Being Richard by Toni Allen is a contemporary paranormal thriller about an immortal whose quiet life is turned upside down when he has to choose yet another new identity. He’s used to changing his name, becoming someone else before suspicions are raised because he doesn’t appear to be growing any older. This time it’s different. People have been watching him, studying him, and now they want to rule his life, force him to become Richard; even though he’s already rejected Richard Ridley as a totally unsuitable identity.
Buy Being Richard for Kindle
Buy Being Richard on iTunes
The little ones were always easy to spot. A vigil of small black headstones, tucked away at the back of the cemetery, their teddies and trains weather beaten; the gold faded. Twilight and rain drops shrouded them in pathos, but come dusk the solar lights would flicker on, permanent candles used as protective sprites to ward demons away from these precious spirits. Such short lives, their pasts a heartbeat in time, their names etched in granite to live on forever. If I was lucky and could find someone suitable I would be able to help him live on far longer than his grieving parents ever imagined.
I wasn’t interested in the girls; and knew to avoid the ones with cherubs and angels. It was also best to avoid the ones with recent gifts. Steven Johnson may well have passed over in 1975 but the plastic Christmas tree; that would have endlessly chimed out silent night until its batteries ran down, warned that someone still cared, and cherished him.
A train rumbled past, heading south out of Ash Station having dumped its weary commuters back to Surrey. They would dice with the barriers and tail back of irritated drivers, all walk home fast to be away from the wind and threat of further rain. Their perfume and after-shave hitched a ride on the wind and dropped its heady scent on the wet grass. I could envisage the women click clacking past men in suits, high heels dodging puddles as they strained their backs to stay proud and upright while carrying heavy briefcases in the pursuit of equality. The men would duck their heads down and plough on, up the road and past the front of the church, searching for a key to a front door, and home, and comfort.
I turned back to my task and spotted Richard Ridley; wondered if he was a good enough contender for my attention. Born in 1979 he’d died three months later, much loved and missed by his devoted parents; who could only afford stone and not tough granite. I crouched to read the inscription. Lichen painted it green and although he was age appropriate I didn’t feel like sharing my life with someone that sad. It felt sad. He felt sad. Not that I was sad, that was an emotion I had long since learnt to set aside. No, the boy had no history, no love, no… I sighed and jotted down his details. He was perfect.
When the birth certificate arrived a week later I savoured the opening by sitting outside under the apple tree with a mug of coffee. I enjoyed this type of ritual, the peace and quiet of birdsong, a single candle in a glass jar on the rickety table, and the bright morning sunshine dappling patterns through the leaves. The wooden chair was damp and wetted through my trousers, but that didn’t matter. The piece of paper inside the envelope was what mattered.
Leaning my elbows on the table I spun the A5 envelope round and round between my fingers, thinking. I knew I wasn’t going to like him before I had even opened it, but it was just one of those things I had to get used to living with. My coffee was getting cold so I drank half of it before easing open the envelope and reading the document. Perhaps I had misjudged poor Richard. His father had been one David Ridley, salesman. Now how vague was that? What kind of salesman? Cars? Insurance? His mother had been Elizabeth Ridley, nee Wilkinson, housewife, which meant that David had achieved enough prosperity through sales for his wife not to have to work.
On the surface they appeared to be nice, respectable people, but I had learnt never to accept life at face value. Oh how I wish I had. Mistrust, and more than a little curiosity, egged me to go against my better judgement and do what I had always promised myself not to do. I went to look at their house.
Before going I spent some time online researching what I could of Richard’s family tree. It was always difficult investigating living people, and generally drew a blank; so I was shocked to discover that Elizabeth, or Lizzie as she liked to be known, had died less than a year after Richard. The how of her departure from this mortal plane bothered me, so I ordered a death certificate. Father David might still be alive, and that bothered me too. People survived longer and longer these days, so I guessed he might be in his mid to late fifties by now, which was really no age at all.
They had lived a short distance from St Peter’s in Ash so I parked my Land Rover opposite the church and walked up the road and across the railway line. It wasn’t very far, but by the time I stood outside the house street lights were already coming on and curtains being closed against another damp evening. Something about the stillness of the place made me shiver. I turned my collar up and tried not to look as if I was staring into the abandoned cottage. At one time it might have been pretty, those straggly roses around the door abundant with fragrant blooms, only now it appeared deserted, the wrought iron gate rusted on broken hinges. I really don’t need to know this, I told myself, and turned to walk away.
A light flashing on in one of the small top windows made me glance up, but it went out as soon as my head shifted. Was I being watched? For a moment I stared up at the glass and half imagined that I saw a shape move beyond the reflected tungsten of the street light. Land registry, check out who owns the place; get your facts straight. I made a mental note to follow it up as soon as I got back. Head down I went to join the bright lights and throng of commuters spilling out of Ash station. There was little point in hurrying to move my car, the traffic being jammed and slow moving, so I broke another rule and went to amuse myself by saying hello to Richard Ridley again before going home.
“You’re proving to be more trouble than you’re worth,” I said, squatting down to brush stray grass away from his headstone. The girl next door, Kimberley Jones, had elbowed into his territory, her mourners filling his space with dusky pink chrysanthemums. “What’s wrong with putting them on her grave?” I asked, lifted the pots and placed them in a straight line from her head down to her toes. “You’ll respect her, but not him.”
Suddenly angered I spat on her grave. “Leave Richard be,” I said harshly. “He’s mine.”
My fingers trembled as I ran them around my lips. It was wrong to become emotionally involved. Control yourself. You don’t want it all starting again. You’ve put all that behind you. I stood and bowed my farewells.
Maybe I wasn’t as composed as I believed I was by the time I passed the church’s Norman entrance because the Rector loomed out of the shadows saying, “Can I help you?”
Lights flashed on as I tripped the motion sensors. Blinded I shielded my eyes and gaped at his silhouette, an anonymous shape that could identify me.
“I’m fine,” I said, continuing to shield my face from recognition.
“If you’re troubled…”
“No…no, I’m fine, thanks.” I hurried off, ducked down the lane opposite, and didn’t drive my car away until I was certain that he wasn’t going to associate me with the vehicle.
Back home I tried to calm down. As I filled the kettle my entire body was shaking. It was happening again. I was waking up. Fear, anxiety, anger… Something or someone was waking me up. I dreaded the signs. How long was it since my last episode? I couldn’t recall, didn’t like to think about it. Drink coffee, focus, stay calm.
I settled down for an evening of research on the internet. Land registry. Ancestry. Supermarket shopping. I could stay home. I didn’t have to go out. Groceries could be delivered.
“I’ll need to get a 4x if you order again mate,” the delivery driver had said last time. “That track is treacherous.”
Yes, the lane was rutted, and narrow, and liable to moderate flooding in winter. It was unlit too, so I chose an early delivery time, made another coffee and hummed and harred over what I might like to eat for the next week or so.
Lizzie Ridley’s death certificate upset me. I’d run out of milk and the drive into Farnham to buy some more was supposed to be a distraction, not a stressful ordeal made worse by a road traffic accident that blocked the whole of Hinckley’s Corner. Trapped in traffic there was nothing to do but sit in my car and think. Lizzie had committed suicide. She’d hung herself. What, I asked myself, had made her feel so desperate? The question went round and round in my head, like one of those revolving doors that always made me giddy. The loss of her son? It was the only answer I had… for now. The car behind tooted its horn and made me jump. My windows had steamed up and I hadn’t noticed the police officer waving me on.
He tapped on my window as I edged forwards, beckoned me to wind it down. “Keep alert; we don’t need any more trouble. Get your blowers on and clear that screen.”
I nodded my agreement, made a show of flicking the switch on the vents, and wiped the glass with my hand at the same time to show willing.
“Has this heap got an MOT?” He was already speaking into his radio so I don’t know why he bothered to ask. These days he would have the answer quicker than I could respond.
“Yes, officer, squeaky clean.”
“Stay in the left hand lane,” he said, and jerked his hand, impatient with me now that he didn’t have any sport.
By the time I got home to Elstead I was exhausted. Eventually I’d paid twice the price for milk at a corner shop, and decided that in future I should avoid going into town. Towns, traffic, horns, noise… it was all getting on top of me, shattering my nerves. I lit a candle and took it, and my coffee, out to sit under the apple tree. It was so peaceful here, as it had always been. I closed my eyes and listened to the silence. Lizzie Ridley had hung herself three months after the death of her baby boy. She had been forty two years old. I didn’t like the echo of my own life in his.
“You’ll have to go Richard,” I said out loud, and opened my eyes in time to witness the candle blow out in the still night air.
The postman never came down the lane. Years ago I’d erected a lockable metal box for him to leave my letters in, so I either took a stroll down to fetch them, or, if feeling particularly lazy, drove down. It was wonderful walking along early in the morning, smelling the dew, the freshness, and in winter counting the cobwebs. Now he barely delivered before eleven, so unless there was anything I was keen to receive, I left it until the following day, and continued with my early morning routine.
I’d already given up on Richard and was eagerly awaiting Mark Wellbeck’s birth certificate. I’d found him over at Farnham, didn’t much like the name, but had a much better feel about my involvement with him altogether. It was about mid-day, the sun was shining, and a cluster of snow-drops hinted at warmer days to come. I was happy and whistling, a robin joining in as it hopped along the hedgerow keeping me company. I took out my key and unlocked the box. Disappointment. It was empty. I sighed and fastened it up again.
“You looking for this?” The man’s voice made me jump and I turned, startled. He was holding an official envelope, but not the type a certificate was sent in.
I shook my head.
“This is the post box for Woodman’s Cottage.” It was a statement, not a question.
I nodded. He was middle aged, maybe forty, his beige weather proof coat and flat cap making him appear older. His eyes were brown and shrewd and staring at me with such intensity it hurt.
“I told the postman I was calling on you, so he gave it to me,” he said, and read the front of the envelope. “It’s illegal that, you know, handing someone’s post over to someone else.”
“Unless, of course, you show him one of these.” The man drew a wallet out of his pocket, flipped it open and artfully caught the light with his ID so that it winked in my face.
I swallowed hard and smiled. My throat was uncommonly dry.
“Richard Ridley,” he said, tipping the envelope onto its side so that the passport slid out into his hand.
Shit, I couldn’t even remember ordering that passport.
“Inspector Hawkins,” he said, tucking his wallet away and handing me the passport. “Special Investigations Department, SID for short.” He motioned down the lane. “Perhaps you’d like to make me one of those coffees you’re so fond of, while we have a little chat.”
Creasing the passport open with my thumb I peered inside. That was the photo I’d used on Julian’s passport, and I never used the same photograph twice, never. The clothes were outmoded and would immediately cause suspicion. Someone, with a lot of influence, had ordered the passport on my behalf.
My hackles rose as Inspector Hawkins said, “How about that little chat?”
“That’s if you do speak,” he said, and laughed, and made sure he was half a step behind me, so that I couldn’t run away.
You can buy Being Richard for Kindle or as an ebook.
Buy Being Richard for Kindle
Buy Being Richard on iTunes