Over the last few weeks I have shared excerpts from my novels about Thomas Radwinter who traces his family history, and then later investigates other people’s stories, and not just genealogical ones, but mysteries in their everyday lives.
Over the next month I am sharing excerpts from my other novels; this is the opening chapters of ‘The Stalking of Rosa Czekov’
The Stalking of Rosa Czekov
The first person to arrive at the cemetery stepped cautiously through the gates just after five in the morning. Her trainers left their marks on the path as she hesitantly walked towards the western end. The dew was heavy, the grass beaded and bent as if burdened.
She was very tired, she had been driving all night and she walked slowly but even so she missed her way. She retraced her footsteps and took a side path and found the grave. She looked around as if someone might be here even at this early hour then squatted and read the inscription. She shook her head as if mystified, gave a small sad smile and quickly left the graveyard.
The next person to arrive came nearly an hour later, still early enough to avoid the risk of meeting another. He approached the cemetery, entered and made his way to the grave. He had a single rose and laid it gently at the foot of the marble stone, stood with head bowed for a moment and then thoughtfully made his way back to his car parked in a pub car park beyond a row of nearby shops on Cemetery Drive.
Just before eight o’clock a car stopped across the gates and another man jumped out. He walked quickly into the cemetery and straight along the path, turning left to the grave he sought. He placed the small posy he was clutching on the pea gravel before the stone. He took a deep breath as if he was only just holding onto his composure, his jaw working, his lips pressed hard together. He wanted to say something it was clear but he glanced at his watch, swallowed down his words and his emotions and walked away as rapidly as he had come.
A car drew up behind his. The door opened and a woman stepped onto the pavement and they brushed cheeks in an insincere greeting. They exchanged a few words, the man bending to nod and mouth a greeting to her passenger.
The man drove off as the woman hurried into the graveyard, her heels clicking as she walked. She spent a few minutes tidying the grave, emptying the sunken pot of its murky water and putting in her own bunch of flowers. She primped them, tweaking them into position as she might her hair. She looked around, saw a jar on the next grave, emptied it of its wilting contents and inserted the posy the man had left. She pulled up a few little weeds before leaving swiftly without a backwards glance, as if she might be late.
A distant church struck eight. A third man had been waiting for more than two hours in the shadow of the war memorial on the corner of Cemetery Drive. As the woman and her passenger drove away he walked to the gates and then past them without a glance. At the end of the cemetery wall he turned and walked back again, passing the gate a second time. The third time he entered without checking his purposeful stride.
Although he knew where to go, although he had been many times before he walked straight to the northern wall where he turned and stood beside a tree, looking down the long tarmacced path. He stood, hands in pockets, as if unaware of the tears tracking down his cheeks. The sudden shrieking chatter of a magpie made him look up and he wiped his eyes; he made his slow way down the main path, turning off to his right. He stood still then squatted, one arm along the top of the gravestone, and brushed the face of it with his fingertips. He bent forward, and leant his forehead against the cold marble.
The woman who had arrived first at the cemetery was sitting in her silver Peugeot parked by the seawall in Strand. She sat with her head tipped against the headrest seeming too weary to move. She stirred herself as if with a great effort and took up a file beside her. She pulled out a plastic wallet, extracted the sheets of writing paper within and began to read, not because she needed to, but as a sort of touchstone.
I’m writing it like this to try and gain some objectivity, to try and distance myself from ‘It’.
‘It’ was a large and beautiful bouquet, addressed to her but without a note; ‘it’ was the bouquet which neither her husband nor her lover admitted to having sent; ‘it’ was the bunch of flowers which seemed to be the first thing.
Maybe there were other things. Her keys went missing and then were in her bag. Her underwear disappeared from the line and then turned up on the bed in the spare room. The biscuit tin which had been empty was full of her favourite biscuits when she opened it to put in a packet of digestives. Maybe these other things were her own forgetfulness, or Luka’s. So maybe the bouquet was the first thing.
The woman in the car slipped the page back with the others and drew another file from the folder. She took out the sheaf of news cuttings and leafed through them.
MAN SHOT IN BANK GRAB
POLICE SHOOT ARMED ROBBER
WOMAN HELD HOSTAGE BY GUNMAN
WOMAN SAVES MOTHER FROM HOSTAGE ORDEAL
She read the familiar words and then unfolded a full page article from a broadsheet.
I WASN’T BRAVE, ROSA CZEKOV TELLS MAISIE BAKER
I expect most of us wonder how we would react when we see news of extraordinary acts of bravery and courage by ordinary people. Certainly I did when the news broke about the woman who had offered herself as a hostage in place of a young mother during a bungled bank raid. Rosa Czekov is the same age as I am; she’s the sort of person I went to school with, from a happy middle-class back ground, one sister, and happily married to Luka. At the time that Enoch and Ira Chambers were planning to hold up a small branch of their local bank, Rosa was running her own art gallery in Easthope.
I asked Rosa about that time, before her name became synonymous with random acts of courage. She looked slightly perplexed; she raised her eye-brows, rubbed her hand through her close-cropped dark hair and gazed at me with solemn grey eyes.
“Were you different then?” I asked her.
“I suppose I must have been,” she answered with a rueful grin, but I detected a certain sadness hidden in her throw-away admission. “My life was very ordinary, as it is again now.”
“Although you no longer have the gallery.”
“Well, no,” she looked thoughtful. “But things change anyway.”
Things changed for Rosa Czekov one cold November day. She was standing patiently in a queue at the small branch of Strand Penny Bank, waiting with half a dozen others while the clerk coped single-handed as his manager wrestled with a tap which wouldn’t turn off in the ladies toilet. Behind Rosa stood Charlotte Hyam and her small grizzling daughter Poppy.
Suddenly two brothers, Enoch and Ira Chambers burst into the bank, scarves round their faces, baseball caps pulled low.
I asked Rosa what happened next.
She gave an imperceptible sigh, as if weary of the repetition.
Ira went to the counter while Enoch stood behind them, shouting at them to keep still, shut up, not move.
“He kept yelling he had a gun,” Rosa told me and momentarily something flickered in her expression.
Suddenly, 78 year old Mervin Holt lashed out at Ira with his walking stick, felling him with one blow. There was a terrific explosion as Enoch fired into the ceiling and everyone screamed and crouched on the floor. Enoch grabbed Charlotte Hyam and stood with the gun poked up under her chin.
“She was leaning back against him, trying to get her face away from the gun,” Rosa said calmly. “Her coat opened and I could see she was pregnant. All the time her child was clinging to her legs squealing with fear.”
But what happened next is where I begin to wonder what I would have done. Would I have stayed crouched on the floor with the half dozen others? Would I have been weeping and wetting myself with fear? Probably.
Rosa stood up slowly and calmly and explained to Enoch that she would be a better hostage than Charlotte. She was a woman but she had no child, the baby clinging to its mother’s legs would be a hindrance rather than an advantage.
“Take me,” she said.
The clerk had hit the panic button as soon as the guns had appeared. The manager, in the back had phoned the police and even as the gunshot rang out, people were being cleared away from outside the bank. As Rosa was talking quietly and calmly to Enoch Chambers, armed police were racing into the centre of Strand.
“But what you did must have taken enormous courage?” I asked.
Rosa shrugged slightly, as if it was a mystery to herself.
“I didn’t think,” she said after a moment. “I didn’t have some internal debate as to whether I should or shouldn’t. The child was screaming; the man was almost hysterical. I just stood up and – well, you know.”
Her eyes became slightly unfocused as she lived those moments again.
Her husband Luka, tall, darkening blond and with film star good looks put a tray of coffee between us.
“Bloody daft,” he said with a grin. But there was a grimness in his eye which told of a different emotion.
“What happened next must have been…” and then I didn’t know what to say. How could I put into words what Rosa had experienced after that?
Enoch Chambers had dragged her out of the door of the bank, one arm round her waist, the other hand holding the gun jammed against her throat. She could feel his arm trembling; she could feel his heart pounding against her as he held her tightly to him.
He shouted a dozen incoherent demands alleging he had already shot someone inside the bank. His brother Ira, still unconscious, was being tied up with garden twine by the ever resourceful Mervin Holt.
A negotiator began a dialogue.
I probed gently; how did she feel, what was going through her mind, what was she thinking of – or whom? She parried my questions with shrugs and non-committal half-comments.
And then something happened.
“I’m going to kill her!” Enoch Chambers had yelled and his elbow lifted and then Rosa was covered in blood as Enoch was killed with a single shot from a marksman.
“I don’t understand it,” said Luka suddenly. “You could have been killed,” he said almost angrily.
“But I wasn’t, my darling,” Rosa answered gently, and took his hand.
I sensed that what had happened to Rosa had as deeply affected her husband. I asked them if this was so.
“Of course it affected us,” said Luka, putting his arms round her, grinning at me flirtatiously. “It affected us then, we’re alright now.”
Later as we walked round their garden I couldn’t shake off the memory of the photos in the papers from that time. Rosa standing painted with a man’s blood, her arms held out in a gesture of entreaty to the marksman standing, gun still held to his shoulder.
I asked Rosa again why she had done it, what had given her the strength? Was she religious? No, not at all. Was she always brave, did she like risk-taking?
“I wasn’t taking a risk,” she said as if puzzled. “It wasn’t like that, it wasn’t like that at all. I don’t know what prompted me. Sense, I suppose, common sense and perhaps a lack of imagination.”
Was that what her modesty really was, a lack of imagination? I don’t think so. I think if each of us tried to emulate Rosa Czekov in some small way, some small act of bravery, then the world would indeed be a happier and safer place.
The woman in the car looked at the photo of Rosa Czekov. A solemn face, a sad face. The picture said everything the piece had not. I’m changed, I’m different, something happened.
The woman pulled out her phone, and looked in the driving mirror as she waited to be connected.
“Yes, hello, am I speaking with Luka Czekov? Hello, Luka. You may not remember me, I’m Rosa’s cousin from Australia, I’m Tyche Kane.”
Here is a link to ‘Rosa’:
… and here is a link to my other e-books: