The irresistible force
My thanks to Tiylaya for her suggestions when we discussed my original idea for this story, to Jaimi-Sam for making sure Grandma didn't sound too British, and to the current copyright holders, ITV, for not suing me. And, as always, thanks to Gerry, Sylvia and their team - gone now but their creations live on.
"Hello, Jeff. I thought I'd better give you a call to let you know I've arrived safely in England. It was a very smooth flight, no problems. I spent most of it chatting to a young lady from New Zealand called Becky. After Tin Tin had dropped me off at Auckland, I'd checked in my bags and then popped into the bathroom. When I walked in I found a young woman almost in tears; she'd knocked her bag over and the contents were scattered all across the floor. I managed to calm her down a little and helped her re-pack her bag; the poor girl was in such a state she was all thumbs. While we were doing that she told me it was her first trip out of the country. She was on her way to England, just like me, only she was going to meet her pen-pal for the first time. Poor thing, she was nervous about the flight, about leaving the country, scared her friend wouldn't be at the airport when she arrived ... everything. Talk about last-minute nerves!
"Well, I couldn't leave her in that state, so when I left the bathroom I headed over to the service desk and showed the assistant that card you had given me. I know this wasn't exactly an emergency, but I had to do something to help. Becky was delighted when she reached the check-in and the man on the desk told her that she'd been upgraded to first class. Of course, I had to pretend that I'd been given an upgrade too - I'm not sure what she would have said if she'd learned that my son owned the airline! I think she was quite impressed when I was met at London Airport by a chauffeur in full uniform, though I made sure that she had met up with her pen-friend before Parker took me back to Penny's place."
"I've had such a wonderful day today! I remember once saying to Penny that one of the few things I had never done was to visit an English stately home, and I can certainly say I've done that now. Penny gave me a full tour of the house from top to bottom. I can see that it must have taken an army of servants to look after a place like this in the days before robot vacuum cleaners and other modern household gadgets; it must have been a hard life for the servants, carrying things up and down all those stairs. We explored some of the grounds too. We went into the deer park, and some of the deer are so tame that they even let me hand-feed them; a bit different to when you were a boy and your father would be using his shotgun to keep the deer out of his crops! Aren't the fields tiny here? All those hedges and stone walls make the countryside look very crowded."
"Hello, Jeff. Your mother asked me to call you as she'll be home a bit late tonight and didn't want you to worry. Parker has taken her down to the Rose and Crown in the village as there's a darts match on tonight. Goodness me, she's unstoppable - I can see where you and the boys get your drive from!
"We'd already had a full day out at Ascot. She loved seeing all the ladies in their hats, and when the event started it turns out she's got quite an eye for picking a winner! In the first two races, she told me which horse she thought would win just from watching them as they were approaching the starting gate, so the third time I persuaded her to place a small bet - and she won! Her horse came second in the next event but she picked the winner of the last one; Next time I go to the races, I'll have to ask her for some tips!"
"Hello, son. Sorry I didn't get to talk to you last night but it was late when we got back from the pub so I went straight to bed. I had such a good time playing darts that this morning Penny suggested I might like to try my hand at clay-pigeon shooting. I wasn't quite sure what she meant until she explained, then I remembered that it used to be quite popular when I was a young girl; I even remember seeing competitions at the State Fair.
"We went out into one of the fields, well away from the house, where Parker operated a machine that fired a clay disc into the air for Penny to hit with a shotgun. After a few shots she asked if I'd like to have a go, but was clearly surprised with how I handled a gun. I had to explain how your grandfather had taught me to shoot way back when I was a girl, as soon as he thought I was old enough to handle a gun responsibly. I told her how first he would set tin cans up on a wall for me to fire at, and once I'd mastered that he would toss them into the air. So this was just the same principle - the targets might be moving faster and further, but they always followed the same path. Penny and I had great fun; we ended up having a little competition, though I think by the end of the morning she was still a couple of points ahead of me.
"Just to remind you, I'll be calling you a bit later tomorrow evening because I'm doing that talk that Penny asked me to do when we arranged my visit. I'm a bit nervous about standing up in front of a lot of strangers but it's all for a good cause - the villagers are trying to raise enough funds to repair the tower of the parish church. I still can't get over the age of things in this country - not just grand buildings like Penny's family home or great cathedrals, but it's amazing to think that the local church has bells that were being rung before Columbus set sail for the New World!
"When Penny first asked me to do a talk I wasn't sure what I could say. Then I realised there was one thing I could talk about that no-one else could - being your mother. I'm calling my talk 'Raising an Astronaut' and I've got photos right from when you were a young boy on the farm, sitting at the wheel of the tractor, through to later ones from your Air Force and Space Agency days. So if your ears are burning tomorrow, you'll know why!
"Penny says the talk has received quite a lot of publicity; there are posters up in the village and it's been in the local paper, so hopefully we'll have a good-sized audience."
"Penny here, Jeff. I'm afraid I have grave news; it seems that your mother has been kidnapped! I had arranged that we would collect her from outside the church hall after her talk, but when we arrived there was no sign of her. I tried calling her, first on her phone and then on her powder compact, but got no response, and when I tracked the signal from her compact we found her handbag stuffed down inside a litter bin behind the hall. I'm going to take it to the police station now, in case they can get any fingerprints from it.
"I'm kicking myself now for not accompanying her to the talk, but she said having me in the audience would have been a distraction. No, Jeff, I've been listening to the news reports and I know the boys are busy on a rescue in Mozambique; you need to focus on them, not jump in a plane and come over here. You know you've got your best agents on the job, and we know the area far better than you do. Leave it to us. I'll call again when we have news."
"Penny again. I've just got back from the police station where I've been giving a statement and a description of your mother; luckily I had some photos that I've been taking during her visit. This is a bit more than our local constabulary normally have to deal with, so they're sending a team down from Scotland Yard to talk to me as well; I'm expecting them to arrive within the hour. I don't know if there's anything else we can do until they get here - it's getting dark now. You might want to ...
"Goodness gracious, what on Earth was that?
"Hold on, Jeff, it seems a combine harvester has just crashed into the gates of Creighton-Ward Manor. I can see a figure leaning out of the cab, waving - it's your mother!"
"Jeff, I'm fine. Really, I'm fine. I'm just annoyed with myself for letting those awful men take me so easily, and causing you and the boys all that worry.
"My talk had gone very well, and afterwards I was chatting with some of the audience and even signing some autographs; just imagine, Jeff, me - a celebrity! Anyway, most of the audience had gone and I was just getting ready to leave when this man came up to me. He was quite scruffy-looking but explained that he was one of the workers from the Creighton-Ward estate. He said Lady Penelope had been delayed and had asked him to collect me and take me home. Well, knowing Penny's 'double life' I immediately assumed she had been called away on some International Rescue business, so I didn't suspect anything. He said his car was parked at the back of the hall, so I followed him out of the back entrance.
"I was just walking past a small delivery truck when the back doors opened and something - I think it was a blanket - was thrown over my head and my arms were pinned to my sides. Of course I struggled - I gave one of them a good kicking! - but they were too strong and pushed me into the truck and slammed the doors.
"I pulled off the blanket and was shouting and banging on the sides of the vehicle for all I was worth as we drove off, but nobody heard me.
"We must have driven for about half an hour, the last part up what felt like a very rough track, until we finally stopped. The doors were opened and I found myself looking at an old stone barn and a cluster of run-down farm buildings. One of the men held me while the other unlocked a padlock and pulled open the barn doors. The man with the key (the other one called him Ed) led the way in past some old machinery covered in dust-sheets and showed me to a corner where there was a cot, a thermos and a box that he said contained some food. He seemed the more considerate of the two, while his companion, Bill, was more callous; he gave me a rough shake and said not to bother shouting for help because there was no-one around to hear, apart from them.
"As they left and locked the doors I could hear them talking to each other about how they would wait until morning when you would be 'good and worried' to receive their ransom demand. They reckoned it would be easy money as 'the little old lady' would be too scared to give them any trouble.
"The nerve! Not only did they think I was some doddering old woman, but deaf as well! I was more angry than scared; both at the way I'd been treated and at myself, for being so easily fooled. I was also annoyed because, in my struggles in the car park, I had dropped my purse so I couldn't call Penny or you. I didn't even have my edible transmitter - the jacket I was wearing didn't have pockets so I had put Brains' 'special candy' in my purse along with everything else.
"I was worried about how you and my grandsons would react when you heard what had happened. I'll never forget Scott going after the thieves who stole Alan's race car like some avenging angel and could just imagine him doing the same to these two men.
"Despite what those villains might have thought I'm not helpless, as well you know. I realised that I had about half an hour's daylight left so decided to see if there was anything I could do to get myself out of this pickle.
"There was enough light coming through the skylight in the roof for me to be able to look around the barn. There was no other way of getting out; the walls were all solid and the only windows too high for me to reach. Then I started to look at the contents of the barn, pulling the dust covers off the equipment. There was a tractor, a harrow, some irrigation equipment and a combine harvester. Most of the equipment looked broken or badly maintained - it would have made your father seethe to see good machinery left in that state!
"However, the harvester didn't look too bad so I took a closer look and realised I might be able to get it going. Do you remember, when you were young, how your father was forever losing the keys to the pickup? I got so fed up with being stranded on the farm because I couldn't find the keys that he showed me how to hot-wire the ignition.
"Well, the principle is the same, whatever type of vehicle, so I climbed inside the cab and started to pull out the wires. There was a spark, and the engine roared into life! It sounded a bit rough, but I wasn't fussy, as long as it did the job. I checked the gas tank - the needle was low, but I thought there would be enough for my needs.
"I backed up slightly, then put my foot down hard and charged the doors. There was a creak, then a bang as the framework gave way and we burst from the barn in a shower of splinters, just like the hero in a movie!
"My kidnappers must have heard the noise because they came running out of the house. Bill ran towards me, waving his arms. I can't believe he thought I was going to stop, but he soon changed his mind and dived out of the way when I started the cutter bar turning! Ed was already high-tailing it across the fields; just for good measure I caught their truck sideways on and knocked it over, so they won't be making any getaway in that!
"After that it was a simple matter of driving down the track to the main road. Once I got there I recognised where I was and headed back to Penny's.
"What's that? No, Jeff, I don't want one of the boys to come over and collect me. For one thing, I know I'll have to give a statement to the police and identify the kidnappers when they catch them, so I'll need to be here. And secondly, it's the local village fête this weekend (that's a bit like our county fairs back home, only a lot smaller!) and Penny says I can enter one of my apple pies in the home baking competition!"