not saying it’s the new religion, however I’d like to meet them.’

Dora was suspicious. ‘How could you feel Sharon coming?’

‘I’m a shaman, or as some say, a medicine woman,’ she smiled. ‘And a software engineer for an agency in Birmingham by day. It pays the mortgage and I help the community in my spare time.’

Dora wasn’t impressed. ‘Just another religion then?’

‘Shamanism is a set of techniques. Our practice predates all religions. Just as an engineer or technician might repair or maintain a machine, so a shaman does the same with people, ghosts, ancestors and spirits. We don’t worship a deity or follow what is written in so-called holy books either.’

Sharon felt she could trust her old friend. ‘Dippalee, I think it’s fair to say that I’ve had an extraordinary experience. It all began at Easter…’

Dippalee’s eyes grew progressively wider as Sharon explained. She began walking round the room and talking quickly. ‘Eblis or Iblis was the chief of the fallen angels in the Koran. Rex Mundi is the master of this world and Sophia is the Goddess of Knowledge in Gnosticism. The Tempter is another name for Lucifer or Satan. The Bible tells how he tested and tried to tempt Jesus in the desert.’ As Dippalee grew more excited her pace increased. ‘And, he took Jesus high up to test him – just like your guy with the Rotunda. But these names are only labels…’

‘There’ll be time for further discussion.’ Sharon had already read about everything Dippalee described, but it was nice to hear it from somebody else. She stood up and took off her gloves. ‘Now, if you want to join us, hold my hands and we’ll heal humanity together!’

They touched and there was a great flash and the energy flowed again. Dora heard Sharon shout, ‘Eleven!’

Sharon lay awake at night pondering whether Dippalee was the last of her women. By the morning she’d decided to contact her former workmate, Aisha. They’d been legal secretaries together when Sharon was in her early twenties. A lot of her memories of the period were lost in an alcoholic haze, but their friendship had been strong enough to survive. Recently, however, their relationship had dwindled to a longish handwritten note in a birthday or Christmas card. Consequently Sharon knew little more than Aisha was an administrator in the Faculty of Business, Environment and Society at Coventry University, so decided to pay her a visit. She still had the Landy and decided to drive herself.

She spotted her friend in a creative writing class and slipped in quietly at the back. Sharon amused herself by looking to the side of the teacher, a bright, attractive woman of about her own age, called Alyson spelled with a ‘Y’. The lecturer’s father had been a dashing captain in the army, but sadly her widowed mother had only recently recovered from a hip operation after a nasty fall in Leamington Spa several years before…

When the class was over, Aisha saw Sharon and jumped with the surprise. Sharon scanned her friend’s life and marvelled at her resolve to express herself, even though others had tried to mould her to their image and repress much of her potential. Sharon was proud to see her friend had fought, much like Roni, to be secure in her own space. Where Roni had used martial arts, Aisha, in a similar way to Kate, had found strength in knowledge and education.

They walked to Brown’s, and found a seat upstairs where it was quiet. ‘I’m working on a diploma,’ said Aisha. ‘My dream is to be an author.’

Sharon dropped her gloves on the bench, and holding out her hands, said, ‘Join us and you can help write the future of humanity.’ A passing Nigerian student heard somebody shout, ‘Twelve!’ but thought nothing of it and continued on her way.

While negotiating the Ring Road, Sharon quickly realised she’d left her gloves at the university. She turned round and as she pulled back into the car park, a red Peugeot cabriolet cut in front of the Landy and they collided. The radio came on with the impact, and Sisters are Doing it for Themselves by Annie Lennox and Aretha Franklin blared out.

Sharon always drove with the belt as loose as possible so was thrown forward and left stunned in her seat. The driver of the other car got out, reached in through the open window and took Sharon’s hand and the final contact occurred. A flash of light illuminated the inside of the car.

Sharon managed to say, ‘Thirteen!’, and looked into the eyes of a woman called, Judith – a television producer.

‘Pleased to meet you,’ said Sharon. She became aware of shouting from behind the car. ‘If you’d excuse me…’

Without taking her eyes off Sharon, Judith reluctantly let go of her hand. Sharon jumped out to find a young man swearing and gesticulating towards them. Sharon smiled, blew a kiss, and the chunky gold chain around the man’s neck began to heat up.

Telling her latest convert to follow, Sharon drove back as carefully as possible.

Back at the Shed, Henri and Dora were drinking tea.

‘As you can see,’ said Sharon, ‘I’ve gained two friends and lost Manny’s no-claim-bonus. This is Aisha.’

Dora gave her the thumbs up. Henri smiled and said, ‘We’ve met.’

‘This is Judith. I bumped into her, or rather her car, and we touched. She’s the last one. Make us a cuppa then I’ll tell Manny the news.’

Kate’s husband Trevor noticed a change in his wife’s behaviour after Easter. It didn’t take him long to work out what was going on; the bitch was having an affair. When she’d told him she needed more space and was moving out to live with her cousin, he’d followed her and found that much was true. ‘I wonder who the bastard is?’ he asked himself.

3

4TH JUNE 2012

They were sitting at the round table. Unusually, for a working-class, middle-aged woman, Sharon knew enough cosmology to understand how the universe had developed and had a sufficient grasp of chemistry and biology to comprehend the basic processes of life. She’d studied economics, archaeology, history, politics, philosophy, sociology and psychology, and had read a cross-section of classic literature. She could see many problems with human society, but as yet had no solutions.

Sharon stood up and the room fell silent. ‘I’ve been thinking about the words “production” and “industry” and the phrase “man-made”. Our world is ruled by men, yet we’re all made by women, so reproduction is the essential production. But human life is cheap and millions die yearly from lack of food, water and other basic needs. All studies show that when women have access to health services and education, the birth rate drops. The present system that uses and abuses the majority of the population cannot continue. Society will change, because we’re going to give it a big kick.’ Sharon surveyed her women sitting at the round table. ‘That’s my mission; anybody with me?’

Afterwards they walked to the River Blythe. As they picnicked by the bridge, Sharon said, ‘Our menstrual periods have become synchronised in a very short time, which is strange and interesting and may be important, I’m not sure yet.  Comments?’

‘There’s gonna be some interesting times ahead,’ said Dora, shaking her head. ‘Hey Dippalee, what’s the equation?’

Dippalee shrugged. ‘For what?’

‘Calculating PMT squared…’

‘I don’t get it,’ said Dippalee.

‘13 women and one of them the Ms.siah; that’s a lot of PMT…’ replied Dora.

They all laughed at Dora’s new nickname, none more than Sharon. When they had quietened down, Sharon said, ‘Secondly, and this may be down to luck or some mysterious design, none of us have dependent children, yet we all have personal and family relationships. How we manage these will be an important issue for us. I suggest we share our burdens with each other and hopefully we’ll resolve any problems. Also, I foresee issues with former partners.’

Dippalee reminded Sharon of their conversation when they’d first touched. ‘They call themselves Tree Women. They live outside so-called normal society, and there are hundreds of them with their children. They want to meet you – in fact, they claim, they’ve been waiting for years for you to arrive.’

‘And you just happen to know where to find them?’

‘Yes, my sister’s involved. They live wherever there are enough trees. If you are happy to speak, I’ll arrange a meeting.’

‘I’ll look forward to it – we need input from likeminded groups. But remember, we’re not promoting a new religion…’

‘Of course, but we can hardly deny the parallels with you-know-who and his twelve disciples…’

‘I know; I’ve been worrying ever since Judith touched me. Do you think it’s a coincidence?’

‘I don’t believe in coincidences. And what about King Arthur?’

‘Don’t Dipp – that’s just a myth, isn’t it?’

Dippalee pulled a face. ‘Just a myth? What about your mate Rex Mundi, was he a myth? And Sophia?’

‘Okay, but let’s keep this to ourselves if possible. I don’t want folk thinking we’re some bunch of kooks, trying to bring about an archaic revival.’

‘It’s your call, but I guess others will make the same comparisons at some stage.’

‘We’ll deal with that when it happens.’

As Sharon approached the old folks’ home the next morning, she was thinking about social change. Revolutions usually put worse leaders in power, but if you took the leaders out, others would replace them. Then an idea came to her; she would be the leader to end all leaders, and instead of a hierarchy they’d have a…lowerarchy!

Four elderly ladies were working in the front garden. One said, ‘Morning; your mother’s in the games room.’

Sharon couldn’t remember a games room, so made her way to the lounge. Shirley was sitting with a few others playing cards. The staff sat outside in the sunshine drinking tea.

‘Lizzie Middleton’s today’s champion – give her a big hand!’ announced Shirley.

Sharon was surprised; her mother never played games.

Shirley spotted her. ‘We’re just stopping for lunch. Might teach them poker later.’

‘You’ll get raided!’

‘I take it that’s a joke? Poker’s all the rage; keeps the brain young. There’ve been some changes here; we’ve decided to take more responsibility.’

‘Who exactly?’

‘All of us. Nancy and I have perhaps been most enthusiastic, but everybody’s involved. We’ve taken over the catering – we have over two millennia of experience. We’ve suggested the staff study to get better jobs as there’s not much cash in caring.’

‘Who’s Nancy?’

Shirley pointed to the old lady who usually waved to Manny.

‘We’ve got big plans, but limited time. Did you come for anything special dear? I’m not being funny but there’s so much to do.’

‘I just called to say I love you.’

‘That’s Stevie Wonder isn’t it? You’ve inherited my love of music.’

Roni said the women would put on a display that weekend. When the afternoon arrived they placed benches and mats on the lawn. Isabel and Clive sat with Manny and Sharon.

The women, wearing white martial arts suits with rainbow-hued belts, formed two rows. At Roni’s signal they bowed to each other before stretching. Next  came a session of basic Aikido. The women split into pairs and copied techniques Roni demonstrated. Each attacker was neutralised and thrown to the mat. The women already had the poise and power of the black belt students she’d seen at the dojo. Sharon felt a warm glow of pride.

Roni faced the spectators and explained, ‘A short demonstration of Ki – the force that flows through everything.’ She approached Manny and asked for a volunteer. After taking off his shoes, he stepped onto the mat. Roni studied her troops and picked out the smallest. ‘Jude, can you hold out your left arm.’

She turned to Manny. ‘Please pull Judith’s arm down to her side; she’ll try and resist. May I ask how much you weigh?’

‘About 100 kilos,’ Manny guessed. ‘Why?’

‘Jude’s just over half that.’

So Manny pressed on Judith’s arm. It was clear he didn’t expect a struggle, but nothing happened. He pressed and his face grew redder, yet the arm didn’t move. Manny tried harder. His face contorted but his efforts were in vain; the arm wouldn’t budge. Eventually he gave up and stepped back.

‘Three cheers for Sharon and the Sheddies,’ shouted Isabel.

Even Manny clapped when he’d got his breath back.

Once he was safely off the mat the second half of the demonstration began. They split into two groups and Roni put on a blindfold. Five women stood around their instructor. The others attacked but were prevented from getting near Roni. They reformed and tried from different angles but the result was the same. Next, Flora wore the blindfold and the group swapped their roles. Sharon was amazed to see how well the women coped.

Later, while they were eating, Roni explained. ‘We’ve been working on basic patterns, flexibility and general fitness.’

Clive caught her attention. ‘May I ask how the lady could resist?’

‘We call it the “unbending arm” – a simple way of showing willpower is stronger than muscle power.’ replied Roni. ‘When one’s really relaxed it’s amazing what can be achieved.’

Afterwards Sharon said, ‘I’m so proud of you, er, Sheddies! Let’s thank Roni for her time and enthusiasm.’

Roni smiled and accepted the applause. She hoped the women would remember their training when the shit hit the fan, because she had no doubt it would.

Before he left, Manny asked if she’d come to a quiz. He didn’t mention the rumours. ‘Can’t you bring a couple of your superwomen? I wouldn’t ask, but it’s a benefit night for a bloke I knew; left a wife and three kids…’

‘Okay.’

Manny was chuffed. He’d pay his respects to the driver, show he was still with Sharon and win a few quid into the bargain.

‘Not so fast,’ said Sharon. ‘I need a favour too…’

Soon they were being led down a corridor in the private hospital. They came to a locked door; the nurse entered the security code and let them into Lisa’s room.

When they were alone Sharon explained. ‘I’ve done all I can, and know she’ll recover. What she needs now is human contact. Read to her as often as possible. Every day would be perfect, although I realise that may be difficult.’

Manny wasn’t convinced. ‘Why me? I don’t even know her. What about your women?’

Sharon explained. ‘Everybody’s visiting her already, and soon we’ll all be busier. Also, I won’t have to keep an eye on you.’ Sharon smiled. ‘I was joking about the last bit. I really need your help, Manny. You know how good you are at reading aloud. You could’ve been an actor.’

Sharon watched him staring at the prone figure of Lisa, trying to decide what to do. ‘What will I read?’ he asked.

‘You’ve got hundreds of books: pick something suitable; nothing too heavy or nasty.’

‘Okay, I’ll give it a go,’ he said grudgingly, ‘for a week or two…’

‘Manny?’

‘What?’

‘I love you.’

‘But I love you more!’

‘Of course you don’t!’

Whenever Sharon wanted to be on her own she went to the canal, taking bread for the ducks. She finished giving out the crusts, and after saying goodbye to the mallards, began to head back. There were clouds in the sky and the wind was rising. She knew so much more than only a few weeks ago, but had no idea what to do. She remembered reading that Karl Marx had said it wasn’t enough to understand history – the object was to change it. So that’s all she had to do; change history and human evolution.

Grant Wiltshire surveyed his empire. Seven skip trucks were parked neatly against the fence of the school next door; beyond them stood the half-dozen clamping vehicles and ice cream vans. He sat in his executive chair and span round a few times. He’d always wanted to do it as a kid, but his miserable bastard of a father had never let him.

Grant thought about his new venture and felt warm inside. It was hard to believe people could fall for such a scam, yet everybody was doing it. Even the biggest companies were buying into carbon offsetting schemes. When first told he’d checked the calendar to make sure it wasn’t April 1st! He’d swapped a few grams of “Bissel” (he still called it Coke or Charlie or Sniff, but the youngsters were using this new word – something to do with a rap artist apparently) with somebody who worked at the printers and they’d created a new company logo. He was studying the new letterhead when the telephone rang.

His new secretary answered. ‘Morning, Wiltshire Environmental, how can I help you?’

It was the garage. His new top spec Range Rover Sports was ready. He still didn’t understand how the apparition of his former partner had caused him to total the old vehicle, but guessed it was a reaction from the drugs and the drink. He shuddered again when he remembered what he’d seen.

Grant stood beside his latest secretary’s desk and told her a bit about himself. He’d get the Rover and take her to lunch. What was the point of having a new car if you couldn’t show off?

As the taxi neared the social club, Sharon gave the women the low-down. ‘Manny’s got a lot riding on this; you know how competitive men of his age can be. So I’ve got a suggestion…’

They walked past the test track where skilled drivers put vehicles through near-impossible routines, turned a corner and there stood Manny. He took Sharon to one side and said in a strained voice. ‘What’s this? I thought you’d bring Dippalee and Kate. I love your mother to bits, but she’s got advanced dementia…’

‘Mum’s improved and Nancy’s very knowledgeable. I bet they surprise you.’

‘Don’t mention betting, I‘ve wagered Tall Colin fifty quid we’d win.’

The main hall could hold three hundred people. Tonight there were fifteen teams of four, so they split the room; it still felt cavernous.

‘I’ve thought of a name for the team,’ said Sharon.

Manny was sulking. ‘Tell the steward, though it’s probably better to remain anonymous.’

After a few rounds, Manny became interested again. He confided in Sharon. ‘I’ve got half right, and you three have known the rest of the answers.’

Just then Tall Colin and a woman appeared. ‘Hope that bulge is your wallet, Mann!’ Tall Colin shouted and leered down at his squeeze. The woman laughed.

Manny smiled back. ‘Fancy your chances Col – wanna double it?’

Tall Colin couldn’t believe his luck. ‘Who are these ladies, the Golden Girls?’

‘My mother Shirley and her friend Nancy,’ explained Sharon. ‘We’ve sprung them for the night; residential homes can be so boring. By the way, have you told your fragrant friend about your erectile dysfunction?’

Tall Colin blushed and turned to Manny. ‘A ton it is. You engineers do enough overtime to cover it!’ He laughed, and after slapping Manny on the shoulder, returned to his table.

Sharon was glad to see him go. ‘What’s their team called?’

The Back-Stabbers.’

‘Why?’

‘Don’t ask; it’s a long story.’

At half time the steward announced the scores. ‘In fifth – Brothers in Armatures. Ahead of them – Ladies of the Nightshift, closely followed by the Slide Rulers. There’s just one point separating the top two. The Back Stabbers are second, because, in first – in pole position – with a perfect score, are Shed13!’

Manny scanned the room, looking for the winning team, before noticing Sharon was laughing.

‘We’re Shed13,’ she said and swigged her lemonade. ‘Not bad for a team of no-hopers…’

After finding the loo, Sharon strolled around the quiet corridors of the social club and thought about money. We think we couldn’t live without it, but if a generation of young people were brought up to focus on love, cooperation and working with the wider systems of the planet, we might have a chance of changing things…

By the time she returned the quiz was over and they’d won. ‘Well done Manny!’ she shouted. ‘Collect the prize and winnings from your so-called mate!’ She cheered loudly and applauded her mother and Nancy; the real brains behind the victory.

Manny dropped the money on the table. ‘There you go ladies, not bad for an evening’s work, eh?’

Sharon gathered it up and dashed over to the steward. A presentation was about to take place and George Benson’s The Greatest Love of All was playing quietly in the background. ‘Thanks for all your efforts,’ she said. ‘Manny and Tall Colin, sentimental sods they are, wanted you to have this. Can you give it to the family?’

After dropping the ladies home, Manny drove Sharon to the Shed. ‘It was great to be together again, if only for a while. Your mum’s fantastic; I don’t know whether we’d have won without her.’

‘Yes, she seems to have a new lease of life. You mustn’t forget Nancy’s contribution. Her knowledge of science and geography helped us through some difficult rounds.’

‘Playing a blind joker on the pop music question carried the day. How did you know?’

‘Heard of female intuition?’

As she got out of the car Sharon asked. ‘Can I borrow the Landy on Saturday? We’re going shopping.’

‘Okay, but please don’t break it again.’

Manny identified himself to the nurse and was escorted to Lisa’s room. She looked exactly as she had done when he came with Sharon last week. He brought books as instructed and a flask of tea. Some arty-sounding bloke was talking on the telly about something called “UK Sophisti-pop” and there was a brief clip of Swing Out Sister performing Break Out. Manny lowered the volume on the TV, and began reading Mr Pye by Mervyn Peake. After a time he grew weary of this and decided Lisa needed reminding of the here and now. After a cup of tea, Manny began to explain how her sister and the other women had transformed the Shed. Then he realised she wouldn’t know what he was talking about. He checked at the door but it was as quiet as usual. He lowered his voice and told Lisa of Sharon’s experience.

He felt good as he walked home. It was the first time he’d been able to explain what had happened to anybody else. As he’d told the story to Lisa it had begun to make more sense.

After supper, he considered Sharon’s request to borrow the Landy. He pretended he thought of it as a person, but that was just a running gag. Manny reckoned he must have replaced every component. The fantastic thing about a Defender was that with proper maintenance it could last forever. How many modern cars could you say that about? Manny reckoned he must have replaced every component. He kept it running smoothly so it was but a few minutes work to ensure everything was perfect. Knowing Sharon, and considering the Sheddies had never been out together, Manny thought it best to do what he could from his end.

Trevor hadn’t seen his estranged wife Kate for weeks and accepted their relationship was over. Luckily, he’d been seeing somebody for over two years. He congratulated himself on being clever enough to guess what was happening; he’d have felt a right plonker to have stayed faithful now she was bang at it. This was the third time he’d followed her after she’d visited her parents. Twice he’d lost her, so he concentrated on staying close; hoping Kate wouldn’t recognise him in his girlfriend’s car.

At first he thought she was going shopping but Kate took the road past the college, eventually turning into the grounds of a large country house. The gates closed behind her so Trevor parked up. It was a fantastic place and he wondered what was going on inside the high castellated walls. He gave it a few moments then sauntered past the house noticing the nameplate on the wall.

Driving home, he muttered to himself. ‘Blythe Brook Hall, Blythe Brook Hall – the bastard lives at Blythe Brook Hall.’

Sharon called the group together and said, ‘I need a favour.’

‘Me, me!’ Twelve pairs of hands shot up like a primary school class.

After the laughter had died down Sharon continued, ‘I want all of you, individually, to bring me a book.’ The Sheddies looked puzzled and Sharon paused, enjoying their confusion for a moment. ‘Go to a charity shop of your choice and bring me back one book each!’

Dora stood up. ‘How will we know what to get, Shaz?’

‘Never been much good with books,’ added Lesley. ‘I haven’t read any.’

Kate stood up. ‘Not one? How did you get through school?’

Pross sat back on her bean bag. ‘I got through school by climbing through a window at the back to meet my boyfriend.’

Henri snorted. ‘Victoria Beckham claimed she’d never read a book.’

‘Except her bank book!’ said Dippalee.

Sharon wished the camaraderie could last forever, but guessed things would hot up pretty soon. ‘Bring me the first book that catches your eye, and remember, don’t read to try and find what I’m looking for.’ She hugged them all in turn. ‘Now go, and see what awaits you!’

After they’d left, she couldn’t stop thinking about the enormity of the problem and the near-impossibility of finding a solution and realised she was having a panic attack. Sharon stood against the wall in the kitchen hardly able to breathe. She remembered her personal stereo and felt for the PLAY button. Ain’t Got a Clue by The Lurkers began. Thanks for nothing! she said loudly. Luckily it made her laugh and the attack began to subside. Then she remembered something her dad had told her when she was trying to fix her bike years before. ‘Ruin one thing properly before moving onto the next!’ It became a family joke and recalling it now served to release Sharon from the remains of her depression. It was at times like this that she missed Manny most. He was the only person she could stand to be with for hours on end without feeling bored or uncomfortable. If they had nothing to say it didn’t feel awkward. They seemed to fit naturally together.

Sharon decided to visit her mother. The sun shone and birds were singing in the trees. Even the Coppice Home for Elderly People looked better in the sunshine.

Before becoming a caretaker, Ernest Channing had knocked doors selling vacuum cleaners by day and walked the streets each weekend for the Jehovah’s Witnesses. After several decades in direct sales he’d built an impressive network in the business community. So it was easy to find the bitch’s name. Nobody treated him like that.

He rang an old friend. ‘Morning Charles, how’s the newspaper world? I need a favour: just a name to put to an address. Yes, a property in Alston Road, Solihull. Cheers, Charles, I’ll look forward to your call.’

Nina’s friend sent several texts that evening. The first read; ur exs bn rnd agn. I sed u gn hJls xx She opened the second text. Sez he c u in car – hes md xx The final text explained the sudden interest. Hes ad bil frm elec co 4 £18LL xx

Sharon and the Sheddies sat at the round table. ‘Time to raise issues we feel strongly about,’ said Sharon. ‘I’ll begin. As temperatures rise, the poor will get hit hardest. If the population grows as predicted then millions will starve. It makes sense to curb the population growth now. Also the oceans are struggling to cope with human pollution, fishing and development, and more and more animals and plants are becoming extinct, and the rate’s accelerating.’ She sat down.

‘War’s an end in itself,’ said Pross. ‘Arms-manufacturing corporations need conflict to sell their products, and the money to fund wars comes from the taxes of ordinary people. Military “solutions” degrade the environment, create refugees and spawn the next generation of terrorists, who attack the military, and so the cycle continues. It’s the original vicious circle. Also, there’s massive inequality between the rich and everybody else. Billions live on hardly anything, yet footballers get more in a week than ordinary people earn in a year – because they make even bigger money for somebody else.’

Aisha took the floor. ‘I hated growing up being spoken to by men without me inviting them, or when they comment on your body, face or clothes. I remember Ann Oakley writing that a Home Office report reckoned the actual incidence of rape and indecent assault may be 13 times the reported rate – that’s nearly 300,000 each year. That was some time ago, it’s probably worse now and that doesn’t include domestic violence! Other studies claim 20% of women experience rape or attempted rape. Yet there’s only a shocking 6% conviction rate in this country! 6% – compare this to responses to terrorism, and it’s not hard to see why Catharine MacKinnon posed the question: are women human? What kind of society are we living in where 94% of violent sexual criminals get away with destroying our lives and our children’s lives?’

Roni stood up, eyes flashing. ‘Thanks Aisha, that needed saying. Sadly rape is increasingly being used as a weapon against females in many places. We’ve know about Rwanda, the Congo and Libya, but the evil practice is more widespread and must be stamped out.’ She composed herself and continued. ‘Millions of kids live below the poverty line, yet we’re one of the richest nations. What’s worse, women and girls are forced to work as sex slaves by criminal gangs. People trafficking is second only to the international drugs trade and is increasing. Supply lines stretch across continents from poorer countries to wealthier ones. To the gangs, people are just a commodity. We’ve got to stop it, and soon!’

‘Most women have too much to do and not enough time,’ said Nina. ‘They balance childcare, domestic and paid work and are still supposed to be sexy and loving.’ She sat down then stood up again. ‘Lots of the women I know have to juggle all these tasks and never have time and energy left for themselves.’

Dippalee stood up, her tall figure illuminated by the flickering light from the fire. ‘I’m worried about all the international conflict. For instance, the Chinese government are employing increasingly violent means to stifle pro-democracy activists. Israel continues to abuse the Palestinians, who then launch suicide missions and fire rockets at towns killing children in their beds. Syria is still killing and torturing its citizens because members of the UN Security Council block attempts to create humanitarian interventions. Sri Lanka remains outside the international community since being expelled from the UN after being found guilty of war crimes in the conflict with the Tamil Tigers. There’s still fighting in Afghanistan and a civil war rages in Pakistan. There’s just been a military coup in Thailand, the Maoist rebellion grows in India, millions starve due to government policies in North Korea and the military continue to repress the population in Burma. The war with the drug gangs shows no signs of abating in Mexico, leading to great abuses of the ordinary folk by state and criminals. Illegal logging continues at pace in the Amazon basin, with many indigenous activists getting murdered by gangs working for developers. Finally, look what’s happened in Tunisia, Egypt, Algeria and other countries where the people have risen up demanding a better life – none have changed for the better. If we don’t do something soon, there’s going to be a global revolution.’

‘We need to combat “Agro-investment” – a fancy name for land-grabbing,’ said Henri. ‘Millions are already suffering, and it’ll affect billions if not stopped. As usual the poor are hit worst. Trans-national corporations, sovereign wealth funds, rich universities and others are buying huge tracts of Africa, South America and Asia. They’re creating massive plantations for biofuel, palm oil production and cash crops to export to developed markets. This leaves no land for the local poor to support themselves, and any compensation paid has been so low as to be insulting. The process is accelerating and adds to global warming as forests are cut down to plant the new crops. Also, open-cast mining and shale-oil production are devastating huge areas of many countries, and both must be curtailed.’

Kate stood up. ‘Libraries, playgroups, mother and toddler groups, what used to be called Sure Start, free entrance to swimming pools and gymnasiums for children and the elderly – all these services have been cut and it’s really hurting ordinary families. The rich aren’t affected, but it’s damaging the social fabric of our society.’

‘Many young people have nothing to do and no stake in society,’ said Lesley. ‘If we want responsible adults we’ve got to get to them while they’re kids.’

‘Think how your bodies have changed since you joined the Shed,’ said Vicki looking around the table. ‘Then consider all the women in the world who haven’t had our training. The cosmetic and fashion industries spend billions on images that repress females. Girls are starving themselves, smoking and even taking heroin to stay thin. We must combat negative images of femininity.’

Flora and Judith stood up together. Judith sat down again so Flora began. ‘We need to educate everybody about basic nutrition and health. For example, type II diabetes has doubled since 1960, meaning some 350 million people suffer from the condition globally. This is largely because of junk food and sedentary lifestyles, so we’ll need to coordinate our work Vicki…’

‘Exactly!’ said Sharon.

Judith stood back up. ‘Much of the world’s media is owned by a few giant players. These great corporations have little regard for consumers – look what happened with News International. If we’re to be truly free, we must own the means of the transmission of information.’

Finally it was Dora’s turn. ‘Last but not least, I hope.’ She looked around the table, and studied her friend’s faces. ‘There are so many things I’d like to say. It’s been brilliant listening to you lot, I wish I had a recording. Humour may be our best defence against the difficulties ahead. If we can’t laugh we are lost!’ She began to sing Girls Just Want to have Fun in a Cyndi Lauper voice. After everybody had calmed down, she said, ‘We need to strike a blow for Girl Power and make it more fun to be female. When I was growing up, all the best toys and games were reserved for the boys. They had sports, war, fighting, climbing and anything rough and adventurous. What did we get? Dolls and houses, prams, kitchens and typewriters; all stuff designed to teach us how to be wives, workers and mothers. Look at me, something went wrong!’

After the laughter subsided, Dora continued. ‘In September 1981, the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women was passed into international law by the UN…’

‘I’ve never heard of it,’ said Sharon.

Nobody else had either.

‘That’s what I usually find,’ said Dora sadly. ‘At least the UK has signed up – the US hasn’t fully ratified it yet, as far as I know anyway. The treaty was thirty years ago yet only a fifth of MP’s are female and it’ll take two centuries to achieve equality at this rate. Women get half the pensions men do, wages are significantly lower, and every month seven women are killed by their partners. Need I say more?’

Sharon applauded. ‘What brilliant contributions. I bet Dora was a great union rep!’

Dora blushed. ‘Thanks boss, I don’t know about that, but I used to enjoy a good argument with my, er… boss!’

They were still laughing when Isabel knocked on the door. ‘Sorry to bother you ladies, but somebody’s dumped some rubbish against the walls of the house.’

Several of the group went with her and soon returned with evidence. ‘Office and business waste,’ explained Roni. ‘But the clowns didn’t check what they were disposing – there’s paperwork in this bag.’

PC Kelvin Beale finished his shift and went for a pint with his mates.

Sergeant Duncan wiped his mouth and scowled at Kelvin. ‘What’s the matter Beale? You’ve been a fuckin misery all day!’

‘The divorce,’ Kelvin explained, ‘just got her solicitor’s bill – bastards want me to sell the flat to pay their fees.’

‘Put the frighteners on her,’ advised DC Thomas. ‘If she’s got a new bloke, we could dig something up on him – if he has any previous. You could finger his car, you know, have traffic stop him every day.’

Kelvin finished his pint. ‘I don’t know where she is. The hospital said she’s on holiday. I can’t believe that; she’s been a fuckin workaholic ever since we married.’

‘Why not give the drug squad her mobile number and they’ll triangulate the location?’ suggested Duncan. ‘It’s called “pinging” – easy when you know how, eh?’

Manny finished work early at 11.30 on Saturday morning and delivered the Landy to the Shed. He didn’t notice a Vauxhall parked along the lane.

Trevor chuckled to himself as he noted the registration number of the Defender. ‘He’s a big bastard’, he said to himself, ‘but the bigger they come…’

Once Dora had parked the Landy, Sharon led the women through Birmingham Shopping Centre until they were standing outside NEXT. A muzak version of Ash’s Shining Star played quietly from hidden speakers.

‘These dummies aren’t representative of ordinary women,’ said Sharon smiling. She closed her eyes and concentrated. Within seconds the mannequins began to change shape. The nearest’s arms shortened until it resembled Nina. Others changed colour creating a range of shades between black and white, various yellows, reds and splotches. Next she made their faces transform; some had big noses, chins grew and ears dangled. Spots and pimples appeared; moustaches and beards sprouted. Long legs shortened and became hairier and one model had an artificial leg.

‘That’s for all the amputees,’ Sharon said without opening her eyes. Now fingers thickened and feet grew wider. It was like watching a cross between The Clothes Show and the Incredible Hulk. Thin fashion garments stretched and split as the bodies transformed beneath.

Nina and Dora watched wigs change colour and style, while another dummy lost her hair.

‘That’s for women receiving radio- and chemotherapy,’ shouted Flora.

On the other side of the parade was a fashion boutique. Male and female dolls were kitted out in the latest styles. Sharon glanced at the window and they began to melt. Within seconds the display looked like a Salvador Dali painting. Dora couldn’t resist it. ‘Four cheers for the surrealists!’

Another melted until it resembled the strap-on woman’s body on the cover of The Female Eunuch. ‘Homage to Professor Greer!’ shouted Aisha.

A fibreglass model of a bull stood on the pavement, promoting the Bull Ring Shopping Centre. As they passed, it became plastic and within seconds resembled a cow. Sharon shrugged her shoulders. ‘For those with transgender issues.’

Sharon strolled to the main window of Marks and Spencer. She closed her eyes and puffed out her cheeks until her face was bright red, causing the mannequins to grow dramatically. Dora began a NASA-style countdown in reverse. ‘Size eight, ten, twelve, fourteen – mission control, do you have my size in one of those pretty little silver capsules? Sixteen, eighteen, twenty – we’re losing you honey, sorry, I mean Houston…’

Sharon opened her eyes and tossed a question to the group. ‘Who said “fat is a feminist issue”?’

Kate was first. ‘Susie Orbach?’

‘Right first time,’ answered Sharon. ‘Give that woman a low-fat coconut!’

As they walked down the passageway that led to Debenhams, Sharon glanced at the Miss Selfridge sign to her left. Miraculously, it now read Ms Selfridge.

‘Cool!’ said Lesley.

At the next shop, Kate laughed out loud. When Sharon asked her why she explained. ‘You know me, always playing with words and letters in my mind. It just struck me as funny that tampon is an anagram of Topman.’

‘And they’re both stuck up!’ added Pross.

As they exited into the fresh air, Sharon spotted a group of Christians preaching to a small crowd. One said in a loud voice, ‘And God decreed that henceforth Adam should toil and Eve would suffer pain in childbirth…’

Each preacher read from the Bible then invited questions. If a question was difficult, another would take the box and begin a new text. After a few minutes Sharon had heard enough. She waited for a changeover then stepped onto the plinth herself.

‘People have been quoting from books for centuries, yet we still have death, famine and inequality. If what these gentlemen were saying was true, things would have changed by now. There’s a time for standing and listening and there’s a time for getting up and making things happen.’

Dippalee was more concerned with scanning the crowd than watching Sharon. Her words were charming the audience, and people were listening to what she was saying.

Sharon continued. ‘A big change is coming – wake up and be part of it!’

The preachers stood in a huddle to the side. Henri noticed a well-dressed man scowling at Sharon. Then he took pictures with his mobile.

‘I don’t like the look of him,’ said Henri, pointing.

Roni nodded but was watching Sharon. She’d stopped talking and her eyes were glazed. She was still shining and the people were waiting for her to continue. By now the crowd had swelled to many hundreds.

Henri made a decision. ‘Let’s get her out!’

The Sheddies fell into formation around Sharon and hustled her away. The crowd followed; the noise growing as people became more excited. Roni had to shout to Dora to fetch the Landy.

Then a new sound struck their ears: chanting. From the left ran dozens of hooligans in the blue and white of Birmingham City and a greater number of Villa thugs charged from the right. The two groups of fans were rushing towards each other and the Sheddies were in the middle. Roni blew a whistle and the Sheddies adopted a new formation. Roni and Dippalee stood guard points to the front and back. The others moved closer to Sharon and with one hand, each took a firm hold of the nearest Sheddie.

The next minute passed in a blur. Roni blew her whistle again and the group sliced through the advancing hooligans. Young men flew in all directions except towards Sharon. Some struck opposing fans thus neutralising several at once. But when they reached the road there was no sign of Dora. By now Sharon was nearly unconscious. Several Sheddies clamped their hands into the waistband of her trousers and lifted. Luckily at that moment the cavalry appeared in the shape of the Landy. Dora drove onto the pavement with horns blaring, scattering onlookers before screeching to a halt next to the women. The Landy’s stereo was turned up to the maximum and broadcasted Simple Minds’ I Promised You a Miracle to bruised and bemused Brummies alike.

It was a struggle getting Sharon into the vehicle but they managed it as Dippalee and Roni dealt with the remaining thugs. As last, they too jumped into the Landy and sped away.

4

3RD JULY 2012

The Sheddies returned to base and put Sharon to bed. They sat at the round table and discussed their trip.

Henri began. ‘So much for a quiet afternoon’s shopping; I’m worn out and we didn’t buy anything. Next time Sharon wants to go to the shops, let her go on her own. No wonder Manny works Saturdays!’

Kate continued. ‘Joking apart, that was the weirdest experience – other than meeting you guys! The looks on the shopper’s faces when Sharon started talking…’

Dora got up and walked round the room. ‘I’m still buzzing. Remember when we were kids, we used to rub balloons on jumpers and stick them to the wall with static electricity? I’m like one of those balloons.’

‘We did it with condoms, but they didn’t stick so well…’ Pross pulled a face and everybody laughed. ‘I’ll never forget the preachers. One minute they’re putting the fear of God into the population and the next Sharon’s stolen the soap box and giving it plenty!’

‘It’s a good job we’re so law-abiding,’ said Nina, ‘we could have looted the shops like the rioters last year.’

‘That reminds me,’ said Dippalee. ‘Did anyone notice what happened to the security cameras when we walked past?’

The Sheddies shook their heads.

‘They all turned the other way as if by magic…’ said Dippalee.

‘Was anybody scared?’ asked Flora.

Most nodded.

‘Well, I didn’t like it and don’t really know what Sharon was trying to do.’

Nobody spoke for a few seconds then Lesley laughed and said, ‘I was wearing this when we got back.’ She produced a blue and white striped scarf and proceeded to wave it around as if she were at a match.

Roni stood up and everyone fell silent. She wasn’t one to lavish praise. ‘There’s no substitute for experience, but I thought we dealt with the situation very well. Sharon’s unscathed and none of us were hurt. I’m proud to call you my friends!’

They all cheered.

Vicki had a few points. ‘It was spooky at times. Once I realised people could see Sharon was different, my hair stood on end. I stupidly wore tight jeans. For some reason I was in shopping mode. I suggest whenever we’re on official missions we wear stuff that allows us to stretch.’

Dippalee couldn’t sit down for long. ‘It was the most exciting hour of my life! I’ve never felt an adrenalin rush like that. When we heard the football fans I started sweating and thought I’d have the runs! Luckily, the feeling passed…’

They all laughed.

‘Next time we should go to the loo before anything hits the fan!’ said Henri.

Dora shouted. ‘I thought Dipp and Roni were the only ones to hit any fans!’

‘I’ve never been in a fight, and found the noise intimidating. The best part for me was clinging to each other when the going got tough.’ Aisha smiled. ‘I felt an enormous power flowing through us. Anybody else feel it?’

Everyone did. Roni said she’d develop this further in training.

Nina jumped up. ‘Did anybody see Pross trip that skinhead? At least three more fell over him.’

Pross pretended to look embarrassed. ‘My tootsies are always getting me in trouble. I wanted to be a clown when I was young, but they said my feet were too long!’

‘I thought I was too old to enjoy a crazy scene like that,’ Judith said, ‘but I was wrong. My biggest concern is the effect it had on Sharon. We’re all hyper; look around, none of us feel sleepy, but Shaz’s in bed. My guess is that channelling the energy depletes her. While we were protecting her from external threats she nearly passed out.’

Manny was cleaning the Landy when the police arrived. His heart began to beat quickly. He’d forgotten to tell Sharon about their interest in her when he found her on Henri’s boat months ago. Luckily he spotted them through the wing mirror, so he had time to pretend he thought they were bringing news of Sharon.

When he asked if they had information, Sergeant Duncan shook his head and DC James said, ‘Any chance of a cuppa?’

‘You’d better come in then,’ said Manny, thinking the mess would convince them Sharon hadn’t returned better than anything he could say.

They asked him a few questions and Manny was quietly pleased with his performance. He told them Sharon hadn’t been back, they hadn’t heard from her at her old job and yes, he’d let them know if she returned or contacted him.

‘We’ve still got investigations open,’ said James. ‘We’d like to ask her a few questions…’

‘So what happens now?’ asked Manny, taking care to look suitably depressed. As he felt lonely most of the time he didn’t have to try too hard.

‘You should think yourself lucky,’ confided James, ‘lots of men would do anything to lose their wives…’

‘There’s thousands of missing persons,’ Duncan said, trying not to smile, but not succeeding. ‘You don’t suspect anything bad’s happened to her, do you?’

‘No, well, how would I know?’ said Manny.

‘Okay, good. There is something…’ The senior officer looked from side to side, while DC James stared aimlessly out of the window. ‘My mate, does a bit of offroading like – only gone and bent his Defender – so I’m wondering, can you lay your hands on a nearside front wing, lights, fender and step assembly?’

Roni remembered they’d left the fly-tipped rubbish in an outbuilding behind the Shed. She and Henri donned rubber gloves and went to examine the evidence. Roni unscrewed a ball of paper. ‘I can deduce from this, my dear Watsdaughter, the perpetrators aren’t in possession of what is popularly called a shredder; their first mistake!’

Henri examined a cigar butt. ‘And not too health conscious either, Ms Holmes.’

They sifted through the rest of the rubbish and found a letterhead with a web address,

www.gwiltshireenvironmental.co.uk

 

Of course,’ said Roni, ‘it may be nothing to do with the dumpers. I’ll pass it to Dippalee to check out.’

The Sheddies sat around the table with the books they’d bought. Sharon rose and called the meeting to order. ‘I hope you’ve had a nice rest since the weekend and that nobody had any problems. I see you’ve all brought a present for teacher.

Dippalee suggested youngest first, so Lesley reached into her bag and produced a small paperback. Holding it up, she quoted from the cover. ‘It’s called, Stupid White Men, by Michael Moore. There were hundreds of books in Age Concern. I told the assistant I was looking for a special present, then I saw this.’

‘Thanks; good start.’

Aisha produced her offering. ‘Mine’s called, What a Way to Go by Peter Bowler and Jonathon Green. It isn’t something I’d choose myself, but it’s the first my eyes rested on. I thought it was a humorous novel but it’s actually accounts of unusual deaths! I’m sorry if it’s a bit strange. I found it at the Samaritans.’

Vicki explained she’d been to the Scope shop. ‘I’ve brought you Living History by Hillary Clinton. It’s her autobiography.’

She threw it to Sharon who caught it, examined it front and back and placed it on the pile. ‘Next!’

Dora and Flora always made a point of arguing over the few minutes’ difference in their ages. Dora was the youngest so she made the most noise. ‘I hadn’t better throw this or it’s likely to knock you out. It might be crap but it weighs the most. I went to the PDSA. The title’s Fleshing out Skull and Bones. Written by a number of authors, it claims to expose America’s most powerful secret society. And I thought it was about pirates…’

Dora slid the book across the table.

Sharon shouted, ‘Got it,’ before pretending to drop the weighty tome; much to the amusement of the Sheddies.

Flora produced a copy of The Origins of Virtue by Matt Ridley. ‘This originates from a Sue Ryder shop. It’s about biology and there are ants running all over the cover. I think it is about evolution. Somebody’s spilt coffee on some of the pages and it smells a bit.’

Sharon said, ‘Wasn’t Ridley head of the Northern Rock Building Society before the Credit Crunch?’ No one knew, so she made a mental note to check.

Roni was next. ‘I’ve brought The New Quotable Woman, by Elaine Partnow. It’s a collection of quotes by and about women from Eve to the present day, and took 16 years to compile. I went to the NSPCC.’

Sharon let the book fall open randomly, and read the first quote that caught her eye. It was by Sylvia Brinton Perera,

Our planet is passing through a phase – the return of the Goddess

Sharon was stunned. Dippalee smiled knowingly, as if to say, ‘See, I told you…’ Sharon placed the book on the pile and they continued.

Nina said, ‘I’ve brought a novel from Oxfam. Never heard of the author, some English bloke called Stephen Baxter. It’s entitled Evolution, and is a story about how primates developed since dinosaur times. It’s a sort of big Watership Down.’ She threw it to Sharon.

Kate told the group she was surprised there were any books that Sharon hadn’t already read. ‘Seriously, I hope you haven’t read this. As soon as I walked into the Scope shop I spotted it. It is a classic – Animal Farm by George Orwell. It’s not what you’d call a happy read, but…’

‘I’ll take it anyway.’ Sharon added it to the pile. She could see Dora and Pross were sniggering. ‘And you two; don’t say another word!’

Dippalee stood up. ‘I’ve got a history book, Sharon. Want its full name?’

‘Let’s have it!’

‘Here goes. It’s snappily entitled, The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers – Economic Change and Military Conflict from 1500 to 2000. It’s an international bestseller by Paul Kennedy: from the British Heart Foundation shop.’

Pross told the group of her find. ‘It’s something I never got round to reading – found it at the YMCA bookshop. I’ve tried others by the same author, Aldous Huxley. It’s a science fiction story, set in the near future.’

Sharon knew Manny had read Brave New World because he’d told her about it, although she couldn’t remember what he’d said. She looked at the pile of books on the table and tried to work out how long they’d take to read. It was no use speed reading these as she hoped they’d contain some kind of message for her. When in doubt, hope! Not much of a policy, but perhaps Sophia could channel some wisdom; if she even existed.

Henri was smiling and Sharon guessed there was more synchronicity.

Henri produced a big book with what looked like a primitive painting of a human head on the cover. ‘I’m sorry Sharon; it seems that I’ve brought another book on evolution. This one is The Runaway Brain by Christopher Wills. I got it from the Children in Need stall at Catherine De Barnes fete. I’m afraid it looks rather dry and again there are lots of pages. Shall we read the books we’ve brought and tell you what they’re about?’

‘Thanks Hen, it’s a nice offer, and after squatting in the library for the last few months I’m not looking forward to a marathon reading session. But we’ve all got work to do and this is mine.’

Sharon looked at Judith, who said, ‘I’ve brought you a book of poetry about cycles of light and darkness, mapped on to the moon’s phases. It mixes various mythologies and astrology and is quite short; only eighty pages. It’s entitled The Faces of the Moon Mother, an Archetypal Cycle. The author’s Rowena Pattee Kryder and she works in California.’

Dippalee had heard of her. ‘Can I have a look after you Sharon?’

‘Of course, we’ll study it together later.’

In a semi somewhere in Solihull, Jack Patel lit another joint. The ganja was still wet but he kept it alight with matches from several boxes. He’d just opened a can when his wife put her head round the door, saw the mess and retreated.

He shouted after her. ‘I’ve got a case babe. Some bloke’s missus has done one and he wants me to track her down.’

His wife returned and stood looking at him with hands on hips. ‘How much?’

Patel finished his spliff, dropped it in the can and lobbed it at the bin. ‘Fifty a day,’ he lied, ‘plus exs.’

‘You’re too stoned to find the dustbin – let alone a missing person…’

He attempted to pull an intelligent face, but settled for a grin. ‘You’ve no faith woman. People and snails leave trails…’ The rhyme made him laugh and he was still laughing when she left the room. Once the giggles had departed he began telephoning former colleagues. Surely they wouldn’t hold his dismissal against him; he needed help to locate a bird named Nina.

Sharon lay awake in bed. She’d fallen asleep worrying and woke a few hours later with the same ideas running around her head. There was so much to consider and such little time. She was scared to use the power in case it ran out, yet knew she had to do something. She checked on the women as they slept. Sharon could extend her consciousness and saw all was still apart from a hedgehog in the bushes. She got out of bed silently and tiptoed into the garden. The lawn felt so fresh in the breeze and the moonlight. On impulse, she undressed. Then, attaching her player to a belt around her waist, Sharon pressed the PLAY button. Free by Ultra Nate began and she started to dance. The pressure in her head diminished and she forgot herself for a while.

While showering afterwards she marvelled at the experience. She’d never danced like that before. It was highly therapeutic but there was more; it felt as if it had increased the intensity of her power. She’d have to investigate further.

‘I need to check the craft. Since the dog’s been with my sis, I worry somebody will break in,’ said Henri. ‘If Pross hasn’t prepared anything we could lunch at the Boat Inn at Catherine De Barnes…’

After they’d finished their meals the Sheddies began to discuss their money-making ideas.

Dippalee began with a financial statement. ‘We’ve the grand total of £18,131.02. Isabel and Clive contributed five thousand pounds, so we need to say thanks to them. We put the other thirteen thou. Some of us have properties to be sold at a future date. Flora’s in the process of doing just this, although her ex-husband’s dragging his heels.’

‘How come nobody asked me for a contribution?’ asked Sharon. ‘I’ve got a couple of grand in the bank. We’ll ask Manny as well.’

Dippalee continued. ‘We didn’t tell you Sharon, because you’ve made the biggest sacrifice. So we’ve about twenty thousand, a lot for one girls’ night out, but not much considering our ambitions. So far we haven’t incurred any expenses, but this will change as we expand our activities. Hopefully we can use the cash that we already possess as pump-priming money. For my own part, I receive regular revenues for software I’ve written which I’m happy to contribute.’

Sharon said, ‘I asked you to brainstorm this problem. Okay gang; let’s have your suggestions…’

Dora was first. ‘While Shaz’s speaking to the crowds we could make a collection. The way people’s eyes glaze over; they wouldn’t know what they were doing, and chuck notes in. I’ve seen Christians get loads of dosh. Mum made us go to church and I always took more out than I put in!’

This was obviously the first time Flora had heard of Dora’s juvenile money-making schemes. ‘I can’t believe you just said that!’

Her sister was unrepentant. ‘I didn’t know the money was supposed to go to the church.’

As usual Dora had the Sheddies in fits of laughter. Even Flora couldn’t keep a straight face.

When Sharon had restored order, Pross said, ‘We go to a casino and Sharon places the bets. Those places are set up just to take your money; it’d be a nice if we took theirs!’

‘I’ve never been to a casino,’ admitted Sharon. ‘I think it’s a great idea, but we’d have to practice first.’

Dippalee said she was a member of a casino in Brum. The maths underpinning the games was simple enough and she’d be happy to teach everybody.

‘I’ve seen toy casino sets in the shops,’ shouted Lesley. ‘Why don’t we get one and we could have a games night in the Shed?’

Henri’s idea was for Sharon to use her power and withdraw money from a cashpoint. ‘I read the equipment was sensitive and criminals somehow confuse them with signals from CB radios. So Sharon could make ATMs cough up plenty. After all, the banks make millions in profits, so they wouldn’t miss a few!’

‘If we went to a site of a former battle,’ said Kate, ‘Sharon could walk over the ground and sense treasures below. Also we could have a go on the fruit machines in pubs and clubs; I’m sure we could make them pay out more than normal.’

They left the pub after more ideas had been discussed and jogged back along the canal towpath.

The next morning, Sharon returned to Catherine De Barnes. After crossing Henwood Lane, she followed a path through trees into lush fields. On reaching a small clearing, she dropped her pack and sat on a blanket. The area had always been a haven for rabbits due to impenetrable patches of briars, and reminded Sharon of the Tar Baby stories. She’d shared a flask of tea with Manny here many times, but it was deserted today as she lay on her back looking up at the clouds.

She selected a book at random from her bag. She began to read Brave New World and was soon lost in the novel. Afterwards she thought about Huxley’s Henry Ford-inspired production line delivering various models of humans for different roles in society. Sharon was most interested in how the birthing process is taken away from women. The female characters in the book were weak as well. She took out her notebook and wrote:

WHOEVER CONTROLS REPRODUCTION CONTROLS THE FUTURE

 

Pross had made lunch, which Sharon ate watching rabbits playing while a wren pecked the crumbs falling from her sandwiches. She reached into her bag and pulled out the next book: The Runaway Brain by Christopher Wills. The tiny bird appeared unconcerned at her movement, finished the bits and flew away. She read about the evolution of our species to a group of proto-humans 750,000 years ago. Scientists labelled our human mother, Mitochondrial Eve, after the mitochondria found in every cell of all higher living organisms. Sharon wondered if this Eve was a recipient of the same mysterious power she’d received. She finished the book and checked when it was written.  It was nearly twenty years old and Sharon was horrified that the global population had since grown by over one billion.  How much more could the ecosystem take?  Sharon didn’t know the answer. She wrote this in her notebook:

ARE WE BREEDING OURSELVES INTO EXTINCTION?

 

Sharon guessed it was no coincidence that the two books were concerned with the reproduction of humanity. She finished the remaining tea in her flask and reached for Fleshing out Skull and Bones which promised to tell the truth about the most powerful secret society in America. She settled down and read about “Elite Deviancy” – when a powerful few believe they are beyond the law.

The secret society, Skull and Bones, was said to be situated at Yale University in America. The university was set up by Elihu Yale, who made his fortune from the British East India Company. In this period, many great American and European families made fortunes through the Chinese opium trade. In 1823, Samuel Russell formed such a company to buy opium in Turkey to smuggle to China. He set up the Skull and Bones a decade later, based on a German secret group. Famous members included sons of many leading American families including Taft, Harriman, Rockefeller, Goodyear, Pillsbury, Kellogg, Vanderbilt and Bush. Members were prominently involved in setting up universities, banks, commerce, government and the Security Services, and increased their power by marriage, patronage and nepotism.

Sharon thought about the ongoing, so-called War On Drugs, and the irony or hypocrisy – she didn’t know enough to decide which yet – that powerful Western elites used slavery and drug-dealing to finance their country estates. The book also claimed the Bush family were related to Elizabeth II, the Queen of England. Sharon wasn’t surprised; she’d always thought the royals were bang at it. She took out her notebook and wrote:

GOVERNMENTS AND HIERARCHIES ARE THE PROBLEM, NOT THE SOLUTION.

 

She thought for a while and added:

WHAT WOULD A SECRET SOCIETY OF WOMEN BE LIKE?

She felt a cool breeze on her arms and realised the sun had nearly gone down. She packed her books and flask away, and turned her music player on. Imagine by John Lennon began. She took a final look at the countryside around her then jogged back to the Shed.

Malcolm Grayling peered at himself in the mirror and a Dickensian face stared back. He was thin; gaunt even, with dark piercing eyes and a sallow complexion. He had the look of somebody who’d disagree with anything anybody said. He almost smiled at this thought; after all, he worked hard to cultivate the dark expression and visage. It was exactly what he needed in his day job of landlord and property developer. If people thought he had an ounce of humanity they’d expect acts of kindness and sympathy; he shuddered at even thinking the words.

He was also pastor and head of the New Regeneration Church. Although Grayling’s organisation talked much of Christ’s love and forgiveness, he personally favoured the Bible’s more patriarchal teachings on important subjects. The pastor regularly preached that respect for male authority was the rock the ancient scriptures were built upon and would surely remain so until the end of time. Amen. As it said in Corinthians I chapter 14:

Women should remain silent in the church.

They are not allowed to speak, but must be

in submission.

 

He parked the Lexus LS 600h and surveyed his empire. The church had taken over a disused office block and totally transformed the old place. Grayling had picked up the site for a song after a former business associate had been declared bankrupt. Much of the renovation work had been donated freely by the congregation, which greatly enhanced the value of the site. But today he wasn’t concerned with property: Pastor Malcolm had personally witnessed a group of females intent on usurping the age-old male dominance of religion, and what made it personal was that they’d prevented his people raising a collection. Business, after all, was business.

Between the car and the office, he spotted a snail on the pavement and took great pleasure in stamping on its thin shell. As he wiped his shoe on the welcome mat, Pastor Malcolm vowed to God he’d crush these harlots just as comprehensively. It was crucial to send a clear message to the women in his congregation – if not; others would attempt to rise above their sex and station.

Manny walked to Lisa’s room. He still found it amazing she never changed. He knew the staff fixed her hair and face and did all the medical stuff, but it unnerved him. He sat by the bed and took out the books he’d brought. Life was so different on his own; he hated it. He’d done all the overtime available; not for the money, but just to kill time. Which was partly why he’d come to see Lisa tonight. He felt sorry for the girl and believed he’d created a bond with her. And of course, Sharon had told him to.

Manny held Lisa’s hand and began The Lighthouse by PD James. It had a brilliant first sentence that unfortunately ended with the words, “dead body”. He stowed it away and after considering the hemlock in the Sister Fidelma stories, decided on Cider with Rosie by Laurie Lee. He read until his throat grew dry before taking a drink. Then, he couldn’t think of anything else, so told her how he’d met Sharon.’

Manny stood up and stretched. ‘Neither of us knew anybody there, so we ended up sitting together on a sofa talking about everything for hours. It was pretty obvious we were interested in each other, but I was wary of getting involved after my divorce, and I thought she was still with Grant Wiltshire. Shaz was small in stature but big on personality. Back then, she worked as an admin manager for a computer sundries company. Yet she knew next to nothing about computers! She’s calmed down a lot as well since we’ve been together. Sharon had what you might call a “misspent youth”; she was a punk, lived in squats and knew most of Birmingham’s more radical musical and bohemian subculture.’

He finished his flask and continued. ‘Not long after we’d met, we went to a wedding in Preston. After the reception, we got separated on the way back to the hotel. I looked around but there was no sight of her. Then I heard a commotion from an adjacent street. Sharon was standing in the middle of the road, hands on hips, shouting at a church. Talk about surprised, she sounded like Sinead O’Connor, and I was worried she’d get arrested for being drunk and disorderly. So I asked what was her big problem with Christianity, and she said, “2000 years of the Pope and his cardinals wearing stupid frocks and hats; all the wealth stolen by the Church when poor people starve; child abuse by priests and nuns; people burned at the stake, murdered, raped, tortured, and countless lives ruined, because of a book no one even reads nowadays…”’

Then the door opened and the duty nurse entered with a trolley of medical equipment. While she was setting up, Manny pretended to finish a chapter in Cider with Rosie, shut the book and told Lisa he’d be back again soon.

Sharon asked Flora to explain their next outing.

‘Solihull Hospital’s maternity care was recently downgraded and most mums-to-be have been forced to travel to Birmingham to give birth. As you might guess, with cuts and constant sniping, many midwives are planning to leave the profession altogether. Unbelievably, they’re opening a transnational-funded, private birthing unit on site – talk about cashing in! So this is a great opportunity to draw attention to the state of maternity care and publicise the establishment’s lack of concern for ordinary mums. At the same time we can show how big business is cherry-picking services while highlighting pay inequality in the NHS. My sister has further details.’

Dora produced a folder of papers. ‘From a fellow union rep – the secret itinerary of the health minister – he plans to visit the hospital tomorrow. Sharon thought it would be nice if we were there to greet him. I have details here of pay rates for the different grades across the NHS. Please note consultants earn twenty times the salary of the lowest paid cleaners and auxiliaries.’

The Sheddies were amazed at how poorly most health workers were paid. Lesley produced a baker’s dozen lollipop lady’s signs, pieces of white card and boxes of marker pens on which they wrote slogans and financial comparisons between richest and poorest.

‘The police called…’

‘When?’ asked Sharon.

‘Not sure now – some time ago.’

‘What did they say?’

‘They were looking for you obviously.’

‘Why obviously?’ Sharon looked to Manny’s side. ‘Why didn’t you tell me?’

‘I forgot at first, then the right time didn’t present itself and…’

‘Mannykins?’

‘Yes.’

‘Actually, I already knew…’

‘How?’

‘That’s not important. I forgive you, but don’t do it again. Perhaps I’d better stay away?’

‘Wish I’d never told you…’

‘Okay, I’ll think about it.’

‘There’s something else. This came a couple of days ago, I think you should take a look,’ said Manny, producing a package.

‘What is it?

‘A book by the biologist James Lovelock, entitled, The Vanishing Face of Gaia: A Final Warning. I read a bit and thought, blimey, Shaz would find this useful; it’s right up her street!’

‘Manny love, I don’t want to appear ungrateful, but I’ve got a dozen books on the go at present. I haven’t really got time.’

‘Oh.’

‘Sorry. Tell you what, could you read it, make some notes and then fill me in when we next meet?’

‘It probably won’t be worth it…’

‘Manny…’

‘What?’

‘Don’t sulk.’

When Sharon arrived at the nursing home she saw tables had been set up in the car park and (I’ve Got) The Power by Snap could be heard from speakers set by the large windows. People milled about, buying and examining goods. Her mother was supervising the jam stall.

‘What’s all this, mum?’ Sharon gestured at the activity.

Shirley was muttering to herself. ‘Sorry dear, I’m keeping a running total. Businesses need detailed information on sales and the like to respond rapidly to the customer dynamic.’

Sharon was genuinely perplexed. ‘What’s a customer dynamic?’

Shirley pointed to the main road. ‘Nancy said it was a shame that people who walk past the home on their way to the shops didn’t have something interesting to look at. We discussed the idea and came up with this market. Come inside; there’s more!’

They walked to what used to be the TV lounge. The television was off; Sharon had never seen that before. Now there were several computer systems with OAP’s sitting at the monitors.

‘We’re planning to get out into the community and pass on skills to the younger generation.’ Shirley pointed to a dapper elderly gentleman who smiled and approached.

‘This is Signor Conti, it was his idea,’ explained Shirley. ‘Luckily for us, Salvatore was a sociologist; he’s our movement’s theorist now.’

The man bowed. ‘I am a disciple of Danilo Dolci…’

When Sharon admitted she hadn’t heard of the man, Conti produced an old paperback and presented it to her with a flourish. ‘Signora, The Earth is One Creature – a gift!’

Sharon thanked him and he left the room smiling and waving.

‘We’ve established a company and agreed details with several local authorities,’ said Shirley. ‘We’ll take pressure off teachers and ensure kids know how to cook and sew.’ She pointed to another workstation. ‘Edna and Ada will take children into the country and teach them the names of the wild flowers and animals.’

They went to Shirley’s room for a coffee. ‘How are you enjoying life, mother? You appear to have plenty on your plate.’

Shirley pulled a quizzical face. ‘I’ve always enjoyed being busy. The Devil makes work for idle hands, as I’m sure you know.’ She lowered her voice. ‘Most of us haven’t got long; indeed, some could go any minute. We’re not scared of dying, but don’t want our knowledge to die with us.’

Sharon felt tearful but managed to hold it in. ‘That’s wonderful. Is there anything I can do to help?’

Shirley smiled. ‘We’ve got all the experience and enthusiasm in the world dear. But thanks for asking.’

The Sheddies laughed and joked as they helped each other into their lollipop lady uniforms. They filed out and stood like a military unit on parade. Sharon walked up and down the lines, occasionally straightening a collar or button. ‘Company…’ she suddenly barked, every bit the sergeant major, ‘…Ten-shun!’ The women straightened their backs and thrust out their chests. ‘Wait for it!’ she bellowed, ‘Quick…march!’ Then the Sheddies, armed only with modified lollipop signs, took the battle to the enemy.

Health minister Douglas Snellay, was too hot to be comfortable. It was a fine clear day and strangely warm for the time of year. He was a chubby and frightfully clever sort of chap who’d been tipped for high office. After attending the right schools and Oxford University, many thought he’d go all the way to the top of the political tree.

Today was his final engagement before Parliament shut for the recess. Snellay hoped the press would only ask about this new development and not badger him about embarrassing issues like waiting lists, superbugs and reforms to maternity services. The new privately-funded wing, completed on time and only over budget by a measly £7.35 million, stood bright, beautiful and waiting to be officially opened.

Accompanying the minister were his private secretary, their political minders from central party HQ, the local MP, assorted health authority officials, the CEO of the Trust, the director of the unit, his PA and the architects.

The Sheddies, or Squaddies as Dora had christened them, were making their way in a surprisingly synchronized manner to the large, and as yet unused, car park, immediately behind the new teaching unit. As they marched they hummed the theme from the film 9 to 5.

‘Sir, could you face this way?’ The minister was even warmer now, as TV lights illuminated his soft features.

Snellay slipped his smile back on and raised the scissors to the tape. Unnoticed until now, Judith, carrying a small video camera, had joined the line of reporters. Before the minister could deliver the coup de grace to the helpless ribbon, Judith pointed to the car park and shouted, ‘What on earth are they doing?’

When the media pack followed her directions, she walked innocently towards the Landy, which was parked behind the nurse’s quarters.

The car park had been totally empty, but now appeared totally full of lollipop ladies marching in tight military formation. When the front rank reached the edge of the tarmac, they turned with absolute precision and filtered back between the advancing rows. It was impossible to count how many there might be; maybe thousands. Under their right arms, swinging stiffly, they carried their doctored lollipops.

For a few seconds the minister held his best smile. His party reasoned they could hardly do otherwise, so all acted as if nothing had happened. Sadly they were facing away from the real spectacle. The minister didn’t cut the tape, which although completely symbolic and costing no small sum, was only meaningful if the media was there to record the event. Snellay stood there like a little pink goldfish, his mouth open, gasping for air in the hot sunshine and spotlights.

Sharon waved a lollipop sign and the Sheddies formed gigantic human pyramids. On the base level, a huge circle formed and pushed closely together. Onto their shoulders sprang others who repeated their pattern, but on a smaller scale. This was repeated until the pyramids were far higher than humans acting unaided against the earth’s gravitation pull could have achieved. Of course these women were the Sheddies and so normal physical rules didn’t apply.

Then the women produced lollipop signs which had been modified by the addition of new words to create slogans such as:

STOP Cuts 2 Mum’s & CHILDREN’s Services

STOP Damaging Our CHILDREN

STOP Pimping Our CHILDREN

 

STOP Killing 20,000 CHILDREN

Every Day

Dora went even further; her lollipop proclaimed:

Sisters –

STOP Having CHILDREN Altogether!

On the back of each sign was printed a word, letter or number, so each pyramid told a story. On the first, the top woman’s lollipop said simply MINISTER. Below were symbols and numbers showing one minister’s salary equalled twenty five domestics’ wages. The next pyramid did the same for the director of the unit. He was paid more generously, and with his lucrative private practice was easily worth two hundred of the little women below him.

At first the media were transfixed by this miraculous tableau. It was like the opening ceremony of the London Olympics, except the participants were middle-aged cleaners. But their training soon took over. Those with still cameras flashed and shot. Those with TV and video equipment captured what footage they could. None had seen anything like it: none would ever see anything like it again.

Snellay realised something had gone terribly wrong with his day. Whatever had happened he knew he must regain control. Once Snellay had made the decision he indicated this to his group by flashing his eyes impatiently. Then he strutted purposefully around the wall to the right where the press had earlier vanished. As he rounded the corner, the heaving multitudes, as if responding to a pre-arranged signal, jumped down from their lofty pyramids, pressed closely together and double quick-marched to the far end of the car park.

‘Here, I say!’ shouted the minister. ‘We’re supposed to be opening this bloody unit!’ He spotted the media people. They were clearly out of sorts and huddled together at the far end. ‘Drunk as usual,’ he muttered. But on this occasion he was wrong. Snellay waited while some women trudged past. He looked again, there was nothing there. He turned to roast the media fools for wasting his time, which meant he didn’t notice that the last of the women was making a very rude sign in his direction.


 

5

2ND AUGUST 2012

Dora was laughing as she drove the Landy back to the Shed. ‘That government minister was a proper prick – didn’t know if he was coming or going. It felt like there were thousands of us…’ She switched the radio on. A youngish man’s voice could be heard. ‘That was Seven Little Girls (Sitting in the Back Seat) by the utterly brilliant Timothy Mallet another gorgeous golden-oldie from Phil Day – The Voice of the Midlands – telling you to tune your trannies to Central FM on 105.7 and keep them locked!’

Pross was sitting in the back. ‘Turn this crap off Dora, and put something good on so we can have a sing-song!’

Before Dora could retune, the DJ continued. ‘I’m driving to the studio this morning when some woman cuts me up: doing her make-up I suppose. Somehow I avoided her. Anyway it set me thinking; let’s start a slot on the show entitled, “Keep ‘em off the road!”So listeners, send me accounts of crazy female motoring manoeuvres like having a map open across the windscreen, turning round and talking to people in the back or just holding their hair out of the window to dry! No doubt, we’ll have hysterical feminists ringing in en masse. That’s okay; just don’t drive over to see me in person girls! So, come on listeners, if you’ve any stories to share with Phil Day, The Voice of the Midlands, then text, phone or e-mail the studio and I’ll read them out on air. Next up after the commercials – The Baha Men with Who Let the Dogs Out?

Henri spoke first. ‘It’s a joke. Somebody, tell me it’s irony. Is he for real?’

‘I know him,’ said Dippalee. ‘We were colleagues years ago – thinks he’s the Goddess’s gift to women. He lived with his mum in those days and was a hospital radio DJ…’

‘How fortunate,’ growled Dora, ‘he’ll know where to recover when I catch up with him!’

They sat with Isabel and Clive that evening watching the regional BBC news magazine, Midlands Today. The Sheddies whooped when presenter Nick Owen said, ‘Our top story tonight – a Government Minister is humiliated when protesters demonstrate at the opening of a new health unit.’

Co-host Suzanne Virdee continued, ‘We’re going straight over to our correspondent Lindsay Doyle who’s at Solihull Hospital. Lindsay – tell us what’s been happening…’

‘Well Suzanne, there’s some debate as to the actual course of events – luckily we shot some film ourselves, but I’d better warn you – it’s all rather strange…’

First came a shot of the ministerial party and a voice-over explaining the controversy over the closure of the maternity ward. But then the Sheddies saw themselves. Their human pyramids were unfeasibly high, like a surreal, politically-aware, Busby Berkeley production. Somehow Sharon had somehow arranged it so the lollipops hid their faces. When the director cut back to the minister’s open mouth, Sharon smiled and said, ‘I thought it best not to show too much of ourselves at this juncture…’

Isabel produced fruit juice and they all drank a toast before watching Ms Doyle interview media people who’d witnessed the event. First up was Daily Mail photographer, Danny Winters. He told of a mass situationist action that simply vanished in a couple of seconds. Next was Matthew Cain from Channel 4 who said he was really lucky to be there, because as culture editor he’d only covered the event as a favour to a friend who’d got tickets for the men’s Olympic 100m final. Matthew had seen exotic French circus performers do something similar, but couldn’t understand how so many women left the scene so mysteriously. Finally a police inspector suggested recently-enacted anti-riot legislation might be invoked.

‘So you see Suzanne,’ said Lindsay, ‘I said it was weird – I was there, and still don’t know what really happened…’

Suzanne nodded and Nick added, ‘Breaking news – a local businessman has offered a reward of £13,000 for information leading to the arrest of those responsible…’

Dora turned the TV off.

‘It’s serious now isn’t it?’ Judy asked nervously.

‘It’s always been serious’ said Sharon. ‘I told you big change was coming; bigger than you all imagine.’

Pastor Malcolm Grayling was also watching TV. Even though the women’s faces were virtually covered by those ridiculous lollipops, he recognised them immediately; he’d know those old witches anywhere. Later that evening he rang Charles Brown, editor of the Free Solihull Citizen and asked, ‘You were there?’

‘Yes. Never seen anything like it,’ admitted Brown. ‘A colleague spotted them first; don’t know her myself.’

‘But the pictures and videos?’

‘That’s the strangest thing, we all filmed and photographed it…’

‘So how do you explain it?’

‘I can’t.’

‘What will you do?’

‘Don’t know; but it happened. They may release a statement of intent.’

‘Who?’

‘The women responsible.’

‘I’m afraid I’ve already had the pleasure…’ The Pastor told of the crazed hags who’d scared market traders, terrorized football thugs and ruined his preachers’ collection in Birmingham. I’ll email you some images…’

Brown hummed Cherchez La Femme by Dr Buzzard’s Original Savannah Band as he powered up his laptop and studied the pictures. ‘Bingo! They’re the same bunch – well done Pastor.’

‘What about that apology for a government minister – what did he say?’

‘We didn’t tell him. He only saw the small group at the end, what could we say?’

‘What about informing the authorities?’

‘The police are already involved – the minister called them in.’ Brown thought for a few moments and added, ‘There is somebody, goes by the name of Baxter – a bit hush-hush, if you know what I mean, national security and all that. I’ll get a message to Baxter – Baxter will know what to do.’

Douglas Snellay picked up the telephone but didn’t dial. The PM had briefed against him, saying he’d let the government down and commentators were suggesting it would slow his meteoric progress. The minister was very upset indeed and although he didn’t have the powers of the Home Secretary, he had the numbers of a couple of ask-no-questions types who’d undertaken his dirty work before with total confidentiality.

The minister stopped for a moment; maybe a union was involved. How else could those women have evaded security? Snellay decided he’d better watch his step as there may be hidden adversaries at play. Perhaps it was worth bothering the Home Secretary after all. Surveillance might find out if it was a purely political protest or an attack on his career by someone in the cabinet.

At that moment, an aide appeared. After being apprised of the situation, he said, ‘My advice sir, is to pass it to Baxter…’

The minister smiled and relaxed. ‘Of course, Baxter – why didn’t I…’ Baxter got results and got them quickly – guaranteed. Douglas Snellay made an executive decision. He picked up the phone and said, ‘Get Baxter!’

Sharon found her favourite spot and pulled out The Quotable Woman. The first quote that caught her eye was by Gisela Richter. “A series of failures may culminate in the best possible result.” Wow, she thought, that reminds me of what dad used to say: “Ruin one thing properly before you move onto the next.” It didn’t seem right to read this book like a novel so she wrote this note:

CONSULT DAILY

The next choice was What a Way to Go! The preface claimed it chronicled some of the surprising, bizarre, comical, horrific, fantastic, preposterous, sinister, grotesque, ludicrous or otherwise extraordinary ways in which death has come to man or woman. It reminded Sharon of when Rex prophesised her path would result in death when she saw the gravestone, Manny and the blonde. She read about a famous composer who died from hitting himself with his baton. Another told of a great dramatist killed by a tortoise and a British general beaten to death with his own wooden leg. It all seemed ghastly. She took up her pen and wrote:

IS THERE A GOOD WAY TO DIE?

Sharon had a drink before taking out her third book, Origin of Virtue by Matt Ridley. She found his analysis of primate society fascinating and reminded her of what Manny said about playing football as a lad. They’d pick teams each playtime and so were regularly against their friends; fights and disputes rarely lasted longer than that session. They had fluid and shifting coalitions just like monkeys. She learned that all primates are social, with hierarchies in each group but the pecking order is more marked in males than females. She was horrified to find male chimps displayed aggressive xenophobia and that they raided and made war. One group of chimps studied in East Africa killed all the neighbouring males over time and claimed all of the females for the group. It takes an average twenty minutes for three or four chimps to kill another, but humans invented weapons. With a weapon a human can kill both in an instant and at a distance. Weapons made warfare more profitable and less risky. Sharon realised weapons make us very different from both chimps and dolphins.

Suddenly a thought came to her: What is the opposite of weapon? She didn’t know the answer, but recognised the question as a koan – a kind of riddle developed by Zen masters to help students obtain illumination. Riddle, Ridley? Sharon wondered if she would ever get it. Then came a passage she had to read several times. The author claimed that elephants and dolphins lived in open groups, adding it would be an “intriguing fantasy” to picture human society arranged in this way. “Indeed,” wrote Ridley, “female human beings are like that already.”

Yes! she thought to herself. This bloke’s hit the nail on the head. But when she read through the rest of the book the point about human females wasn’t mentioned again. Sharon thought she must have missed it, and patiently checked through the remaining chapters. Eventually, she realised there was nothing else there. But she couldn’t believe he hadn’t developed the point about the gendered nature of violence and warfare in humanity. Throughout the rest of the book when he mentioned humanity or people; gender became invisible again.

She was also interested in his argument that most species had equal numbers of males and females at conception. Sharon knew that in parts of India there were only four girls for every five boys, because Indian families killed one million female children per year. She wondered whether there had always been an equal sex ratio in the past. She took out her notebook and wrote:

 

WHAT IS THE OPPOSITE OF WEAPON?

WOULD THERE BE WAR WITHOUT MEN?

Sharon collected her stuff as rain began to fall. She loved the feeling of moisture on her face as she jogged home. She had plenty to think about from today’s session, although the book of strange deaths hadn’t yet inspired her. She remembered her personal stereo and turned it on to hear Female of the Species by Space.

Manny sat beside the bed reading The French Lieutenant’s Woman to Lisa. At first he’d felt uncomfortable but had grown used to receiving no response. He’d already turned the sound down on the small television and now reached over to push it out of view. He checked nobody was about, leaned a little closer and said, ‘Don’t tell anybody, but I’ve pulled a bit of a sicky – told the quack I was feeling under the weather – stressed out, that kind of thing. She’s a lovely doctor and gave me a note for a month. I can’t remember when I last had any time off. I’ve tidied the garage, cut both lawns and swept the path. I started watching the sports channel, but the American wrestling put me off. The wrestlers looked like they’d had steroids for breakfast, dinner and tea and worked in the gym in between. Of course, steroids don’t give you muscles – that’s a popular misconception – they just allow athletes to train harder and recover more quickly from injuries.’

As he sipped his tea Manny remembered going with his mum to see Jackie Pallo and Kendo Nagasaki wrestling at Solihull’s old Civic Hall. Of course, it had been pulled down years before and the new Touchwood Shopping Centre built on the site. He put his flask away and continued. ‘I was good at most sports but didn’t have that win-at-all-costs mentality necessary to be a champion. Apart from rugby, field athletics were my forte. I represented Solihull at the county sports for javelin and discus, played Sunday League football, ran cross-countries and a few half marathons for fun and was a regular at the gym and swimming baths at Tudor Grange. I used to train with Shaz, but recently, well, the staff keep asking where she is, so I’ve taken to telling them she’s working away. I don’t like lying to folk but what can I say; that Sharon’s the Chosen One and lives with her disciples in a summerhouse in the grounds of a substantial Solihull property? It’s even worse at work. If I’m honest, that’s the real reason why I had the time off. People already knew Shaz was going round with the Sheddies so I couldn’t deny it. I told that Tall Colin they were forming a woman’s cooperative and were planning various business ventures, but everybody still took the piss…’

Manny broke off and picked up the John Fowles novel again as a new nurse entered the room. She ignored him and checked Lisa’s vital signs. He read to the end of the page, put the book away and wished both ladies a good evening before walking home alone.

The next day Dippalee and Henri were tidying up and the conversation got round to Judith.

‘She doesn’t join in much,’ said Henri.

Dippalee dried her hands and sat down with a bottle of moisturising cream. ‘Lesley said she stood and watched while they washed up and didn’t offer to lend a hand. She’s friendly; but at the same time she doesn’t really feel like one of us. But, as I said before, Sharon wouldn’t have picked her if she was dodgy. Incidentally, have you noticed that when Sharon meets somebody for the first time she goes cross-eyed?’

Henri sat down. ‘Yes, it took me a few weeks to work out what she was doing. She’s never told me explicitly, but I think she’s checking people out. Once we’d touched she knew everything about me in an instant. I imagine it’s the same for all of us. It must be difficult for Sharon; I think she’s looked worried recently.’

Dippalee thought for a few seconds and replied. ‘She’s got to read those books now; it’d take me hours and it would be hard to concentrate on much else at the same time.’

Henri nodded. ‘I offered to help…’

Dippalee held Henri’s hands as Sharon had done. ‘I’ve been watching her closely. She’s under tremendous pressure to decide what to do.’ She checked there was no one about, then leaned forward and whispered, ‘How did you think last week’s trip to town went?’

Henri didn’t know what kind of answer Dippalee wanted and frowned.

Dippalee continued, ‘Sharon wasn’t really in control. She was affected by the crowds and quite unaware of herself. It must be hard to use this power. I mean, she didn’t know she was tired. If we hadn’t been there anything could have happened.’

Henri felt she had to stick up for her old mate. ‘That’s why Shaz picked us I suppose. At first I was sceptical we needed others to help; I suppose I was star-struck. But she told me she’d seen visions of other women, so the Sheddies are perhaps as important to the cause as Sharon. That’s why we’ve got to support her. Also, I’ve noticed she sneaks out in the night.’

‘Judith?’

‘No, Sharon. Think I should ask her what she’s doing?’

They stood up and turned off the light. Dippalee shook her head. ‘We’ll keep our eyes open and watch Judith as well. I know Dora and Pross are suspicious so it’s important for group dynamics to keep everybody onside.’

Jack Patel was sitting with a business acquaintance in the Aphrodite lounge of Birmingham’s most-exclusive gentleman’s entertainment venue. ‘So, can you help me?’ he asked. ‘I’ll make it worth your while…’

His friend, short, podgy and shiney-suited with dark eyes and tight lips, finished his cigar and viciously ground the butt into the ashtray. ‘Maybe,’ he said. ‘Maybe we can help each other – a colleague in the entertainment industry’s looking for some greenery – can you sort a couple of keys? If it’s half-decent, we could make it a regular thing.’

‘No problem Mr W,’ said Patel, lowering his voice. ‘You know me – bud’s my buddy.’ He giggled. ‘When do you want it?’

‘Weekend…’ However before Wiltshire could repair to the main room and scrutinise the lap-dancers beyond, a huge bouncer appeared at the table. ‘No smoking sir – it’s against the law!’

On seeing the size of the bloke, Wiltshire decided against giving him a mouthful and instead slipped him fifty quid. He waited for the security guy to leave before pulling Patel closer and slurring, ‘I’ll have this mobile’s locations by tomorrow – but don’t tell any fucker because enough tame Old Bill have gone down since the News of the World went tits up. So my bloke has to be dead careful nowadays. And no funny shit with the skunk or I’ll have your legs restyled…’

Sharon followed the Grand Union Canal to her favourite field and sat down. She pulled out a novel by Stephen Baxter entitled Evolution, which told of the development of the branch of mammals that includes humans; the primates. The book began as an asteroid crashes into the Gulf of Mexico, radically changing conditions on Earth. The action follows a small furry female mammal called Purga and her descendants to the present and into the future. Sharon was greatly moved by the story, and could see how the environment had shaped the development of life on earth and her own self. She’d learnt much about biology and genetics from her own reading and the novel helped her to make sense of it all.

However, the ending left her feeling sad when the last female human retreated into a plant and human consciousness was extinguished. It will have to be over my dead body, she thought and shivered, before writing:

IS THERE A FUTURE FOR HUMANITY?

After lunch she began her second book of the day; Faces of the Moon Mother by RP Kryder. The author explained about important cycles, especially the female menstrual cycle, originally influenced by the Moon. Kryder claimed females were the primordial manifestors of child and home through reproduction, whereas males compensate through technological proliferation and try to control life. Then, in a poem entitled, Mother of Wisdom, there were obviousreferences to Sophia. Sharon decided to keep the little book in her pocket, and wrote:

WHY IS MENSTRUATION SO CHALLENGING TO MALE POWER?

 

That left Animal Farm by George Orwell. There was quite a breeze and she decided to put her coat on, nearly stepping on a beetle that was scuttling across her blanket. She squatted down to watch it move. ‘Come on mate, move over – you don’t want me treading on you.’

She found the novel very funny. The first thing that stood out to her was when the old pig is talking to all the animals in the farmyard and tells them that the answers to all their problems can be summed up in a single word: “Man”. Sharon supposed the author had meant humanity but it was early in the book and she reserved judgment, wondering what feminists had made of it. Then she read that if “Man” was removed, hunger and overwork would be gone forever, and in addition, “Man” served no interests but his own.

Then she met two young boars named Snowball and Napoleon. As soon as Sharon saw the name Snowball it seemed to leap off the page at her. It was such a strange experience that she looked away and then read the line again and the same thing happened. She thought about the word “snowball” and remembered her mum used to like a yellowish drink in a small bottle. She used to enjoy throwing them when she was younger, but couldn’t think of anything else so carried on reading. When she was looking back through the pages another example of synchronicity struck her: Snowball was said to have used a shed for his study. On finishing the novel, Sharon wrote:

SNOWBALL IN THE SHED

 

And,

 

IF MAN IS THE ANSWER – WHAT IS THE QUESTION?

 

As she jogged back, Sharon considered the nine books she’d read. She’d already developed several new insights, but try as she might, she couldn’t see how the book of strange deaths was relevant. She pressed the PLAY button on her stereo and In the Year 2525 by Zaeger and Evans started.

The next day Sharon, Dippalee, Roni and Dora cycled to Hockley Heath and joined the Stratford on Avon Canal. After five minutes Sharon stopped, listened and pointed ahead. ‘Company – concealed in the trees. It’s Dipp’s sister Lydeena; they breathe almost identically.’

Dippalee smiled. ‘We’re very similar. Folk imagine our names originate from some exotic country, but mum coined them because she didn’t want us to sound common. How many others are with her, Shaz?’

Sharon held up three fingers.

Soon four women appeared. Dippalee’s sister was the tallest and stepped forward to hug her elder sibling. The women wore a mixture of greens and browns. Lydeena and two others wore their hair in dreadlocks and one had a shaved head. Dora said afterwards she’d thought the Tree Women looked like a cross between Hobbits and New Age Travellers. They followed Lydeena into a small area of trees and skirted fields marked by ancient hedges up an incline to a copse. In the centre, concealed from the outside, was a small clearing where a temporary dwelling stood. They could smell cooking and several dogs and children played outside.

Lydeena lifted a flap and they entered. Inside the yurt, or pleasure dome as Dora called it, was a world of sumptuous materials and cushioned comfort. The Tree Women and the Sheddies sat on beanbags with covers stitched together from materials of many different hues.

‘All recycled,’ said Lydeena. ‘We don’t support the paternalist system and avoid money as far as possible. There may be thousands of us, although we don’t keep records. We’re a tribe of women who live outside consumer society. Modern people believe they need to buy to be happy; but it’s not true.’

The Tree Women were staring at Sharon, so Dora asked a question to break the ice. ‘What about men; do you have males in your group?’

A thirty-something black woman explained. ‘No, only us women and our kids, and new women join occasionally – like Lydeena here. We live in harmony with nature, and have occasional contacts with males. Some call us Freegans – like vegans except we use stuff others waste. Look at us; we’re really healthy. We teach the children ourselves because they’d get picked on if they attended so-called normal schools.’

Lydeena stood up. ‘Dippalee’s told me about you Sharon. I knew you at school; but you’re not the same person, you’re different, you’re shining! We worship the Great Mother Goddess, and it’s been prophesied that She is among us! Is the Age of Men ending?’

The tension grew. Roni noticed the Tree Women had the same glazed eyes as the crowd in the market in Brum.

‘Sisters,’ said Sharon. ‘I admire your courage in making this life for your families outside the male-dominated culture. I wish I could tell you it was possible for us all to return to a more innocent past. But there are billions of humans and they have to be fed, sheltered and clothed. The current system won’t last much longer, but I fear your intelligent lifestyle isn’t the answer for the masses. However, the time of leaders has passed, and the age of governments is ending.’

Lydeena was still staring. ‘And the prophecies – are you the One?’

Sharon tried not to shine. ‘We’re not saying it’s the new religion, and we’re not looking to the past but rethinking the future. We don’t need gods and goddesses for we are women – we gave birth to humanity and we’ll solve our own problems.’

As they returned Dippalee asked what they thought of the Tree Women.

Dora said, ‘I thought they were a bit smelly until we went into the wigwam; but then I was sold. It was bloody fantastic in there; I want one!’

Sharon laughed. ‘We’re going to their Summer Festival at Radford Semele.’

In his dream, Manny was late for work, running through a never-ending car park. From somewhere a police siren sounded. He was running and could see the turnstile into the factory but couldn’t reach it. Then he was at the gate but his ID card wasn’t recognized. People moaned behind him as he tried again and again. Then he looked at his picture to find Grant Wiltshire leering and winking back. He ran but found his way barred by Tall Colin, his boss and officers Duncan and James, who were dancing in formation and miming suggestively to There’s a Ghost in My House by R. Dean Taylor. When the song finished, the four men started throwing wads of money in the air. Manny grasped at the notes but the wind blew them away from his filthy hands. Eventually he caught one and instead of the Queen, he saw Sharon’s masked face in profile. When the note crumbled in his hands, he curled up and lay crying in the rain.

Manny woke in the same position. He’d never suffered from nightmares, and normally slept like a baby. He’d felt anxious about his job each time the company had been sold, but this was much worse. He wasn’t bothering to cook for himself and avoided his family because it was easier than telling them what was happening. He’d hardly seen Sharon recently although they’d borrowed his Landy several times. I’ll be joining Shirley in the home at this rate, he joked to himself, but it didn’t sound funny.

Sharon watched two jet airliners until they disappeared and their trails dissipated into the blue, then reached into her bag and pulled out a dilapidated paperback, The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers – Economic Change and Military Conflict from 1500 to 2000 by Paul Kennedy, a professor of history at Yale University. Sharon remembered about the Skull and Bones Society and wondered if it was a coincidence, but decided it was probably nothing special as many people must have passed through the university’s doors. It was the same as receiving a degree from Oxford University; it didn’t mean anything special either.

The book was about the relationship between economic strength and military power, and examined the five great powers of the modern era; USA, Russia, China, Japan and the European Union. Kennedy argued these states had to make a difficult decision; how much money to spend on their military? Spend too little and risk being attacked by more aggressive states; too much and economies would stagnate and lose power eventually.

It reminded Sharon of a board game called Risk. The object of the game was to control the entire world by winning battles with armies. The first time she played, she didn’t have any idea of what was going on. However they played a game with Manny’s friend who’d just returned from the Iraq War. She’d done better this time and the men seemed resentful when she wiped their armies from the board.

She opened the book at random and read about men making their own history and thought, What about the women? There were caricatures on the cover representing the great powers grappling with each other, but all were male. She supposed Queen Victoria merited a mention, but then she did preside over the largest empire ever assembled. Sharon thought about the next five hundred years; would women’s names and achievements be listed in a comparable book of the future? She’d never know, but hoped they could lay the foundations for a better society. She wrote:

CAN WOMEN MAKE (OR BREAK) HISTORY?

She had two books left; both about the USA. She reached into her bag and pulled out pictures of two smiling Americans. Sharon spotted a penny in the grass which she picked up and tossed. ‘Heads for Hillary – tails for Saint Michael!’ The coin fell on the blanket. Mister Moore won. The cover blurb claimed the book made a “convincing case for male obsolescence!” Moore argued nepotism and patronage were rife in American politics. The same few families tended to have fingers in lots of pies. Sharon realised this backed up the book about the Skull and Bones. As she read on she became appalled at the inhumanity shown by the political elite to the poorer people in the US. Moore thought the US public education system deliberately failed ordinary kids. In a scene that reminded her of Brave New World, he described how companies that provided computers for poor kid’s education made sure there was continuous advertising on the screen. She remembered the Pavlovian conditioning scenes in the novel and couldn’t believe it was so similar.

Chapter 7 was entitled, The End of Men. The author, although a Stupid White Man himself, predicts his sex will shortly be superseded, as males are responsible for all the damage done to the ecosystem and other humans. Moore claimed that in order to survive, Mother Nature might eliminate men. Sharon thought for a while then wrote:

CAN WE AFFORD MEN?

 

Sharon finished her raspberry tea and fished the final book from her bag. The cover had a picture of an intelligent woman with bright eyes, nice teeth and tons of makeup. The title was Living History. Sharon thought it should have been called Living Her Story, but that was perhaps too radical for a potential future president. She checked the pages and found there were 800. Her eyes felt tired and her neck ached. But this was the last book, and she was determined to get through it.

Hillary Rodham Clinton was a remarkable woman and Sharon couldn’t decide what to make of her. On the one hand she was a brilliant role model for girls all over the world, yet she was a politician and part of the establishment. Michael Moore said Clinton’s Democrats were not so great; but did that go for Hillary as well? Sharon wasn’t sure, but she knew this was the most difficult book to read because it was so boring! She was intrigued to find both Hillary and Bill Clinton went to the Yale Law School, which reminded her of Skull and Bones, but she didn’t know if it was relevant. Then something pinched her and she jumped: it was the same beetle, or its identical sister. Sharon laughed and decided she’d done enough reading for one day. She wrote:

 

HILLARY CLINTON – HEADS OR TAILS?

on her pad, packed her stuff away and pressed the PLAY button on her stereo. This Woman’s Work by Kate Bush began. How apt, thought Sharon, and jogged off towards the Shed.


 To read more visit Amazon.com and Amazon.co.uk or your local outlet.

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