The Indigo Bar – Board Games

Did The Indigo Bar Mystery spark an interest in the world of board gaming? Or add to an existing interest in the hobby? We’ve written five reviews of games we recommended you try! We’ve listed these reviews from simplest game to the most challenging.

 

Timeline

Deliberating when barbed wire was invented may not sound like the most thrilling game, but Timeline makes history fun again.

It’s a card game with a minimal learning curve (literally a minute or two) that can last five minutes or an hour depending on how many rounds you want to get through.

Timeline consists of cards depicting a historical event, invention, discovery, movie release or musical composition on one side, and the date on the other. You can buy themed packs depending on your interests. A good place to begin is the Diversity pack which involves a little of everything mentioned above. I’m partial to the movies and music set but only because that’s where my strengths lie (i.e. I’ll win).

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The way we play is by dealing four to six cards to each player from a shuffled deck with the date side face down. Place one card in the middle of the table date-face down – this will be the starting point of your timeline. It’s then up to each player to guess the date of this card. When everyone’s guessed, flip the card over and the player with the closest guess begins. In the unlikely event of a tie, establish who looks more the distinguished historian, and get on with the game. This first player will look at their set of cards, choose one and place it on either side of the starting card chronologically. If you’re right, well done for being a history buff – sit back and relax. If you’re wrong, move the card to the correct place on the timeline and take a new card from the deck. The first player with no cards remaining wins the round. As the timeline grows, it becomes more difficult to slot cards into their correct place.

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Being knowledgeable about your dates is one thing, but being completely off is often more fun. Try being 8000 years out for the domestication of cattle. I don’t know that I’ll ever be allowed to live that one down. Competitive players who feel confident with their cards can also employ a little strategic element and slot in cards with dates close to each other, making it tricky for other players. To help yourself, playing cards you’re more uncertain about first, when the timeline is smaller, always helps. Sometimes you’ll inadvertently help other players, however. I played the ‘Start of the Hundred Years’ War’ card, revealing the date. What did one of my opponents have? ‘End of the Hundred Years’ War’…

After a round ends, you can clear the slate and begin a new timeline, but maybe you’ll want to challenge (or embarrass) yourself further by keeping the existing timeline in play. It will get messy, but you’ll feel an even greater sense of achievement when you get one right.

The potential drawback to Timeline is that after a few plays you may begin to remember the dates of some cards, affecting overall replayability. On the flip-side, you’ll be able to impress everyone at dinner parties with tons of pointless information. While this might be a concern for some players, it hasn’t made much difference for me, as I shuffle four different sets into one game, each set being 109 cards. Plus I have a terrible memory, which helps.

 

Lost Cities

Pick up your map and safari hat. You’re now an intrepid explorer, ready to embark on expeditions to far-flung corners of the globe and make the discoveries you’ve been dreaming of! Set out towards the Himalayas, the bottom of the ocean, the Central American rain forest, volcanic islands and harsh Egyptian desert climates to unearth lost cities. Your globetrotting jaunts won’t come cheap, though. You’ll need financial backing first due to a limited supply of resources. Let’s hope you can pay back those investments, otherwise you’ll be returning home in severe debt…

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Lost cities is a two-player hand management game that revolves around the risk and reward factor of playing cards into your own set. The game consists of a board placed between the two players and 5 sets of  12 cards. Each card set is a different colour – red, blue, green, yellow and white – representing the 5 different locations mentioned above. Each coloured set has cards numbered from 2 – 10 plus three investment cards. 45 expedition cards and 15 investment cards in total.

At the start of the game you’ll shuffle all 60 cards and place them face down next to the game board. Each player then receives 8 cards. Looking at the game board, you’ll notice 5 card spaces, one of each colour. These will be used as discard piles and also to indicate where you should begin expeditions of a corresponding colour.

On your turn you have two options. You may use one of the cards in your hand to begin a new expedition, or you can discard a card face up on the game board.  You’ll probably be eager to start your journey, but remember the costs! Each expedition costs $20,000. Are you sure you can make that money back and not incur a loss? During an expedition you’ll lay down cards of a certain colour in a column, beginning from the same coloured space on the game board. You must ensure that by the end of the game the combined total of each expedition equals more than 20 (i.e. $20,000) in order to score points. The problem is, once you’ve placed a card the next one must always be higher in value. Remember, each set of cards is numbered from 2 -10. Beginning an expedition with an 8 would be unwise, unless you have both the 9 and 10 in your hand, or you feel confident you can obtain them from either the discard piles or the draw pile. If your opponent secretly has those cards in their hand and is venturing on the same expedition, you’re in trouble. Ideally, you’ll want to begin an expedition with lowest value possible.

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What if you’ve started a red expedition with a 4 and then later pick up a 3? Well, it’s too late, that card is no use to you now. Best to discard that card on the game board. Be sure to check you’re opponent’s progress, though. Perhaps they’ve also begun a red expedition with a 2. If you discard the 3 then you may as well place the card right in their hand. There is a benefit, therefore, to keeping cards in your hand that you don’t need if it prevents your opponent from accessing them.

Lost Cities has an extremely simple mechanic but creates interesting dilemmas and engaging game-play. You want to get going with a green expedition but you’re waiting for low value cards, let’s say. Should you continue to bide your time or just begin with a 6 and hope for the best? Look at what your opponent has played so far. How likely is it that there are green cards you need at the top of the draw pile? Throughout the game you’ll frequently be lacking the cards you need at the right time and must consider your moves with all the information available to you.

Risk-takers will appreciate the added investment aspect of the game. If you’re feeling particularly confident about your Nepalese mountain trek then why not secure a large investment first? If you place an investment card at the start of your expedition it will multiply that column’s total score. Sounds great, but if you don’t break even on that expedition then you’ll be multiplying your loss. Ouch. There are 3 investment cards of each colour and you can use more than one per expedition. If you make a profit on an expedition backed by more than one investment then you’ll really be making it rain, but score lower than 20 and you may as well stay in the Himalayas and start living out your life with only the Abominable Snowman for company.

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The game ends when the draw pile expires. You can manipulate the length of the game and either draw out proceedings by taking cards from the discard piles instead, or speed things up by choosing the draw pile every turn. What suits your purpose will depend on your progress. I love the rounds that create a hilarious desperation as they get closer to concluding. There may be five cards left in the draw pile, but if you don’t start a yellow expedition now with a card value of 7 then you’re opponent will finish with the upper hand. Can you make a profit before time is up?

Some may find the math-heavy scoring system a little awkward or off-putting, especially when investment cards are involved. It took me a few minutes to make sense of it as I’m woefully inept when it comes to maths. I’m also aware that the theme is completely tacked on – this is nothing but a game of numerical organisation. However, I love using my imagination when I play board games so I still like to embrace the story. Paper-thin theme and maths homework aside, I really think this is an excellent 2-player game. The gamble of drawing the cards you need to fulfil expeditions, especially when you’ve added investment modifiers, allows for agonising decisions and a high stress factor in a 10-15 minute game.

Good luck on your worldwide quest for high value cards!

 

Ticket to Ride

I bypassed Ticket to Ride for the longest time. I knew how popular it was, but the idea of connecting railway routes sounded like an express train to boredom. That was until my friend selected it at a board game cafe several years ago. I was surprised at how much I loved the game’s simplicity and the competitive stress it creates in trying to complete all your routes in time. It was a lesson in being open-minded towards themes that might not strike me as interesting at first glance.

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The original game includes a map of the USA. Subsequent editions – and there are a lot of them – have added new rules and features. Having tried them all, the one I always find myself coming back to is Ticket to Ride: Europe. I find the Europe edition still retains the game’s accessibility while offering a few tweaks to make things more interesting. If you’re new to the game, either USA or Europe is the best starting point. You can then try out the expansion maps if you’re keen for more rail exploration. Ticket to Ride has a well designed app featuring most of the expansions, so checking those out first to see what you enjoy is a good idea cost-wise. 

Regardless of which edition you’re playing, the basic rules remain the same throughout. You’re given a set of destination tickets at the start worth various point values. You must then try and complete these tickets by collecting coloured train cards and claiming routes with those cards along the map, marking a route with your own set of train shaped counters. You may also collect more destination tickets as the game progresses, but become too ambitious and you run the risk of not completing them all, and those points are deducted from your final score. In the USA, connecting from city to city is simple enough. In Europe, however, you’ll be crossing seas and heading through mountain ranges, adding variants to the way you claim routes.

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The best part about Ticket to Ride is the stress in trying to build routes before your opponents either take them or block them, sometimes deliberately by players with a loco-motive of their own, feeling mischievous and/or open to ruining friendships. You’ll be surprised at how much tension this game creates, especially when routes start getting claimed in highly sought after areas of the map. You’ll be scrambling for sets of coloured train cards and crossing your fingers in the hope that a route you desperately need isn’t taken before your next turn. 

It’s probably down to an uncountable number of plays, but I have a high win rate with Ticket to Ride. My trick is to quietly build up my routes and collect destination tickets while other players start blocking each other, causing mass pile ups. Meanwhile, I made it from Edinburgh to Athens without an obstruction in sight! However, this is a game where you can also derail in grand style. One time I confidently declared I was on track for victory and then proceeded to not score even one of my destination tickets. The lesson there? Bad conduct won’t help you reach your destination.

Ticket to Ride is often referred to as a gateway game, a name given to board games with simple rules that can attract newcomers to the hobby.  This is certainly true from my experience of introducing Ticket to Ride to others. Most new players enjoy the base game and are often eager to try out other maps. India and Switzerland are my recommendations, but there are so many expansions to choose from. Enjoy your journey, and may the course you take be full of 20 point destination tickets!

 

Castles of Mad King Ludwig

It’s the 1800s in Bavaria and reclusive King Ludwig II’s personal fortune has been rapidly depleted thanks to his obsession with medieval castles. Head of state duties? What are those? Better to spend time on the throne thinking up designs for a home so magnificent that it goes far beyond the private needs of any normal ruler! Neuschwanstein Castle is already under construction, elevated on a hill above the village of Hohenschwangau so it can be admired in all it’s glory when it’s finally completed. But it’s not enough. Ludwig wants you to oversee the construction of a new castle with even more guest rooms, servants quarters, grottos and entertainment areas than Neuschwanstein. Are you up to the challenge?

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Castles of Mad King Ludwig is not simply a castle builder, although that’s naturally a huge part of this game’s appeal. As a contractor, you’ll need to be sharp and thrifty as you try to find the best deals on rooms and sell your services to other contractors, all while thinking about landscaping and floor plans. There are many different ways to score points in the game so think carefully about the layout of your creation and which rooms offer the best value for money. You’ll also need to accommodate Ludwig’s whims as he’ll be providing you with his room preferences at the start. Perhaps he’ll decide that square shaped rooms are in vogue, or that utility rooms should be ubiquitous in his new dream home. If you complete more of the King’s favours than your opponents then you’ll be rewarded for it at the end of the game.

Rooms for the castle come in all sorts of shapes, sizes and types. Consider the King’s favours and your own personal bonus cards, but you’re probably quite keen to build a castle that suits your style as well. Some contractors may be looking for a sensible layout – a comfortable bedchamber with a private garden, all the necessities such as a pantry and a bathroom, and a few individual touches like a sauna or a french gazebo. Others will happily allow their designs to spiral out of control, ending up with two fungus rooms, a buttery and a secret lair with no where to sleep.

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Each round, rooms will be selected from a draw pile and placed on a bidding chart by the master builder – a role that moves clockwise around the table. So don’t become too consumed by your own creation. You should think about what your rivals are up to, and as a result how you would like to price your rooms. When another contractor purchases a room during that auction they’ll be paying you directly for it. Can you preempt which room will tempt them the most and place it in a lucrative spot on the chart? Over the course of the game you’ll collect rooms, bonuses and Deutsche marks according to your objectives, all before the final room gets taken to auction. Then it’s time to see if you’ve done enough to please the mysterious King!

Not happy with your castle? Well, Castles of Mad King Ludwig allows for plenty of replays as your castles will be vastly different every time. New rooms will make it to the auction and a fresh combination of King’s favours will be drawn, creating a unique set of objectives that will affect your final masterpiece. There may be a little downtime while contractors overthink their options, especially when it comes to the auction – that includes the master builder’s decision of where to place rooms and the purchaser’s decision of what to buy. I personally find the auction aspect of the game a little tricky, but seeing the shape and theme of my castle come together makes it worth it. Now, shall I place a panic room next to my tapestry chamber or a crypt?

 

Shadows Over Camelot

As one of the first co-operative board games I ever played, as well as a provider of many fun memories, Shadows Over Camelot is a perfect choice for Intrigue Inn’s first board game review. Prepare to divide and conquer, but beware! There’s a traitor in your midst…

In Shadows Over Camelot you play as Knights of the Round Table, heading off on various quests while dark forces close in on Camelot – Mordred, Morgan, the Saxons, the Picts, and myriad others are always looking to disrupt your quests in their own nefarious ways. Even Guinevere is an antagonist here, cutting your quests short with a delinquent pout because you’ve been gallivanting around instead of spending quality time with her.

Throughout the game knights must fill up the round table with white swords by successfully completing quests such as the search for Excalibur or the search for the Holy Grail. Failing quests results in black swords being placed on the table. Six black swords means disaster, and the traitor emerges triumphant whether they’ve been unmasked or not.

How does the traitor aspect work? At the beginning of the game each player is given a loyalty card which is kept secret. One lucky (depending how you look at it) guy or girl gets to be the traitor. The traitor must try to derail things by encouraging other players to partake in never-ending quests, hold back useful cards, waste time and resources without the others realising, and do anything else that could potentially disrupt or slow down everyone’s progress. Knights can accuse each other of being the traitor but should exercise caution; a false accusation means placing a black sword down on the table and a general feeling of mistrust.

From my experience, some people relish playing the traitor and excel where others fail. One memorable game involved the traitor cracking under the pressure when it was hinted that she could be a traitor, causing her to throw her hands up in the air and cry out ”Yes! You’ve got me!”

Other players have wreaked total havoc, yet managed to remain undetected. It’s possible to have games without a traitor, where no one draws the black traitor card. This makes for a very interesting game as suspicions fly around despite everyone being on the same side.

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Each turn evil progresses, and players are allowed a single heroic action. The progression of evil can mean picking up a black card resulting in some unfortunate event or summoning a villain to cause trouble, losing life points, or placing a siege engine around the walls of Camelot. Ah, the dreaded siege engines. Place a twelfth siege engine down and the loyal knights automatically lose. And those siege engines build up quickly.

With so many quests, events, and opportunities for failure, Shadows Over Camelot requires teamwork and coordination from the brave knights who attempt the challenge. It’s an immersive game and players get out of it what they put in, like stepping into character and addressing their follow knights in proper medieval fashion. Mount your steeds and gallop into Camelot, gallant knights!

 

 

 

 

 

The Hadmere Players – Part 1

The tenth anniversary of the Hadmere Player’s production of The Water Ghost Beckons was approaching. This may not have sounded like a big event, but one decade ago this small town production was precisely that. The play experienced unprecedented success for a local amateur show. It became more than just a small piece of entertainment for the community and neighbouring villages – usually the case for such an event – several flyers through the doors and a handful of performances.

The Water Ghost Beckons told the story of a family torn apart in what the entertainment section of the town’s newsletter described as ‘the most harrowing, humanly affecting fashion.’ During an autumnal break in the Dorset countryside, the family was singularly lured, entranced and picked off, until there remained one sole survivor, by an ethereal and seductive water ghost whom for each character was representative of their personal fears and desires. It was said that what made these later scenes particularly powerful was the time spent on establishing a family dynamic in the play’s first act – an act filled with laughter and familiarity, hitting the nail on the head when it came to a contemporary nuclear family. The contrast of a laughter fuelled first act and a devastating second one made for a particularly striking play.

A combination of word of mouth and local media allowed the play to grow bigger than was ever expected. Perhaps the theme of the play captured the zeitgeist of a new millennium; representing the fear of the unknown felt by society as one by one each character met their fate. Maybe it was the snappy dialogue and clever wordplay that turned local newspaper critic’s heads. Perhaps the balance of comedic and tragic performances captivated the small town community. It was said that the director, Zave Wilson, had struck gold with his casting; the chemistry between the six actors was reported as electric – a pulsating energy that was felt by the audience even in exchanged looks and unspoken scenes. The conversation came across both intense and natural; a strong allegiance between the family members especially was always present.

Whatever the reason, the play was a success. The initial six-day run was extended with another six dates added. Of the added dates, every performance was a full house – a rare sight in Hadmere’s poky townhouse theatre. On the night of the final performance, the cast celebrated with sheer surprise and amazement, taken aback by the attention their little six-person play had received. The upcoming reunion had been planned to coincide with the final performance in Hadmere’s theatre, December 7th. The players were immediately offered the opportunity to perform a string of dates at the festival theatre in nearby Nutbourne. After this, a couple of performances around the greater Sussex area and finally a number of shows were put on at independent theatre houses around London. The cast and crew decided to call it a day after that. They could have taken it further if they had wanted to. Go out on a high and leave them wanting more, Zave Wilson had said. Doors had been opened now. Opportunities for further work in theatre and beyond presented themselves for the actors, and over time a couple of them began to make names for themselves in the entertainment industry. Not everyone chose to further pursue the acting path, though. And not everyone who did follow that path made it as big as they would have liked.

*

Helen Burbank was preparing to leave her Victorian townhouse on Knoll Street and make the short journey into the High Street to The Fox and Hounds. The first snow of the season had begun falling today and she searched for her best winter jacket on the coat hanger, hooking it with a stick when she’d located the brown pea coat.

She started to wonder what exactly she and Zave would talk about. Just two thousand people in this town and we haven’t caught up for at least two years, she thought. How does that happen? Life happens. A lot has happened over the last ten years, she considered. Too much. Those of us who stayed behind don’t see each other as often we should. But we don’t work together anymore, after all, she supposed. All former colleagues do the same thing. They may live in the same town but generally, they’ll catch up just once in awhile for a morning coffee – somewhere like Melinda’s café with its cosy decor or possibly The Quay, especially in summer with it’s neat and colourful terrace. But most former colleagues didn’t create a unique bond when they worked together like the Hadmere Players of 2008 did. We created something quite special, thought Helen, special enough for us to plan a reunion. Only three of the players still remained in Hadmere. Herself, Zave Wilson, and Bill Gregson. When did she ever really chat with Bill anymore either? Yes, she frequented the corner shop on the town square often, but it had become small talk most of the time. ‘Just this milk Bill, I’m in a bit of a rush!’ or ‘Oh, lovely day Bill, be sure to get yourself outside later!’

She worried about Bill sometimes. She wasn’t sure why. He probably didn’t worry about himself too much. He seemed quite content, and always had done. She was quite sure he worried about Catherine Ratcliffe though, the lead in the play and arguably the most successful of them all now. Ten years had not been enough to suppress certain feelings and desires on Bill Gregson’s part, she was positive about that. It would be interesting to see how those two would interact come Friday afternoon. It would be interesting to see how everyone would interact, for that matter. They were all at very different stages of their lives, at different levels of success, and, she believed, different levels of happiness.

Her coat was on, buttoned all the way up, and she pushed herself toward the front door. She passed the cabinet in the hallway and put two fingers to the picture of her and another man which sat on top. The man had messy grey and brown hair. His cheeks were rosy and his head was tilted back in laughter. She paused for a minute, resting her fingers on his face. She did this every time she left her house. Then she moved her fingers from the picture to the wheels of her wheelchair and left to face the snow.

*

Zave Wilson was already inside the pub when Helen came in. He had been lucky to secure a small table; The Fox and Hounds was beginning to heave with customers. Locals moved back and forth; some entered, raising their voices in delight as they caught sight of their friends. Others came in alongside their friends, laughing mid-joke. Some had their hands full with shopping, already on the ball with Christmas, rolls of wrapping paper with little snowmen on poking out the top of large plastic bags. All seemed grateful to leave the cold and embrace the heat radiating from the open fire within and the closely packed bodies. It was a good atmosphere, he couldn’t deny it. It was just the festive predictability of it that bothered him.

“Director Wilson!” Helen exclaimed as she approached him. She was dressed smartly, a grin on her flushed face. “What a place to meet!” She cried. “It was like Where’s Wally trying to locate you in here!” Helen threw her pea coat over the small round table. “Let’s get drinks?” Navigating her wheelchair through the pub hadn’t been easy, but as Zave looked at the crowded bar and made a concerned face, Helen winked at him and made her way slowly toward it. People began making way for her chair as she moved to the front. Zave quickly followed her before the gap closed and become impenetrable again. He reached into his pocket for his wallet, but Helen was already ordering the drinks with cash in hand from a busty middle-aged woman behind the bar with short cropped hair. She had that typical no-nonsense expression on her face that most female pub managers of her age seemed to have, he thought. He nodded to the manager as he took the drinks a minute later. He bit his lip as he carefully made his way through the all the warm bodies with a pint of orange juice Helen had ordered for him and a small glass of Merlot for herself. As he placed the drinks down on their table, a group of girls in their late twenties or early thirties entered the pub loudly. (Quite a feat considering the level of noise in the pub already.) Zave observed them, unimpressed.

“Thanks for getting these, Helen. We might have to leave soon, though, unless you want to witness a ‘Girls night out.’” He shuddered at the thought.

Helen pushed her wheelchair closer towards the table. “Oh, really?”

“If they sit anywhere near us we can expect ear popping cackling, an onslaught of swear words and sexual innuendo, lemons from their double Malibu and Cokes being thrown at each other and the chorus of a Taylor Swift song being belted out. Badly.”

Helen laughed. “Belligerent as ever then Zave, even as the festive season approaches! I’m surprised you know who Taylor Swift is,” she remarked as she took a sip of her wine. “Anyway, cheers.” She raised her wine glass and he clinked it with his pint.

“Cheers, Helen. The pitfalls of being a daily internet user. You are subjected to information about people and events you couldn’t care less about.”

She laughed. “You strike me more of a newspaper man. The kind of man who would lead a crusade against the increased use of e-books, chanting about the ‘death of print.’”

“E-books and the internet are more than useful inventions. It’s inventions like the selfie stick I have problems with.” He looked behind him. “Ah, it’s okay. They’re standing near the back. And you know one of them will be crying soon. This is the standard protocol of their nights out. This will cause a divide in the group; over half of them will proceed to escort the crier to the toilets while the others will sit and bitch about her life choices.”

“What will she be crying about?”

“A boy, most likely.”

“You know, if it wasn’t for the fact I remember you mentioning you enjoy Christmas, I could be mistaken for thinking you were the reincarnation of Scrooge.”

“I like aspects of Christmas,” Zave grumbled. “So you booked for Farfalle?” He asked.

“Yes. Hopefully, we’ll get that nice table in the alcove. You’ve been there before, right? Should fit seven, even with my chair.”

“Great. Well done, Helen, really. You’ve been responsible for most of the organisation here.”

“Well, why not? I live the closest to the High Street. I know the restaurants and cafés in town the best I would say, out of you, Bill and I. You know, Zave, you’re looking much better these days,” she said, looking at the orange juice in his hand.

Zave waved a hand. “Oh, don’t. Have to say, though, not drinking has done wonders for my mental health. You look great as well, Helen. And I didn’t get a chance to congratulate you on your latest show yet.” He raised his glass in the air and they made another toast.

They caught up with each other’s lives for half an hour or so before Zave checked his watched and told Helen he’d have to be getting on with a job that involved a bit of a drive. Although neither of them would admit it, it was a great relief for both of them to leave the pub.

*

Traffic was slowing down on the approach to Hadmere. Dan Argenta felt an excitement rise inside of him unexpectedly as he saw the large church perched on the hill through the front windows of his Audi. The church he’d spent so many masses, choir practices and school plays in. He’d forgotten how the view of Hadmere Church as you drove towards the town always struck him as one the most beautiful views in the world every time he saw it. Maybe he wouldn’t have forgotten if he had come to visit more often, he wondered. Besides the aesthetics of the town and his family, though, what was there to keep him down here? Maybe when he was older he would buy a house here, perhaps one situated a little out of town for space, and spend weekends in it every so often. It would make a nice contrast to his Richmond townhouse. He could probably afford a small farmhouse down here now if he wanted it, he realised, but he knew he wouldn’t use it. Just because you can afford it doesn’t mean you need it, Catherine had once told him, teaching him the importance of justification, and he always took Catherine’s advice to heart.

Dan Argenta was one of the biggest success stories to come out of the Hadmere players. Interestingly, he had had one of the smallest roles. The nosy neighbour who had followed the family to Dorset was the first character to be lured through the fog by the water ghost. It was a pivotal role in that he was responsible for exposing some of the family secrets, yet ultimately a peripheral one. That didn’t stop the string of successful auditions and exciting stage and TV offers that lead Dan to where he was today. He knew that many wondered if it was because the British public loved a rags to riches tale. They always rooted for the underdog. Not only was Dan an underdog in the play itself, but he came from pretty humble beginnings in real life. Dan grew up on Sentel Road. It was essentially the working class road leading out of town. If anyone deserved success it was Dan, many of his supporters had always said. And he had started to believe it.

*

The unexpected pulp in his orange juice had made Zave feel a bit sick. The Fox and Hounds had been a terrible idea. He looked in the rearview mirror and to him, the bags were striking. How anyone could not be drawn immediately to them, he thought. Helen had said he was looking better!

He sighed and switched on the radio. It was going to be a bit of a drive to Nutbourne in this weather. He had a few teaching jobs on the go at the moment – one on one acting classes – and he was currently involved with the local school’s Nativity play. He wondered what the other players would think of him now as he started driving down the High Street. Would the likes of Catherine and Dan look at him with pity, knowing the course his life had taken over the last ten years? No big success, alcoholism… while they had risen from strength to strength. Although Dan was a hit with the younger generations Catherine was probably the better-known household name. She was currently the lead in popular prime-time drama Dance, Mary, Dance (the story of a mother who lost everything but was slowly getting her life back through modern dance) and this was on the back of a raved about performance as Grizabella in Cats up in Manchester. People hadn’t known Catherine had such a great voice inside of her. Even Zave hadn’t, which annoyed him a little. Hana and Gareth had enjoyed success to a degree, but not quite on the same level. It had all started well for Helen of course, but her tragedy put a sharp halt to that.

Xavier Wilson was, most people agreed, the key to Water Ghost’s success. He had directed and written the play, and was also responsible for casting the six actors. At the time, he had known the script was a good one. He had also known that Hadmere had an abundance of local talent in the unlikeliest of places. But the play’s success had shocked him just as much as it did the others. For Zave, directing was just a hobby in 2008. A theatre enthusiast, he wanted only to put his fingers into different pies after quitting work as a chauffeur. He was never too forthcoming with his reasons for leaving the profession, but it was common knowledge that he’d suffered from alcoholism. Directing had freed him, focused his mind. The success was also the beginning of a second personal downfall, however. He was never able to reach the heights of Water Ghost again and his special band of Merry Men had disbanded. Only Bill Gregson and Helen stayed in Hadmere. Bill had no interest in performing further and while Helen was eager at first, the accident saw an end to that for a while. He was never able to find any local performers quite as good. The chemistry was never the same. Dropping back slowly into old habits, he put down his director’s cap and picked up a wine bottle instead.

*

Gregson’s had been run by Bill Gregson for the last twenty-five years. A small matter of having a lead role in an unexpectedly successful play hadn’t stopped that. It was straight back to the shop for Bill, and having him around, carrying on with his positively normal daily routine, made the idea of Helen being a local celebrity sound strange – that status came from the same place Bill had come from, and most people didn’t think of him as any kind of celebrity. Helen entered Gregson’s and waited for an elderly couple to pay for a newspaper. They collected their change and shuffled to the door, preparing themselves for the snow.

‘Heya Helen,” Bill said.

“Hi, Bill! Just had a drink with Zave! Booked us in for Farfalle on Friday too.”

“Lovely,” he said, in a restrained voice. He was trying, she thought. He didn’t care for the reunion, she knew that. But of course, he would come. Catherine would be there.

“Coffee too in the daytime tomorrow, Melinda’s probably, you can make that too, right?

“Why are we meeting twice?” he asked, baffled.

“Good question,” she laughed. “Well, not everyone could make the meal at first so coffee was suggested, but then when dinner was good for everyone it just sort of stuck. I think it will be nice, though. Be a bit of an icebreaker; make dinner more relaxed for us all.” It made her wonder where the idea for a reunion had come from in the first place, and she couldn’t be too sure – it had been on a group message chat between all of them except Bill, absent because everybody just assumed he would have no idea how group messaging worked she supposed.

“Okay, Helen. Coffee’s fine too I guess. Mel will be taking care of business here tomorrow anyway, so I’m free.”

Helen gave what she hoped was a genuine smile as she picked up two packets of chicken stock cubes from a shelf near the counter. Cold weather and snow meant one thing: it was soup season, so stocking up on stock cubes was a must. She worried the smile may have been a sad one. She couldn’t help but feel sad, even though she knew she shouldn’t. She just didn’t understand how some people like Bill could be content with so little. Especially after having a taste of something greater. She loved small-town life, it was true, and even if the ‘accident’ (hah!) hadn’t happened she would have been happy to stay in Hadmere, as a base. But she still had dreams and ambitions. There had been some severe stumbling blocks, but she was making progress once again. Music had become the second love of her life in recent years. It had always been a passion, but comedy had come more naturally. Helen was one of only two Hadmere players who had been on a stage before The Water Ghost Beckons, where she’d played the comedy relief as the husband’s sister, providing the majority of the laughs in the play’s first act before the tone darkened dramatically in the second. She hadn’t done that much beforehand. Mainly open mike nights and a couple of local comedy festivals. Her dreams of performing at the Edinburgh Fringe came true after the play’s success. She was on her way to making a name for herself – one-woman shows, bigger audiences… you’re the next Miranda Hart her agency had told her. Although her dreams grew bigger, when the car hit her and John she realised her original dream of playing in Edinburgh would have to suffice. John had died instantly. Helen had fared worse, or so she believed for a long time. Paralysed from the waist down and told she would never walk again, mourning her husband, she hated the fact she was still alive at first. Her sense of humour couldn’t help her. The only thing she could muster up were variants on playing with the words ‘stand-up comedy’. A laugh out loud Miranda Hart level set in the making it was not. No, that little dream would have to be plucked and put on a jar on the shelf with only a remote possibility of ever being opened again.

The cello had been her solace. In bed watching the Japanese movie Departures, she felt inspired. She devoted her time to the instrument so as to take her mind off everything else consuming her. Eat, cello, eat, bed became her life. Realising that she both needed to do something with her life and that she was really quite a good cellist, Helen took to some local performances. A comeback, people had said. A wonderful sob story for people to enjoy… dead husband, ruined comedy career, burying her sorrow in the rich, mellow sounds of the cello only to master her craft and put on captivating performances. Bravo. Not a dry eye in the house. Back on the stage but under circumstances no one could have foreseen. Much like the sound of her instrument, her successful performances are bittersweet, one local newspaper wrote. Bittersweet would not be the world Helen would use to describe a horrific incident resulting in tragedy and some middling success as a cellist.

Helen bid farewell to Bill in a resolve to train her mind to not feel sorry for him, and much like the elderly couple beforehand she messed around with her scarf and jacket before heading back into the snow.

*

The next day, Gareth Lawler bowed his head to enter the low-ceilinged coffee shop, Melinda’s. The drive down had been hellish due to snow, all for a coffee in a room where he couldn’t even stand up properly. Hana, his carpool companion, tottered in behind him. She shivered, inevitably. It was December, there was snow on the streets and she was dressed to impress, not for comfort. She had suggested they wait a while, take a drive together for a bit longer to continue their catch up, one on one. Sure, he knew how she still felt about him – anyone who read a celebrity gossip magazine did – but he couldn’t help think that she wanted to be fashionably late and make an entrance in her black Tom Ford dress. As it stood, they were the first ones there. We’re first and Bill’s shop is literally three seconds away, Gareth thought.

“This place is the same, Gaz!” Hana remarked.

“Everything is still the same here,” he replied with a sigh. He remembered coming to Melinda’s as a child and by the looks of it the interior had not changed one bit. Looking at the fluffy cushions on each chair which were filled undoubtedly with decades of dust, Gareth felt a little depressed.

Just behind them, the bell above the door rang as it opened and Helen entered. It was a shock for Gareth to see the wheelchair. He knew about it, of course, but this was the first time they’d met since her accident.

“Gosh, you two,” Helen gushed. “Give us some warning next time… Hadmere can’t handle two sets of dentures that bright and perfect…”

“Oh, Helen! It’s great to see you!” Hana beamed and they embraced each other, Gareth followed suit, and they waited for the others to arrive, taking seats on fluffy mismatched chairs around a large table. Sure, there’s some rustic charm to places like this, considered Gareth. But he definitely preferred things more on the neat and polished side. Bill was next in through the door, followed by Dan. They all embraced with a slight British awkwardness which Gareth observed with some embarrassment. Who decided reunions were ever a good idea? he thought. They are just full of constant awkward exchanges, the desire to out-impress each other and compare oneself to everybody else. It was stressful. The serving staff at Melinda’s appeared to be finding it all a bit much, too. A couple of them may not have been old enough to remember The Water Ghost Beckons (although they certainly knew about it, as Hadmere citizens) but they recognised Dan Argenta straight away. Most of them knew Hana also, and a couple recognised Gareth but were not quite able to place him. A flustered girl of around sixteen eagerly started setting up the table. There was definitely some interest from the customers too, not very well hidden, Gareth observed, noting a man of around twenty-five sitting alone at the back of the cafe who was trying not to stare.

Zave was next in, wearing a long trench coat. Likeable enough but a bit too intense and irritable for Gareth’s liking at times. Warm smiles, hugs, and exclamations of surprise once more.

“No Catherine yet?” Zave asked, flopping his jacket over a seat.

“I got a message from her, she’s on her way,’ Helen replied. “Making an entrance!” She laughed. Hana did not look impressed.

“Good idea on the coffee catch up today Helen!” said Dan. He was beaming, and for good reason thought Gareth wryly, the serving staff were practically falling over at the sight of him. He wasn’t sure who was winning between the youngest looking waitress and the twenty-five-year-old customer.

“Thanks, Dan. God, it’s so surreal to see everyone back together!”

“Bill, you haven’t changed one bit!” Hana chimed in.

“Yes… no fancy dental work for me, eh,” he replied with a smile. Hana and Gareth weren’t sure what to quite make of that statement.

“And you’re still at the shop?” Hana asked with what was clearly meant to come across as casual politeness, but the note of derision was unmistakable.

“Yes…” said Bill with a short smile. “I know I haven’t been venturing out, gallivanting around London town like some of you lot, but I love Hadmere. Always have, always will. Just look at it – especially today in the snow. It’s like something from Dickens.”

They all responded in agreement as the bell above the door rang once more and Catherine Ratcliffe entered, a large grin on her face as she spotted the others. She removed her jacket and shook it on the doormat to get rid of some of the settled snow. Catherine Ratcliffe looked the part of a middle-aged star, her short-styled curly hair immaculate and her red and black dress flattering without being revealing. Now here’s a woman who knows what to do with her age, thought Gareth. In spite of himself, he started laughing inside at what poor Bill must be thinking right now. Why he never made a move, Gareth would never understand. Catherine carried her thick black faux fur jacket and a handbag matching her dress and took a seat beside Dan after hugs and kisses. Chanel No. 5 wafted up Gareth’s nose as he thought how unsurprising it was for Catherine to sit next to her celebrity buddy Dan.

“Sorry, all! I had a surprise visit from Margo before leaving this morning – my agent – she’s been on the phone with one of those celebrity Saturday night dancing shows. I’ve been trying to decide if I want to embarrass myself or not… Still not sure!” She gave an embarrassed shrug and laughed.

“You know what I would say Cath,” said Dan, “Go for it. You always tell me to grab opportunities.”

Ha, thought Gareth, he just had to get a mention of how he and ‘Cath’ are pals. Gareth wondered if he was the only one thinking that.

“Let me go and order some drinks – what’ll it be guys, coffees?” asked Zave, getting ready to stand up.

Most of the group ordered americanos except for Hana who preferred tea and Dan who ordered the most expensive smoothie he could find on the menu. Zave went to the bar to order and Dan went to use the toilets. The rest of the group had broken off into separate conversations. Catherine and Hana were discussing Hana’s current local Sussex TV gig while Gareth, Bill and Helen talked about the differences between London and Hadmere.

“I’m a best of both girl, really,” said Helen. “Love small town life here but it’s good to remember there’s more going on in this world and just how busy it can be with a trip up to London now and then.”

“Do you have any upcoming shows in London, Helen?” asked Gareth. “Surely with the success you’ve been having down here?”

“One’s in the pipeline, yes. It’s a bit scary – the idea of a big London audience… it’s been a while. Well, big London audiences are nothing to you Gaz – has your latest show finished it’s run yet?

“Yeah, couple of weeks back. I only had a small part, though…”

“Still! That’s super impressive.”

“I don’t feel the need to go to London much, to be honest,” said Bill. “I know what it’s like. It’s dirty and frantic and everyone looks stressed and tired. I don’t need regular visits to remember that.”

Zave and Dan, once back at the table, had joined Hana and Catherine’s discussion. Helen went to the toilets and then shortly after she came back the young waitress brought over the drinks on a shaking tray. Gareth took the tray from her hands to help her out and placed it on the table.

“I just don’t know why the bigger modelling agencies haven’t picked up on you yet, Hana. You’re so stunning, more so than ever,” Catherine said. She wasn’t wrong. With her perfect skin, large blue eyes and sleek chestnut hair, Hana Payne often made people do a double-take when they first saw her. She’d had middling success with modelling, having worked internationally with a recent tour around Asia.

“Lot of luck in modelling, Cath.” Hana replied. “It’s why I moved on to presenting.”

Catherine nodded sincerely. “I understand that. Keeping options open is always wise, I say. Well, cheers everyone!” She said, turning to the others and taking her coffee, as everyone had been fiddling around with sugar packets and stirring their drinks. “I’m so happy this is happening! I’m not lying when I saw that despite the play being a decade ago now you lot never leave my mind. I’m always wondering what everyone’s up to.” They cheered and clinked their cups and glasses and sipped their drinks before resuming their conversations.

“Well if you know of any contacts, Catherine, please let me know,” said Hana. But Catherine wasn’t listening. Catherine was trying to fight off the paralysing sensation that had suddenly overtaken her entire body.

“Catherine?” Hana asked, but the poison was already taking its fatal effects.

“Guys! Catherine –” But everyone understood now as Catherine Ratcliffe fell limply from her chair, causing Dan next to her to act immediately and grab her before she hit the floor, holding her as she shook, yelling her name but to no avail – a minute later, she was dead.

 

© Intrigue Inn

 

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