Will straightened up with a groan, his hand on his lower back. He looked over the wall of the balcony, but no-one was about to witness his efforts. Putting down his secateurs on the weather-beaten table, he picked up his watering can. He’d had enough of tending to his plants for the day, partly because of the nagging ache in his back, but mainly due to his disappointment in the lack of activity on the estate. His diary and pencil lay untouched next to his gardening tools, phone and camera. He rarely used the latter, the reprimands from police officers and council staff that taking photos of his neighbours could be considered an invasion of privacy or, even worse, harassment, acting as an intended deterrent. That said, it still had its uses, even if he only admitted having photographic evidence of the rising number of incidents of the estate when the authorities admitted that their CCTV systems had failed to collect their own. Will eased himself onto his chair and pulled out his tobacco from the back pocket of his jeans, surveying the estate again as he leisurely rolled a cigarette. Three figures emerged from the street to the east as his lighter sparked into life. He peered at them over the top of glasses that in reality hindered his long distance vision, but made up for the impairment by adding an air of authority to which he had grown to like. It was Beatrice, hobbling along with Councillor May and a tall male who walked easily beside them despite age given away by white streaks in his closely cropped black hair. Will frowned as they came closer, the brown face of the man clearer. There was something familiar about him that Will couldn’t quite place, leaving him with a sense of unease beyond his apparent ignorance. “Ah, William! How are you, son?” Will smiled and raised his hand to acknowledge the ageing politician. Secretly he hoped he would retire soon and make space for new blood in the council chamber. Whilst Will wasn’t able to work due to his physical ailments, he was confident that he could take on the duties of May and his colleagues. From what he could tell, he already did as much if not more for the local community, but lacked the title and respect that dismissive professionals seemed unable to show anyone except elected officials. Beatrice had stopped, her hand sheltering her eyes as she peered up at him. She was wearing her tie dye tunic over a long patchwork skirt, long beads and dangly earrings adorning her already ridiculous outfit. He restrained the urge to roll his eyes at the greying spinster. “Been hard at work tending to your plants again? The amount of time you spend on them, it must look like one of the greenhouses at Kew in that flat. Unless, of course, you are cultivating something you shouldn’t be?” Bea laughed at her own joke, throwing her head back as she nudged the newcomer next to her. Will sucked his teeth but smiled along with their tittering. He knew full well she was trying to undermine him - she always was. Whenever he made a suggestion about how to increase security on the estate or how the perpetrators of crime and anti-social behaviour should be dealt with, she was always quick to pooh-pooh him, coming up with some hippy theory about environmental rehabilitation or something equally ridiculous. Annoyingly, a lot of people listened to her, respecting the retired schoolteacher and going on to question the ethics behind his own solutions. It usually meant that nothing got done, a fact that Will was quick to use when yet another fight or all-night drug binge happened on the estate, giving him some leverage, if only temporarily. “Honestly Beatrice, you really should behave,” Councillor May guffawed before turning his attention back to Will. “William, please ignore her. Besides, I wanted to introduce you to Winston, who’s just moved into the estate.” Will smiled tightly, annoyed that the Councillor hadn’t given him the opportunity to express his lack of regard for Beatrice and her deliberate slight. “Hello.” “Good afternoon. Pleasure to meet you.” The matching trousers and waistcoat worn over a grandad shirt certainly gave Winston an eccentric but intellectual look, one which Will at once envied whilst dismissing as absurd. His voice was smooth but humble, and as familiar as his wide features and open expression. “Winston used to live in St Albans, just like you Will. You’ve probably met before, it’s such a small world. Will seems to know everyone.” Will didn’t even register Beatrice’s last comment as he felt his chest harden, the breath suddenly heavy and sticky in his lungs. “Yes, I was there from the seventies until almost eight years ago when I came to London. I’m afraid to say I don’t miss it.” Winston chuckled softly, looking down at his hands clasped lightly in front of him. “William isn’t much of a fan either, are you? When was it you moved here with your ex-wife?” Will flinched slightly at the referral to Lindsey, no doubt another deliberate poke at what he couldn’t hide to be a sore point. Luckily it was one most people left alone, assuming it came from heartache rather than shame at his failure as a husband. Will remembered watching her was she waltzed out of the park that night back in Eighty-Something, her hands in the pockets of her bomber jacket, her delicate jaw chewing strongly on Juicy Fruit, a strand of hair tangled in her hoop earring despite the tight ponytail. Then, moments later, the fight that broke out between him and Terry over a homeless black man. A homeless black man who was now stood on his estate peering up at him with inquisitive eyes. “Water under the bridge, isn’t it son?” Councillor May cleared his throat awkwardly. Will kept his gaze low, blindly inspecting his plants. Anything but to look down at the trio below. “You had a rough time of it there, didn’t you Winston? What with fascism being what it was back then?” “Well, yes, you could say that. Not to mention a tricky time in the army and a spell sleeping on the streets.” Will closed his eyes against the soft laughter. “But times have changed, as we all have too, and I’m alive and well and here to tell the story.” “Winston’s written a book about his life that’s due to be published late next year. Isn’t that fabulous?” Will felt his fingers curl into a fist by his side as Bea went on obliviously, his anger at her righteous gabbling a distraction from the panic and shame that threatened to fill his head and his cheeks. Winston wasn’t just a new neighbour but also a local celebrity in the making – and one who knew more about Will’s past than he liked to admit even to himself. “He’s also interested in joining our community meetings, if you are happy for him to come along and meet the others this evening?” Will took a deep breath, suddenly aware he was being asked a question that warranted an answer. “Of course. You’d be more than welcome.” He glanced down at the small gathering, their faces blurred by his haste. “Apologies, but if you’ll excuse me, I have something in the oven I need to check on.” “Ah, another tasty creation, William? He’s always cooking something fancy, although he’s less keen on sharing it with us rabble…” Will slid his patio door closed against Bea’s jibes and stepped into his living room, dark in comparison to the sunlit balcony. He looked around at the collection of framed art prints and global nick-knacks he had collected over the years from charity shops and pound shops. So far they had successfully veiled his up-bringing and lack of education, along with a knowledge of current affairs and opera that shielded closer inspection. He grabbed a remote control from his fold down table, filling the room with Puccini, before making his way stiffly to the kitchen. He’d opened a bottle of Beaujolais at the weekend and had a good couple of glasses left. He poured himself a generous measure into the tumbler resting on the draining board and took a sip, hoping the alcohol would calm the irrational part of him desperate to get rid of this spectre from the past any way that he could. He knew too well not to try undermining the newcomer on the basis of his background; Bea would be on his case before the words were fully out of his mouth. From what Will could tell Councillor May seemed to have wilfully given the writer more respect than his yet-to-be published memoir warranted. Hurrying into the living room, his glass in his hand, Will pulled open his laptop and stared at its screen as it creaked into life. His washed out reflection looked back at him, his puffy cheeks pink and his small eyes blinking stupidly behind his glasses. Like the newcomer had said, they had all changed, and Will was certainly no longer a teenage skinhead in desperate need of a growth spurt and some facial hair. Will looked at himself again. Yes, so perhaps age had disguised him well enough, but that didn’t reduce the shame he felt about his physical appearance now. Lindsey’s mocking voice sneaked into his mind, reminding him who he was and where he came from, and what he had done on his journey to where he is now. Her lack of interest in maintaining contact following their divorce had hurt him at the time, but had become a blessing. That part of him was hidden, a secret he could safeguard confidently. Until now. Will cursed to himself, realising he didn’t even have the writer’s full name. Licking his lips, he typed “Winston,” followed by “writer,” “St Albans”, “homeless” and “memoir.” He slumped back in his chair as his screen filled with text and images of the man he had met just now for the second time in his life. Quickly he scanned the stories about him, but there was nothing there, no leads that he could take back to the committee that showed he was anything but a mild-mannered writer with PTSD and a difficult past. With a sigh he took another large mouthful of wine and looked at his clock. The afternoon was creeping by and he had a meeting to prepare for, one that suddenly felt significantly weighted. He needed to be at the top of his game, prepared, composed, and ready to laugh off any aspersions about his past that might suddenly make themselves heard. Putting the laptop to one side, Will took another sip of his wine and hurried over to the second hand chest of drawers at the other end of the room and carefully pulled out his neatly organised ring binder. Grabbing his diary, he sat down at the table by the window and paused to listen. Teenage voices trailed up to him from outside as they boasted about their daily exploits, but no adults seemed to be around anymore. Will noticed with disappointment that his glass was nearly empty, but he knew that turning up even slightly inebriated tonight was not an option. No, he had a job to do and a reputation to maintain that he wasn’t about to let anyone sabotage.