Times and Places

Ten years after his daughter Justine's death, an anxious Fergus embarks on a cruise with his wife.  On board, he meets a myriad of characters and is entranced by some, irritated by others and disgusted by one.  These turbulent feelings, combined with a sequence of bizarre events, only lead to his increased anxiety.
In a series of flashbacks, Justine enjoys an ultimately short romance, a woman concludes she killed her and an investigating police officer is drawn into her idyllic world.  Fergus, haunted by poignant memories, withdraws in search of answers.
Back on the cruise, Fergus reaches breaking point, fearing he has done something terrible.  By the time the ship returns, his world has changed forever.
"Times and Places" spans Atlantic islands, the Chiltern countryside, Cornish coasts and rural Slovenia, all of which provide spectacular backdrops to a humorous and moving tale of quiet spirituality. 

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This extract is taken from Chapter 13 of "Times and Places" and, ten years after his daughter Justine's death, Fergus is on a cruise.  Here he spends an evening dancing with his wife, reflecting on years gone by and enjoying a magical moment out on deck.

The ship had a number of retired men who were paid to whirl solo women around the dance floor, the cruise company called them 'dance hosts' but Sylvie playfully nicknamed them 'the Lotharios'.  Between numbers they would scour the lounge like sharks hunting their next prey and Sylvie tensed up as soon as she noticed them, fearing she might be next in their sights.  Fergus wished she could sometimes be a little more outgoing and, for example, enjoy this opportunity to dance with a professional.  However, he quickly realised his own hypocrisy: who was he to pass judgement and when had he ever been the life and soul of the party?
"I'm just going to nip to the Gents," he teased, sensing his wife's unease.
"Oh no you are not!" Sylvie grasped him tightly.
Deep down she knew she was being unfair and that these rather elderly men, elegant in their smart white suits, were only doing their jobs, making sure women travelling on their own would enjoy their evenings.  She was even impressed by their slick, relaxed style, something she had already observed a few hours earlier as she watched them at the sail away party, dancing energetically with the Show Troupe and encouraging braver passengers to join in.  Nevertheless, here Sylvie wanted to keep her head down, or at least to make it as obvious as possible that she was not alone.
They bought drinks and settled down to enjoy the band.  Occasionally a lothario would sail past, apparently aiming for Sylvie but then shying off at the last moment upon noticing her husband.
"You'd be a gonner if I left you on your own!"
"Please don't," she said and Fergus was surprised by the hint of pleading in her tone.
"Come on, I'll take you for a spin myself," he suggested, reaching for her hand.  Almost before she knew it, she was up and heading for the dance floor with him and, just a few moments later, they found themselves moving amongst the other couples, including the Lotharios and their latest catches.  Fergus and Sylvie both realised they probably looked faintly ridiculous, but, if they did, they certainly weren't the only ones, and they stayed on the floor for the next few numbers, Sylvie slowly defrosting and Fergus' mind wandering back to discos and parties he had attended earlier in life, pre-Justine, pre-Sylvie even.  By comparison, those occasions had been much harder work, trying to fit in, while fearing he never really would.  It had been a less forgiving time, now was more relaxed; there how you danced mattered, here it didn't.  He pictured his struggling youthful self without envy, he was happy to be when and where he was, in this time and place, dancing with his wife.
"There, I think we've done our bit!" he said, after around fifteen minutes.
"Oh and there was I hoping we'd still be up here for the slow tunes!"
"Afraid not, but..." looking across at a couple of disengaged lotharios, "I'm sure one of these gentlemen would do the honours."
She gave him a gentle punch in the ribs.  They waited a moment surveying the scene, then Fergus said:
"Let's leave the youngsters to it.  I'm ready for bed."  Sylvie, looking at all the elderly people around them, noted the irony.
"Come on then old man," she led him towards the exit, fully intending going straight back to the cabin, but Fergus again wanted some air and so they diverted out on deck first.
"I have an idea," said Sylvie, grabbing his hand.  At night, most of the ship was full of lights but, so the officers could see out from the bridge, the bow was kept in complete darkness.  They couldn't get right to the very front of the ship, but Sylvie could lead him immediately beneath the bridge, from where they gazed into the blackness ahead.
"Look up," she said.  Fergus craned his head and they stared together high into the night sky.  Gradually, as their eyes adjusted, more and more stars appeared, until they were everywhere: shimmering reminders of both the unimaginable enormity of the universe and the inconsequence of their own place in it.  They continued to gaze up as the galaxy revealed itself further, just the two of them there to witness it, holding each other and without another soul there to break the spell, though Sylvie wondered whether Justine's might somehow be nearby, observing discreetly, happy to see her parents relaxed and sharing a peaceful moment.  Their lives didn't feel inconsequential at all.
"Why Sylvie, out of all the people on this ship, is it you who thinks to come up here late at night to stare at the heavens?"
"I'm sensitive don't you know?" she responded with a cheeky grin.
"Yes, I think you must be."
They stood there another ten minutes, pondering the stars, taking in the warm sea breeze and enjoying the gentle motion of the swell.  Fergus remembered that two 'sea days' lay ahead and he relished that prospect and, above all, the fact he would be sharing them with his wife.  He turned to look at her and thought she might do the same, but her eyes remained fixed on the night sky, her mind still contemplating its wonders.  As he watched her, he once again felt that nagging fear that one day she might not be there and this sent a sudden involuntary shiver down his spine.  Noticing this, she finally turned to him, enquiring how he could be cold on this warm African night, but he just told her that he was tired.

Author Bio –
Keith was born and brought up in the Chilterns, to where he returned after studying French at university in Aberystwyth and a subsequent spell living in west London.  He has a love of nature, both in his native Buckinghamshire countryside, but also in Cornwall and wherever there is a wild sea. 
Keith has been lucky enough to spend time living in France, Spain, Belgium, Serbia and Croatia, as well as being a regular visitor to Germany, and languages were the only thing he was ever half good at in school.  Since graduating he has worked in government departments, but between 2005 and 2008 he was seconded to the European Commission in Brussels and, thanks to a friend from Ljubljana he met there, has travelled regularly to Slovenia, getting to know that country well. 
Keith's other great love is music and he plays classical and finger picking blues guitar, though with persistently limited success.  He has always enjoyed writing, including attempts at children's fiction, and in 2016 he began work on his first full book with “Times and Places" the end result: an accessible, observational story, mixing quiet spirituality with humour, pathos and gothic horror, and setting it against a rich backdrop of the natural world.

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