The Bishop's Finger

It was blowing a gale outside but Helen didn't mind. She was very warm and very full of roast beef, a half empty tankard of ale on the table before her. Declan's arm was wrapped around her waist and his nose was pressed into her hair, his breath tickling her ear as he whispered to her amid the clatter of cutlery on plates and the hubbub of chatter in the pub.

He must be quite tipsy she considered as she stared into the flames roaring in the hearth across from their table as he murmured suggestively in her ear. Then again, she was hardly the model of sobriety herself as she squeezed his thigh and turned her head to meet his lustful gaze with a feral look. He did not protest as she began to rise from the table, the crockery clanking against the surface as she squeezed out of the booth.

Declan grasped her hand and let her lead him through the mass of bodies at the bar, their coats gripped firmly in his free hand as they headed for the door. The wind gusted up the narrow old street and Declan shuddered as they stepped outside, swaying slightly as the cold hit him.

"Dear God!" Helen groaned as she wrapped her scarf around her neck, lashing down her hair and blinking rapidly as the cold wind hit her fully in the face.

"Brass monkeys eh?" he said, buttoning his coat and stepping towards her. "Come 'ere!" Helen did not protest as he grabbed her arm and indelicately pulled her to him, wrapping her in an embrace and pressing her back against a drainpipe with his lips. Helen's squeal was lost as he kissed her hotly, her hands gripping his coat tightly as she tipped her head back and opened her mouth to let his tongue inside.

"Declan!" she protested a minute later when his hand slid up inside her jacket to press against the smooth skin of her back and a blast of icy air rushed up inside her clothes. "Declan!" she cried, twisting out of his grasp and he chuckled, a deranged smile spreading across his face as she clasped his hand and dragged him down the road in search of a cab.

The Chestnut Tree

Helen blinked very slowly and breathed out a long breath through her nose before stepping through the door of the pub. Being mid afternoon it was relatively empty but for a few old men playing cribbage in the corner and a nervous looking man robotically inserting pound coins into a fruit machine against the wall.

She glanced towards the bar and locked eyes with the barmaid who gave her a slight shrug and gestured towards the back with a nod of her head. Helen sighed loudly.

She strode purposefully around the bar, the smell of stale beer and peanuts filling her nostrils as the gentle clack of the pool table reached her ears from the saloon beyond. Helen stopped by a shabby brown door, the faux detailing coming unstuck as she pushed it open and stepped out into the yard. A drain gurgled as she passed a stack of broken chairs, the fabric of the seats covered with mildew and stained with damp from being abandoned to the elements. She followed the path and was greeted by the sound of retching and raised her head to meet Henry's forlorn stare as he sat with his chin propped against his arms. He gave her the meekest of smiles and shrugged and Helen closed her eyes as the retching sound continued. Slowly she weaved through the assortment of wooden benches and tables and came to a stop beside the slouched form of her daughter, her face obscured by a mop of blonde hair as she vomited into an old bean can full of cigarette butts.

"Oh Ashley," Helen uttered tiredly and shaking her head slowly.

"I'm so sorry Mooom" Ashley groaned raising her head to meet her mother's eyes with a look of contrition. Helen winced as she took in the damp strands of hair plastered to her face, vomit clinging to the front of her sweater. Behind her Henry sat silently swaying, his jaw drawn back and his teeth clenched tight, clearly struggling to focus. The table was strewn with empty bags of chips and bottles of sickly sweet smelling booze in a variety of rainbow colours. Helen wrinkled her nose and reached down to pull Ashley up.

Ashley leant heavily against her mother's shoulder as she guided her out of the pub towards the car, taking staggering steps and blabbering in Helen's ear about how she was the best mother in the world and how much she loved her. Helen smiled soothingly as she tucked her into the back seat and pulled the seatbelt across her lap. Ashley swayed, her head thwacked against the head rest and she promptly slouched to one side and fell silent.

A few moments later and Henry came clattering out of the door, munching happily on the contents of a small maroon coloured packet in his hand. "These are great, I am going to buy a whole bunch of these to take back home. But only the bacon ones, those fishy ones were totally gross. I mean, just EW!" he ranted from the passenger seat as Helen turned the key in the ignition and the engine roared to life.

The Seven Stars

Helen found herself staring at the knot of James tie for a long, long moment, her fingers gripping the base of a lowball glass tightly.

"Another sir?" a gentle voiced asked and Helen raised her head to meet the mild expression of the waiter, wiping his hands on his apron and gazing at her expectantly.

"If you'd be so kind," James voice rumbled and the waiter gave a short bow before taking their glasses and shuffling away. Helen met his sad expression with one of her own, tears pricking her eyes again.

The young man returned a few moments later with two fresh glasses of single malt, placing them quietly before them. "Thank you," Helen murmured and he bowed again before shuffling away. She reached forward and turned her glass around and around in her fingers, raising her head and watching with some surprise as James knocked his back in one. "Steady on James," she said quietly and his bleary eyes met hers but he said nothing. A few moments passed until eventually Helen shifted, pressing her lips together hard and reaching for his hand. James let his eyes fall closed and gently linked his fingers with hers.

"Oh James," she whispered mournfully and he swayed a little.

"I doesn't feel real Helen," James told her gravely and she nodded. "I can't believe he's gone." She clenched her jaw but a single tear escaped her eye and she sniffed. James clutched her hand tightly and she could tell he was struggling to maintain his composure. "I'm glad you're here," he said a minute later.

"I couldn't leave you alone, James," she uttered breathlessly. James reached up with his handkerchief to dry her cheek and she gave him a tender smile. He returned it, staring into her eyes for a moment before digging into his pocket for his watch. Helen watched as he flicked the gilt lid open with his thumb.

"Perhaps we ought to be getting back, it's getting rather late," he explained and she nodded, gesturing towards the watch with her chin.

"Left that to you did he?" she asked quietly and James pursed his lips.

"It still keeps perfect time after all these years," he replied wistfully.

"May I?" She reached forward and James let her take it from him, the delicate chain stretching over the table from his pocket. She turned it over in her hands and flicked the lid open, staring at the inscription carved inside.

"An idea that is not dangerous is unworthy of being called an idea at all," she read and James emitted a huff of amusement.

"Nigel always did love old Oscar," he chuckled. Helen smiled and flicked the watch shut, handing it back to him. His fingers brushed hers as he took it from her and she squeezed his hand in hers as their eyes met. "Stay with me tonight won't you Helen?" he asked in a quiet voice. She held his gaze for a long moment.

"Of course I will darling," she replied.

The Wheatsheaf

Helen stood nervously at the end of the bar rubbing her gloved hands together. A older gentleman in the corner peered at her over the top of his paper and Helen's heart thudded in her chest at their eyes met. A hacking cough broke the moment and he looked away. Helen blushed and licked her lips.

She could hear the low tones of John's voice drifting through the lounge and rested her hand on the bar, gazing at the frosted window ahead of her. Through the lettering on the glass she could see the golden fields in the distance, the heads of wheat swaying hypnotically in the late afternoon sun and she stared for a long time until John's gentle cough broke her reverie.

"Helen, darling," he said gently and she smiled at him as he took her hand in his. He beamed back at her, his expression earnest even as his breath hitched and he moved closer. "Just a little while and our room will be ready," he explained quietly and she swallowed hard. "Would you like something to drink while we wait?" She nodded, unable to form words around the lump in her throat, her heart beating wildly in her chest. John made a gesture to the barman with his fingers and squeezed her elbow, guiding her towards a table beside the empty fireplace. Helen sat meekly and adjusted her skirt nervously, conscious of the male gazes directed her way. It was not totally out of the ordinary for a lady to be seen in a tavern and as taverns went this was quite a nice one, a coaching inn in a village a days ride from Oxford but she felt out of her element nonetheless. Helen unpinned her hat and held it in her lap like a shield until John returned with a glass of port.

He sat down next to her and took her hand, raising it to his lips and staring into her eyes with a tender expression. Helen gazed back at him, the intensity of his gaze making her ache in a wonderful way as he soothed her nerves with a gentle caress of his fingers across the back of her hand. "Would you like to eat something, my love?" Helen shook her head and John sipped his wine, his eyes never leaving her face. She watched his fingers run up and down the stem of the glass where it sat on the table and licked her lips.

"Mr Druitt, sir" a voice called from the doorway and Helen turned her head to see a portly gentleman in a waistcoat and cravatte. "If you and your wife would like to come with me," he continued and John smiled beatifically. He stood and offered her his hand. Helen allowed him to help her out of her seat and guide her across the lounge towards the staircase. The steward smiled at her congenially as they approached and gave a slight bow before turning and leading them up the stairs to their room, John's firm grip never faltering as they neared the door.

"Thank you," he crooned in his velvety baritone as the steward handed him a key.

"If there is anything you might be needing sir," he replied and John smiled again before dragging Helen inside and abruptly closing the door. Helen gasped as he immediately pressed her against it and clutched his head in her hands as he kissed her hungrily.

The Ship

Will was glad to be out of the bracing wind that blew in off the Sound but was a little taken aback that Magnus had opted to drink in such an utter hole, even if she had just been dragged out of the sea by the Navy. Henry walked ahead of him towards the bar to enquire of the whereabouts of his erstwhile employer while Will looked around the bar. A group of sailors stood clustered around a table, jeering raucously as two men with arms like tree trunks wrestled. His lip curled slightly as he watched with wide eyes, the veins on their heads bulging as they struggled until their arms slammed down on the table hard and their glasses jumped into the air for a second before clanking back down heavily. A loud chorus of bellowing erupted around the room.

When Henry tugged on his elbow a moment later, Will turned and followed him through the noisy bar to the next room. He had seen many things since working with Magnus and considered later that he really ought to have been better prepared for the sight that greeted him but it was a surprise all the same. Magnus and Kate were seated at a rectangular table in the corner with two extremely burly and muscled young men. Will blinked hard. Two extremely burly and scantily clad young men. Magnus had a sly smirk on her face, her long dark hair curling wildly around her bare shoulders and her hand pressed flat on a heap of cards in front of her as she sat locked in a staring match with the nearly naked man opposite her. Kate sat beside her in an equally dishevelled state, giggling into the glass in her hand as she drank. Will did not have to spend too long wondering what had happened to their clothes as he took in the spectacle before him and turned to meet Henry's shocked face as Magnus flicked a card over on the table and Kate began to guffaw uncontrollably.

Will turned back to see the man's face fall and Magnus sat back in her chair, slowly crossing her arms over her vest and quirking a brow at him. Slowly he rose from his chair and amid the hooting and jeering of the other patrons grudgingly removed his shorts to stand naked before her. Kate laughed maniacally and swayed in her seat for a moment before slumping over unceremoniously, her head connecting heavily with the table. At that point, Will decided he ought to intervene.