Prelude 62

“Dad, I'd like you meet Tony.”

Aaron looked at the tall, slender, balding man in front of him, seeking out the two eyes behind the heavy, thick-rimmed glasses. Tony met the appraising stare without flinching. Liesel had warned him about her father.

“So what do you do, Tony?”

“I'm a Chartered Accountant with Hollings and Squibb in London.”

“Accountant, eh.” Aaron chuckled. He knew a good joke about accountants. “Do you know what accountants use for contraceptives?”

Tony shook his head.

“Their personality.”

Tony didn't smile.

“Dad!” Liesel protested.

“Oh well. I thought it was funny.” pouted Aaron.

“Dad,” said Liesel, “Tony and I are going to get married.”

“Oh?”

“Don't you mean congratulations?” asked Liesel, raising her eyebrow in an expression all too familiar to her father.

“Er, yes, I meant that. I'm … very happy for the both of you.“

Liesel rolled her eyes in disgust.

Tony looked at the old man in front of him, saw the mirth in his eyes, and smiled for the first time. He extended his hand. “Nice to meet you at last, sir. Liesel talks a lot about you.”

Aaron shook his hand and smiled back, regretting his silly joke. There was potential here.

Prelude 61

Elsbeth smiled to herself. She thought after James died that there would be no other relationships, no other men, but here she was, head over heals in love like a silly young girl.

He had looked so tired tonight. She loved the trouble he had gone to in his efforts to woo her, but she feared it had taken too great a toll. She thought about him dying and it filled her heart with an unbearable pain.

She knelt next to her bed and offered the same prayer she had offered so many nights before, that her Father in Heaven would heal this man that He had allowed to cross her path like this.

Prelude 60

“Holy Father,

I pray for Aaron. I pray that you will put Your healing hand on him and take away this awful illness.

Lord, I know You heal – I have seen You do this in my life and the lives of others - but I know Your plans are higher than ours, and so I ask this little thing trusting that You will answer it for Aaron's good.

In the precious name of Jesus,

Amen.”

Elsbeth prayed for Aaron every day. She had grown to love the dear old man, so full of pain, yet never losing the twinkle in his eye that endeared him so much to her. She wanted him to get better. She thought perhaps she might be able to grow old with this man. He was a good man.

Prelude 59

Aaron stood at the cliff's edge, surveying the wild, stormy sea, far below yet just one step away. The wind tugged at his clothes, almost inviting him to leap into its embrace. Cold grey clouds rushed by overhead, caring nothing for the scene below.

It would be so easy to just end it all, the endless bickering, the job he felt imprisoned by, the endless gloom. Just one little step. The wind whispered in his ear, encouraging him on, “yes.... yes…. yes.”

“Daddy! Come see the rabbit!” shouted Jojo.

Aaron came to his senses.

Prelude 58

They closed the door, placed the baby carrier in the middle of the lounge and sat on the sofa together. The little bundle of life that was their immense responsibility slept quietly, oblivious to the panic that had beset her new parents.

The pregnancy had been difficult and Fiona had needed to spend a week in hospital recovering, but now at last they were home.

Aaron put his arm around his wife and held her close.

“Isn't she beautiful?”

Fiona looked at Liesel and replied, “Yes. But I don't feel at all ready for this.”

Aaron looked at her, saw her weariness, and said, “Don't worry about it. You get some rest. I'll bring her to you when she needs you.”

Fiona smiled gratefully at her husband.

“You're a good man, Aaron.”

Prelude 57

“Joe, I'm going to propose to Fiona.”

“I'm happy for you, Aaron,” Joe replied.

“You don't look it.”

Joe didn't reply.

“Come on, spit it out.” Aaron insisted.

After a long pause, Joe replied, “Aaron, you know I like Fiona. She's a beautiful, fun girl, but I just don't know.”

“You don't know what?” Aaron could not hide the irritation in his voice. Joe was the only person he'd told and he was not expecting this.

“It seems to me that you and Fiona want different things from life.”

Aaron replied, “Look, Joe. We love each other and that's the only thing that matters. The rest will sort itself out.”

Joe looked at his smitten friend and saw that there was no sense in pursuing the issue. They were quiet for a few minutes, then he smiled and raised his glass in a toast.

“Here's to the two of you. I wish you long life, happiness and many children.”

Aaron smiled back. “That's better. You're going to be my best man, right?"

"I'd be honoured."

Prelude 56

He arrived late to the party, just as things were really getting going: the sound system blared, people shouted, screamed and laughed, writhing rhythmically to what he presumed was music. He stood silently, alone amongst the festivities, stranger, invisible, irrelevant. He knew this would be so but he came anyway - it'll be good for you Joe had said - what did he know. He missed his solitude, his music, his books, his space. Across the room he saw a girl, standing silently, alone amongst the festivities, stranger, but not invisible, not irrelevant, at least to him. He smiled, she smiled, and the emptiness was filled.

Prelude 55

“Aaron Leibowitz.”

He strode smiling on to the stage, dashing in his flowing dark blue gown, and shook the Dean's hand confidently as he accepted his degree.

She was so proud of her son, and intensely sad that John had missed this day. They had worked so hard to make this possible, the education of their only son, and she hoped that from somewhere, somehow her husband was able to see. She knew he would be smiling.

Prelude 54

“Aaroooon!”

It was his mother calling. He sensed urgency in her voice so dropped the wooden figurine he had been whittling at for the past hour and ran back to the house.

She stood distraught in the kitchen, tears flowing.

“What's the matter, Mummy?”

“Its your father. There's been an accident on one of the boats. A freak wave washed him overboard.”

“Is he OK?” Aaron asked.

She broke down sobbing.

As Aaron's world collapsed for the first time he put his arms around his mother and they stood weeping together. George looked on with big sad dog eyes, sensing in his animal psyche a great loss.

Prelude 53

The mist lay thick and cold over the fields. George had run ahead of him in his endless search for the perfectly interesting scent.

Aaron stood still. There was absolutely no sound and he imagined he was in a cloud on top of a distant mountain, surveying a world covered with ice.

What mark would he leave on this world? What difference did he want to make? Did it matter what he wanted or what he did? Was there a point?

His parents never went to church or talked about God, and neither did most of his friends. An old parish church called the faithful few every Sunday morning, amidst much cursing from his father who was trying to sleep in.

Aaron had asked his father once if there was a God. He had scoffed and said that God was like the Easter Bunny, stories for children. Aaron had thought to ask why then so many grown-ups believed in God and not the Easter Bunny but his father was not in an approachable mood that morning. The business was not doing well.

Prelude 52

“Martha, what are we going to do with that boy?” John asked.

“Oh, he's just being a a boy. I'd worry if he didn't get up to mischief,” Martha replied.

“Burning down the shed is not mischief.”

“It was an accident, John”.

“I know that, but he should know better than to play with fire near a petrol canister.”

“He's learnt a lesson.” Martha was used to placating her oft angry husband with regard to Aaron.

“He most certainly did.”

“I wish you hadn't used the belt.”

“Martha, you're too soft on the boy. I learned some fine lessons from the belt. He needs to be prepared for life. Its tough out there.”

Prelude 51

“Granda, look!”

Granda looked for what seemed to be the hundredth time that morning. He'd forgotten how much attention little children demanded. Aaron was their only grandson, a scrawny six year old with a passion for collecting things. Usually if they were lucky, the object of his affection would be inanimate, but today this was not to be. Aaron proudly held out his clenched fist.

“I found something,” he beamed proudly.

“What is it, Aaron?” the old man asked.

“Guess.”

“Is it, a … flower?”

“No.”

“A pretty rock?”

“No.”

“Perhaps a beetle?”

“No, look.”

He opened his hand to show a very unhappy looking frog.

“Ah, its a frog,” said Granda.

“No, its a princess. Do you want to kiss her?”

Granda didn't, but Aaron looked at him with such big, expectant eyes, that it seemed he had little choice, so he kissed it.

“Now what, Aaron? Will the frog turn into a princess?”

“No, silly,” replied Aaron with barely concealed glee, “its just a frog and you kissed it!” He scampered off to find Grandma to tell her all about the great trick he'd played on her long suffering husband.

Prelude 50

Saturday morning and Aaron got up early as always. He couldn't see how people managed to sleep late two days of the week when they rose at the crack of dawn the other days.

Everyone else was sleeping so he quietly busied himself in the kitchen. They hadn't had pancakes in ages - it used to be a regular Saturday thing but lately he hadn't had the energy. Today however it was different. The sun was shining and he felt good about the world for a change.

He prepared the pancake batter, dug out the sugar, cinnamon, lemon and maple syrup for toppings.

The kitchen door opened and a sleepy Jojo entered, rubbing her eyes. "Hi, Dad."

"Hello my love," said Aaron, giving her a big cuddle. "Sleep well?"

"Uhuh..."

"Want a pancake?"

"Oohh, pancakes? Yes please!" Jojo's eyes lit up with excitement, all thoughts of sleep gone.

She loved her daddy's pancakes.

Prelude 49

“Pass.... pass…. pass....”

The cards were handed to the left, each person deep in concentration, waiting for the magic card that would make their matching set of 4.

Aaron didn't even look at his cards. He was focusing on the spoons. The goal was not to get the first spoon. The goal was not to be last.

Suddenly Jojo lunged for a spoon. Aaron followed soon after. Fiona managed to grab hold of the third spoon but had this wrenched from her hand by a very triumphant Liesel.

“Hey!” shouted Fiona. “That's not fair.”

But it was. Spoons was a tough game and there was no mercy for the slow or weak.

Prelude 48

“Why not?” he insisted.

The kissing had intensified until his hands had wandered too freely and she pushed him away.

“Because I don't want to,” Liesel said firmly.

He pouted. What was the matter with her? Everyone else was doing it and they'd been going steady for a few weeks, so it was expected. His mates had started asking, forcing him to lie about his conquests. He could see the hungry envy as he spared no details about his supposed times with her.

Liesel was quite a catch. A beautiful, graceful, young woman, full of unspoken sensuality that drove the boys in her class wild with teenage lust. Dave wasn't sure what she saw in him. He could sense she was in a different class, yet she seemed to be drawn to him, so he wasn't complaining.

Liesel looked at the boy sulking besides her. She liked his strong, good looks and wild spirit, but she was not going to give in. Dave was just a stage and she knew it.

Prelude 47

Jojo sobbed quietly in bed. She missed her daddy.

Prelude 46

Aaron lay in the doorway, huddled against the cold, watching the passers by, his threadbare coat stuffed with layers of newspaper as he had seen the others do. He hadn't eaten all day and had drunk the last of his cheap vodka hours ago. Waves of nausea washed over him, threatening to rid him of what little food remained in his stomach.

A young couple walked by, laughing together, oblivious of the wretched old man just a few steps away. Their evening was mapped out: a West End show, a fine meal and perhaps a little something afterwards if the mood was right. In the distance a lone office worker hurried home carrying a sad bunch of flowers hastily bought from the stall on the corner. His evening too was mapped out: a long commute home, an angry wife, a cold dinner, sleeping children.

Aaron fell asleep and dozed fitfully, dreaming of happier times.

Prelude 45

“Don't forget to put out the milk and biscuit.”

Aaron poured half a glass of milk and found a stale biscuit at the bottom of the tin. He took a sip of the milk and ate most of the biscuit, leaving just a few crumbs on a saucer which he placed with the milk next to the fireplace.

Fiona had started to fill the girls' stockings when she found a note from Liesel saying, “Santa, are you real?”

She gave it to Aaron who smiled and retrieved a gold pen from Jojo's art set to pen a florid “Yes” on the note, before returning it to Liesel's stocking.

When all the preparations were done, Aaron poured some wine and together they sat on the couch, enjoying each other's company silently, staring at the fading fire in the hearth.

Prelude 44

Aaron walked aimlessly along the city streets in a daze, cardboard box full of office paraphernalia in his arms. Rush hour came and he felt himself being carried along by streams of grey, muted, hurried commuters.

Someone bumped into him and his box fell, spilling its contents all over the payment, but nobody stopped to help. He looked dejectedly at the debris of his broken career and walked away silently, overcoat flapping in the cold wind, fading into the darkness, first just a shadow, then nothing.

Prelude 43

“Aaron, have a seat.”

Aaron sat down, wondering what this was about.

“I'll get straight to the point,” said Duncan, “I run a tight ship here, as you know, and can't afford to carry any weight.”

“Of course,” began Aaron.

“And,” interrupted Duncan, “you and I both know you haven't been delivering of late, and if that's not bad enough, I found this.”

He held out an empty bottle of vodka.

Aaron looked at the bottle but didn't say anything.

“This is yours, right?” insisted Duncan.

Aaron nodded.

“Well, I'm not having it. You're fired. I can't believe I wasted so much time and energy on you. Go get your things and get out of my sight!”

Aaron thought about protesting, but got up and turned to go.

“Aaron.”

Aaron looked back.

“Don't forget your bottle.”

Prelude 42

She looked up at him, the tall young man she'd known since they were youngsters, the man she'd given her first kiss to, the man she'd let touch her like no other, the man she loved, the man she hoped to marry. She remembered fondly the long countryside walks, talking for hours, sometimes with his stupid dog, but mostly just the two of them, braving the elements or standing quietly watching the sun set dreamily over the Broads.

He held her in his arms, his Molly, his first love, and said good-bye. He promised to write and kissed her tenderly before boarding the train to Edinburgh.

And he did, a few times, before university and the wide world beyond captivated him and he forgot the simple things, and broke his first promise.

Prelude 41

“Go on Joe, let me have a puff!”

“Wait, Aaron, I haven't had my third go yet.”

“Hey, someone's coming! Get rid of it!”

They boys scampered off, leaving the cigarette to smoulder quietly in the dry grass next to the school bicycle shed.

Prelude 40

Aaron sat in the dreary Methodist chapel, next to Joe. An old woman played hymns on an out of tune piano and was joined by a few but very enthusiastic souls, resulting in a joyful cacophony of sound that both stirred and offended.

This was Joe's church, his place of fellowship and worship, and Aaron was his reluctant guest. They'd had a series of very entertaining and robust debates on the existence of God, most of which Aaron felt he'd won. Then one day Joe asked if he wanted to see his church. Aaron didn't particularly but that was hardly the point.

So here he was, in this decidedly odd place, sipping vile coffee with a lovely, decent, kind group of people who passionately believed in and served a Being they had never seen.

It was all quite troubling.

Prelude 39

The fact that Montmartre was abuzz with tourists was scarcely relevant to Aaron and Fiona. This was Paris in Spring, and they, young newly-weds, were in love.

Aaron sipped his hot, sweet expresso and gazed at his wife of but a few days. She was beautiful, bright, accomplished, full of life and laughter, and he was like a moth to her flame. She in turn loved his solid, practical, intelligent approach to life and knew that he was a man with which she build a lasting relationship and a family.

Overhead Le Sacre Coeur, The Sacred Heart, witnessed their love silently, just as it had done so many times before.

Prelude 38

Aaron sat in the train observing the young school girl near him. She couldn't have been much more than around 14, very pretty and well spoken, dressed in a smart green blazer, matching tie and grey skirt. She was talking to a young lad her age, and they seemed very into in each other, if the coy smiles were anything to go by. The boy, in complete juxtaposition to her, looked a sight: unkempt hair, shirt hanging out, tie completely wrong, face riddled with ugly red spots. What on earth did she see in him? he wondered.

This could have been Liesel, or even Jojo, though Jojo was never this smart in her appearance – the concept offended her sensibilities. Aaron smiled at the memories of endless argument between Jojo and Fiona as mother tried unsuccessfully to feminise daughter.

The young girl noticed him looking and whispered something to the boy. He sneaked a quick look and the two of them giggled.

Prelude 37

Aaron logged out of his work computer. He had put in extra hours so he could leave early today. It was Valentine's Day and though he didn't think much of this over commercialized occasion, he knew Fiona did.

In his pocket was the gift he'd lovingly selected, a single pearl pendant. For Aaron the present was full of symbolism: a thing of immense beauty and value, produced out of suffering, the irritating grain of sand that invaded the life of a mollusc.

Their marriage was like that he thought, though these days there seemed to be more grain than beauty. He hoped this would be the beginning of new things, a peace offering to his wife.

“Aaron! Before you go...” It was Daniel, the CEO and his boss. Aaron was expected to put his plans on hold, yet again.

He hesitated.

He made the wrong decision.

Prelude 36

Aaron stared at the ceiling, unable to sleep. Fiona lay next to him, crying softly. It had been a bad fight and wounds had been inflicted that would possibly never heal.

Their many years together had been good in general he thought, but the long list of unresolved issues had resulted in a volatile powder keg that exploded at the slightest poke.

Today it was the fact that he'd missed a parent-teacher evening at Jojo's school because of work. Fiona accused him of being an uncaring, self-centred part-time father. He had countered with something about if she spent less he wouldn't have to work so hard.

He didn't know how much longer he could go on like this.

Prelude 35

“Dad?”

“Yes, Jojo?”

“Did you want a boy?”

“I'm happy with my two girls, you know that.”

“I know, but would you have liked a boy?”

“I suppose in some ways it would have been fun, but in other ways I would have missed out.”

“Like how?”

“A boy would have never painted my nails green.”

“Oh Dad!”

“Jojo, seriously, I tell you this all the time. You and Liesel mean the world to me and I don't wish for anything else.”

“I think I might be half boy.”

“Do you?”

“Yeah, I hate dolls for instance.”

“Lots of girls hate dolls.”

“And I like to climb trees.”

“So you're part monkey?”

“Dad!”

"Hoo-hoo-hoo!"

"Dad?"

"Yes, Jojo?"

"Why do you and Mummy fight so much?"

"I don't know Jojo. I know its horrible and we try hard not to, but sometimes its better to argue than to be quiet."

"I don't like it when you argue."

"I know, my love. I'm really sorry."

Prelude 34

“Here, boy!”

The black Labrador looked at them briefly before returning to the smell that had caught his attention. He wasn't sure yet if it was rabbit or wild fowl but either way this was more interesting than his master.

“George!!”

This time there was a command in the voice of Aaron's father and the dog obeyed, bounding along the path towards his master, pink, wet tongue lolling a great big happy smile.

“Good boy!”

Aaron's father, like his father before him were great believers in affirmation and through it had the devotion their children and pets alike. He was a strong, quiet upright man with a wicked sense of humour which he was glad to see his son had inherited.

Aaron ran on ahead with George looking for unsuspecting rabbits. They hardly ever found any and those they did easily escaped from the hapless hunters.

He loved these Sunday morning walks with these two and afterwards the homecoming to his wife's cooking. Family meant the world to him and it saddened him that his work on the boats didn't allow him to be home more. Life however, is never perfect, and perhaps it is meant to be that way, he thought, the dark making the light all the more bright.

Prelude 33

“Happy Birthday, Daddy!” squealed Jojo as she leaped on to the bed and knocked most of the wind out Aaron. Liesel followed, more reserved, behaviour becoming a young 14 year old woman acutely aware of her burgeoning femininity.

Fiona clattered downstairs, no doubt preparing breakfast in bed.

They had allowed him a little lie-in as it was Saturday but when Jojo could no longer contain herself she bounded in and plopped a present on his lap.

“Open it, Daddy!”

Aaron feigned mock surprise. “For me? I wonder what it could be.”

He felt the package, it felt like another mug to add to his collection of “Best Dad” mugs.

“Is it a tooth brush?”

Jojo rolled her eyes, scarcely able to suppress the answer.

He unwrapped the present, a mug as he had predicted.

“Its beautiful, Jojo” and hugged her.

Liesel came forward and gently profered her gift.

It was a little package and Aaron wasn't able to guess what was in it. He looked at Liesel for clues but she looked back at him with serious, mysterious eyes that gave nothing away.

Cuff links. A woman's gift. Aaron suppressed a tear, and thanked Liesel with a kiss.

Then he leapt forward and tackled the both of them - it was time for a tickle.

The squealing continued until Fiona brought breakfast: bacon and eggs, grilled tomato, a steaming cup of coffee, and a single rose in a vase with a note: "You'll get my present later on. XXX"

Prelude 32

She saw him strolling along the canal, heading towards the park, lost deep in thought. He did not however sit in his normal place, choosing for some reason to sit on her bench.

They sat a while like this before he appeared to suddenly realise where he was and cast her a quick embarrassed glance. She smiled however, so he relaxed and smiled back.

"I'm Aaron," he said, extending his hand.

She shook it. "Elsbeth."

The sun shone down kindly on the pair, sitting on the bench like an old married couple, perfectly at ease in each other's company, sharing conversation and silence with equal aplomb. Children played in the park, full of youthful self-centred exuberance, unaware of the miracle of love that had begun to blossom in this unexpected place.

Prelude 31

The sky hung grey overhead, caring nothing for the dismal scene below.

"I am the Resurrection and the Life..." droned the minister.

Aaron stood, grief stricken, held tightly by Jojo and Liesel, the wind driving the misty drizzle into their faces. His heart raged at the God he didn't believe in. If God was love then why did these things happen; why was life so sad?

He wished the minister would shut up so he could say his good-byes, but checked this thought - Joe would have wanted better of him.

Prelude 30

It was good at last to be out of that house with all its memories, thought Fiona. She surveyed her new Chelsea studio flat, pleased with the modern d├ęcor she had chosen - it was appropriate to her new executive lifestyle.

She thought about the years since Aaron's disappearance, the crying, the struggle to make ends meet, her personal triumphs, her career, the growing up of the girls into fine young women: Liesel married with a good job as a pharmacist, Jojo finishing her PhD in Geology. She resented Aaron immensely but was not unhappy with how life had turned out.

It had all passed by so quickly though, she thought, and a gentle melancholy threatened to envelop her. However this was detected early and quickly dispatched by a Positive Mental Thought.

An unfortunate acronym.

Prelude 29

Aaron stared at the computer. How the hell did he start a blog?

Joe said these things were all the rage, web logs rather than old fashioned paper diaries, but the thing was, Aaron knew how to write but didn't have a clue about this.

A pimply teenager sat in the corner behind a desk in the internet cafe, ostensibly in charge of the place but deeply engrossed in some computer game. Aaron called him over and had to to repeat himself loudly before the the lad stopped what he was doing and slouched across the room to where Aaron was sitting.

"Yeah?"

"I want to start a blog but need some help."

"Wafor?"

"Never mind that, son. Can you show me how?"

"Dya want WYSIWIG editing or plain text?"

"Yes."

"Uh... well ... ok ... I reckon you want Blogger. Its free and quite easy to use. Start IE."

"IE?"

"Internet Explorer"

"Internet Explorer?"

Aaron got there in the end but not before the spotty youth had contemplated suicide a few times.

Prelude 28

"Joe, you've got to get that cough seen to - its been months."
"I'm alright, Aaron - its just some sort of viral thing. No point going to the GP."

Aaron wasn't convinced but Joe was stubborn and he knew when to let it go. They continued to play cards for little while longer but cut it short since Joe was tired.

As Aaron was leaving, Joe saw the concern on his face and said, "Don't worry, old friend, I am fine, really."

Aaron forced a smile and wished him good night.

Prelude 27

"You what?" shouted Fiona.

"We visited Dad!" Liesel shouted back.

She hadn't meant to tell her mum but she lost her temper. It all started when she wanted to go to the party with Dave. Fiona didn't like Dave, didn't trust him, and she was right not to, but Liesel could handle him. Besides it wasn't her place to lecture Liesel on relationships, was it now?

The argument had escalated until Liesel finally blurted out the secret she knew would hurt her mother.

Fiona stood, stunned. She knew this day would come but she was not ready for it yet.

"How could you? After all he did to us?"

"I don't care!" screamed Liesel. "He's my father!"

"Call that a father? I forbid you to see him again!"

Liesel stood defiantly, glaring at her mother, and spoke through gritted teeth, "I will!"

"As long as you are under my roof you will do as I say!" shouted Fiona.

"That can be fixed!" growled Liesel, storming off.

Fiona heard the front door slam shut and buried her face in her hands.

Prelude 26

Fiona stood in the boardroom, surveying the room full of male corporate executives. She was dressed in a smart charcoal business suit and had chosen a blend of subtle makeup with a touch of scarlet lipstick for the occasion.

Her presentation had gone very well, resulting in lots of interest. She handled the questions comfortably, enjoying the interaction, playfully using her feminity in the way she had learned from Louise her mentor. These fat, grey executives were lapping it all up and would soon be eating out of her hand.

She smiled to herself. How simple men were.

Prelude 25

She sat on the park bench, enjoying the warmth and radiance of the late afternoon sun. Around her birds scuttled around pecking at the crumbs she was dropping from her hands. One enterprising little robin jumped up on to the bench in the hope of more food, gave her a cheeky look, and flew off.

She loved these times in the park: feeding the birds, watching the children playing, reading, or just sitting quietly and reflecting. She'd had a good life, the last few perhaps a little sadder since her husband died, but she was grateful for the many good things God had blessed her with.

Across from her sat a tired, worn looking man. She liked looking at people and guessing what they might be but he was not giving much away and her curiosity was aroused. His great big beard hinted at links with the sea but his hands were refined, so it was more likely that he was an unkempt intellectual of some description.

He looked up suddenly, their eyes meeting for a fleeting second before he looked away. She was struck by the deep intensity of his eyes, but even more by the reaction they produced in her.

She hadn't blushed like this in years.

Prelude 24

"Your turn to deal, Joe."

Aaron watched his friend as he dealt the cards. They where playing German Whist, a 2 player variation that had nothing to do with the Germans as far as he knew.

"Joe, I wanted to say thank you for everything, for finding me the first time, but mostly for finding me the second time."

Joe looked at him and replied, "Aaron, we've been friends for as long as I can remember. Helping each other is what we do, so shut up now and play cards."

Aaron smiled at the big saintly man across the table from him and opened the bidding.

Prelude 23

The knocking persisted.

Aaron didn't like to answer the door - he wasn't sure yet that his new environment was safe.

Another knock.

"Dad?"

At first he stood, unable to move, overcome by emotion, but then he ran to the door and flung it open. His daughters stood outside, looking at their father, a shadow of his former self, shaking in the doorway.

For a moment they stood like this, father and daughters, a gulf of hurt dividing the love that once bound them so close.

Liesel said, "Can we come in?" There was tenderness in her voice, the promise of enduring love, of forgiveness, of healing and redemption.

Prelude 22

The day of her first job interview and Fiona was a nervous wreck. She had excelled at her Marketing diploma, ending up top of her class, but this was different - years as a housewife had dented her confidence.

She sat in the foyer of the plush offices of Aardman Marketing Consultants in London, composing herself. The pretty, manicured receptionist was a good 10 years younger than her and looked so very composed and accomplished. Fiona felt inadequate and wanted to run away, back to her comfort zone, but she didn't - this was her moment.

"Ms Jackson? You may go in you now."

Fiona steadied her nerves, thought about her training, rehearsed her self motivation lines, straightened her skirt, and walked in to the interviewing room wearing a confident, engaging smile.

Prelude 21

The door was ajar and Aaron could see into the room that was soon to become his new home. The dust hung like heavy golden clouds in the sun lit air and everywhere debris lay strewn, the detritus of an angry departure. Someone had sprayed "Fuck the counsel" on the wall. Charming, Aaron thought.

The water and electricity were working here too, so the graffiti was wrong - the Council were to be praised for their oversight.

The room did indeed have a view, one of the canal, visible between two buildings opposite. He could just make out the prow of a river boat and thought wistfully of his childhood on the Broads.

Aaron could hear other people in the building and wondered what his new neighbours would be like.

Prelude 20

The afternoon sun streamed into Joe's living room window warming Joe as he dozed.

Suddenly there was a gentle knock on the door, a woman's knock, Joe thought. He got up, his aching limbs protesting, and answered the door; it was Liesel.

"Hello Liesel, this is a lovely surprise."
"Hi Joe." He no longer was Uncle Joe, just Joe. One of the perks of no longer being a little child.
"Come in. Come in."

Joe ushered Liesel in and offered some tea which she accepted. They sat for a while, exchanging pleasantries, until Liesel stopped and looked out the window.

"What's on your mind, Liesel? You're obviously not here just to visit your old uncle now are you?"

Liesel bowed her head. "No, Joe, its lovely to see you again, but I need you to help me.
"Help you? Of course, anything. What is it?"

"Help me find Dad."

Joe frowned. "Your mum would skin me alive if she found out."

"I don't care. Will you help me?"

Joe could never refuse Liesel.

Prelude 19

Aaron stood in the queue quietly waiting for his turn at the Salvation Army soup kitchen. The steaming soup smelled good and would provide welcome relief from the cold.

He watched the queue shuffle slowly ahead of him, quietly, almost sombrely. The servers had a ready welcoming smiles and chatter that seemed genuine enough, but in general people took their food and left silently.

Aaron saw Tom and went to sit next to him. They had met a few weeks back when Aaron started sleeping rough and got on well enough.

"Hey, Tom."
"Aaron."
"Haven't seen you around much on the streets."

Tom leaned closer and whispered.

"I've found a place to stay, Aaron, a squat, not much to look at, some furniture but with the elec and water still going."

Aaron smiled and replied, "I'm happy for you. Must be good to get out of the cold at night."

"You know," continued Tony, looking around furtively, "there's another building next door that's also empty. You should take a look. Its got a view too!"

Aaron took note of the address and smiled wryly. A room with a view would be a fine thing.

Prelude 18

The teenage girls chattered excitedly.

"No way! I do not fancy him, definitely not!" said Liesel.

The others gave her knowing looks.

"I don't!" she insisted, mortified that they had seen through her.

The others giggled and together they walked into Monsoon.

Across the road a lone man watched the scene with sad eyes.

She was really growing up, his Liesel, so big and so stunning. And yet she was no longer his Liesel. His heart hurt so much it seemed it would burst.

Prelude 17

"Aaron, you know you can stay here."

"I need to go, Joe. You've been a true friend and I'm thinking more clearly now, but I have to do this."

"Well stay in touch, ok?"

"I will."

They hugged and Aaron disappeared into the night.

Prelude 16

"Mummy, when is Daddy coming home?" Jojo asked.

Fiona didn't know how to answer. Aaron wasn't coming back, not if she had anything to do with it. Their relationship had deteriorated in the last year to the point of no return and she wanted, needed to move on. But the girls missed their father.

"Jojo, Daddy is gone and I don't think he will be coming back."

Jojo wept bitterly and Fiona held her close, trying to comfort her.

"Can we visit him?" Liesel asked. She had already been inducted into the reality of separation and divorce by her friend Amy.

"We'll see."

No.

Prelude 15

Joe watched Aaron lying in a fitful sleep.

He had seen many bad things in his life, but this tragic wretch of a man tore deeply at his heart. The last week had been rough and he was tired.

He prayed silently, as he had done every day, for his friend.

Prelude 14

The room stank of alcohol, filth and vomit.

Aaron lay racked in pain as the alcohol withdrawal took its toll. He had begged Joe for a drink but Joe refused. Then he had gotten violent but Joe was stronger, always had been, and Aaron was no match for him.

Now he just lay in dark despair, a ruined man. He'd turned his face on all knew and loved and had lost them.

He just wanted to die.

Prelude 13

The girls lay huddled together in Liesel's bed.

"Don't cry, Jojo", said Liesel,
"I can't help it", replied Jojo, "I hate it when they fight."
"Me too."
"Why do they fight all the time?"
"I don't know, Jojo. I don't think Daddy's happy."
"Mummy's not very happy either."
"No."
"Why does Daddy have to work all the time?"
"I don't know."
"He screams at us a lot."
"Yes."
"Do you think he still loves us like he used to?"
"I suppose."
"I don't think so."
"He's just tired all the time."

"I think I'll go to sleep now. Can you tell me a story?"

Prelude 12

"Wipe your feet Aaron."

He rolled his eyes impishly but dutifully did as he was told. He loved his mum immensely - she defined their home and was an enduring presence in their lives.

She had been baking again so he helped himself to a large wedge of bread with cheese before getting on with his school work. He blew her a kiss as he left.

She was proud of her serious, hard working son and hoped he would make something of his life, perhaps even a university degree. They had wanted more children but Aaron's birth had been difficult so no more children would be possible. This caused her some sadness but she could not have asked for a better son.

Prelude 11

He lay in the gutter, rank and disgusting, the stench of filth and cheap alcohol about him. The respectables walked past, looking the other way, tut-tutting and glad they were not he. The wind tugged icily at the ragged clothes of the man in the gutter, but he did not move. He would not move - he was done.

Joe found Aaron sleeping rough after months of tramping the streets, asking anybody who would stop if they'd seen the man in the picture. Joe was sure that Aaron, if alive at all, would not look anything like the well-dressed executive in the picture but it was the most recent shot of him Fiona had.

"Aaron, its me, Joe."

"Aaron looked up, unable to focus through the alcoholic haze."

"Aaron, its me. I've come to take you home."

The broken man before him sobbed, "No. I can't. No more."

Joe replied, "You'll die if you stay here - you can stay at my place", and with that gently lifted Aaron up and took him home.

He called Fiona but she refused to come. She and the girls were better off without him, she said.

Prelude 10

The bed next to her was empty. Aaron hadn't come home last night.

It had been a terrible argument, about the usual things: his frequent absences, his drinking, his shouting, her spending, her dissatisfaction, her coldness towards him. They screamed at each other, neither listening, the kids huddling together in one of their bedrooms.

He had eventually stormed out as many times before, but this time he was gone.

She called Joe to see if he was there but Joe hadn't seen him either.

Prelude 9

Fiona watched Aaron and the girls as they built the snowman. Aaron was more like his old self and she was glad she had insisted on this holiday in Scotland - he needed the break.

The front door suddenly opened. "Muuuuum, we need a carrot! Do we have any?"

Fiona smiled and got a carrot from the fridge. She also dug out a scarf and hat which she knew would come next. Aaron didn't think about such things, he just saw the snow and like a little boy ran outside. They had gone sledging yesterday and Aaron had stayed out long into the afternoon, hurtling downhill at breakneck speed, ramping over the road onto the next hill. She didn't like snow, too cold, but loved to curl up in front of a roaring fire with a novel and welcome her family home with a good meal. The domestic idyll appealed to her romantic nature, whereas she found day to day mothering a bit of a chore if she was honest. She couldn't wait to finish her marketing course and get a job. The girls were very self-sufficient now so didn't need her that much any more. As for Aaron, well he was never at home, either physically or otherwise.