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July Story Chat: “Not a Proper Job” by Philip Cumberland

If you love to read short stories, you will enjoy Story Chat. For links to all of the stories bookmark the Story Chat Y2 Page. Comments are closed after 30 days because of scammers. If you have comments on other stories, you can make them on this current post.

Something to Think About

  • What theme or themes did “Not a Proper Job” have?
  • What might Sheila’s Grandma say if she understood Sheila’s line of work?
  • What famous story or character does Sheila remind you of?
  • Who do you imagine Sheila’s employer is?
Photo © Philip Cumberland

“Not a Proper Job” by Philip Cumberland

The guided bus was an unusual getaway vehicle, but it had served Sheila well in the past. 

It’s their vanity that makes them vulnerable, she thought. What dignitary full of their importance could refuse an honorary doctorate from one of the World’s leading universities?

 “More wine Mr. Ambulant? Yes, the glass is a bit dirty I will fetch you a clean one, it was the Chardonnay, wasn’t it?” 

Fortunately, Sheila was in the kitchen and nowhere near Mr. Ambulant when he collapsed. When they all rushed to see what was happening, she was in the ladies’ room, changing out of the waitress’s uniform into jeans and a tee-shirt. Nipping out through the Masters Garden was a bit naughty really but not as naughty as poisoning someone. Thank goodness for the tourists. It was easy to get swallowed up by the crowds.

The bus was waiting in its bay when she arrived at Drummer Street. Some of those academics can be a bit handy when a girl is carrying a tray of drinks, in a fairly short skirt. Women were the worst.

Had she been missed yet? The thought crossed her mind.

The Park and Ride is very useful, you can park for free, get into the middle of Cambridge then back to pick your car up. The luggage lockers are useful too; the jiffy bag was waiting for her in one. Sheila would check its contents later; no doubt instructions for the next job were in there too.

The policemen standing waiting by her car were a surprise. She noticed them as she closed the locker door. It is always sensible to park near the bus shelter. Fortunately, the bus was still waiting to move on, she climbed back on flashed her day rider ticket at the driver, and found a seat next to the emergency exit. As she left the bus at Huntingdon, she thought it was always good to have a plan B. Her backup, an elderly Renault Clio was inconspicuous and could be left anywhere without arousing suspicion provided there were no yellow lines or parking restrictions.

She drove to her cottage in nearby Wistow. It wasn’t her main address but somewhere out of the way when life got complicated. With a wry smile on her face, she opened the Chardonnay, poured herself a glass, and reached for the Jiffy bag. Inside was a few hundred in twenty and ten-pound notes for expenses, the lottery ticket was there too. The photograph of her next target was a bit of a surprise. He was nasty and odious enough but well connected.

He must have really upset someone, Sheila thought, and then she remembered a story, well a rumour of a story, which would explain it. No matter how big a bully you are, there is always someone bigger and nastier.

Right, London on Monday to claim her lottery prize and perhaps a call to Grandmother. The Sunday papers headlined Ambulant’s sudden death, a heart attack was the suspected cause, hopefully; the college had secured the endowment before his demise.

Sunday passed quietly. It was the eleven-thirty train from Huntingdon on Monday that delivered Sheila to Kings Cross.

About Philip Cumberland

Philip Cumberland

Now retired, I have been living and working in the Cambridgeshire Fens for most of my life. Blacksmithing and wrought ironwork started as a hobby and became my profession, I have been involved in engineering in various forms all my working life.

Making things for the garden is not only an outlet for my artistic creativity but it also helps others, garden designers, and gardeners realise theirs. I am conscious that what I create, although satisfying to me, in itself, will only be complete as an object when it is in place, within its’ final setting.

Since retiring, I have joined my local University of the Third Age branch (U3A). One of the groups I belong to is Whittlesey Wordsmiths, a creative writing group. Together as a group, we have published two anthologies of our work, Where the Wild Winds Blow and A Following Wind.

Other members have been encouraged to publish their own books to see what is available from them click here: Whittlesey Wordsmiths Books

You may notice a book title on the page, Killing Time in Cambridge. With the help and encouragement of the group, I have completed my first novel.

Photo © Philip Cumberland

Please take some time to check out Philip’s blog and social media presence.

Thank you, Philip, for contributing to Story Chat. Philip is the fourth author from Whittlesey Wordsmiths writing group to be published in Story Chat.

Now it’s your turn.

Did this story strike a chord in you? Like all our authors here, Philip loves writing and values your honest and kind feedback on his story. Story Chat is a place for more than “Nice story, Phil.” Mention specifics that you liked and questions you would like to ask him. Raise controversial issues and writing suggestions with care and compassion for the author who bravely submits their work for our appraisal.

69 replies »

  1. I really enjoyed this thriller of a story and the succinct writing sure gave us a lot of story with a short entry here!
    Enjoyed the little details and Sheila is in a tough line of work (reminded me a little of the show called Alias)

    Liked by 2 people

  2. I’m sorry I’m late…again! I’ve been busy trying to be a sweet grandma instead of spending time on my ‘not a proper job’, which is WRITING! Hahaha!
    First of all, congratulations on publishing your first novel Philip. It’s not an easy feat I’ll tell you, so well done.

    Sheila reminds me of the character Villanelle in ‘Killing Eve’. Villanelle is a totally ruthless assassin who would perform jobs just like this one, being very well disguised for each one. She would receive instructions for her next job in a similar way to Sheila, also with a photo of her next victim. Never with a lottery ticket though. I paused when I got to the ticket part…I thought I missed something at the start and scrolled back to check.
    ‘Some of those academics can be a bit handy when a girl is carrying a tray of drinks, in a fairly short skirt. Women were the worst.’ This line was lost on me I’m afraid. I’ve no idea what it means or how it fits into the story.
    I couldn’t figure out why Mr Ambulant was killed. Something to do with the university, I think. He obviously wronged someone somewhere. A honorary doctorate? Or is Mr Ambulant the honorary doctorate. Sorry Philip, but I’m not clear on this. I’d like to read the full version of this story that other are talking about in the comments. Marsha said she will add a link to the summary post. Thanks Marsha.
    I think the theme of this story is; no one in invincible! The good, the bad or the ugly!
    Because the TV series, Killing Eve, is etched in my mind, I think that Sheila’s grandmother might have a past of her own and could give Sheila a few tips on how to be a great assassin!
    Maybe Grandma is her employer. Hee hee! Not all elderly women are sweet little ladies!
    Thanks for the intriguing story Philip. Looking forward to connecting with you on your blog and reading more of your stories.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Great comments, Hugh. I love Grandma’s response. LOL Phil has done a great job with thriller spy stuff – 007, Bourn Theory, etc. state sanctioned killings that never happened. Of course, that’s not how I pictured Sheila, I guess. Robbie said that women mostly kill people they know, and that’s probably true for the majority. We don’t have much faith in our governments do we?

    Liked by 1 person

      • That explains Sheila’s job a little better! 🙂 It makes perfect sense when you think 007. However, I think her grandmother would have said, “Why don’t you get a proper job.” It sounds like what my first husband’s mother said to him every time we saw her. He was a pastor. 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

  4. What theme or themes did “Not a Proper Job” have? – a job that is not a job but isn’t a job because the person doing it does not exist in society.

    What might Sheila’s Grandma say if she understood Sheila’s line of work? – ‘Isn’t that man’s work, dear?’

    What famous story or character does Sheila remind you of? – James Bond 007

    Who do you imagine Sheila’s employer is? – MI5 (UK Government Secret Services).

    Loved reading this short piece about Shiela. She reminded me so much of a female James Bond. I think nobody will ever be able to trace her because any CCTV will be wiped by the government.

    As for the lottery ticket as payment, I’m convinced somebody rigs the numbers on each draw, probably the government, so it’s a great way of them paying somebody who needs to be off the radar and needs never have to record wages.

    A delightful read, Philip.

    Liked by 3 people

  5. This is proving to be a fascinating series of comments.
    Perhaps the saying deadlier than the male is appropriate.
    A woman as an assassin is less likely to be spotted if you look at the Novichok killings the alleged assassins were highly visible and easily spotted, there is a subtlety about Sheila, hiding in plain sight.
    Cambridge is crowded with tourists usually; often the streets near the colleges are full of people, the guides only visible under their signs held aloft for the party following them to see.
    Perhaps female serial killers are better at covering their tracks.

    Liked by 2 people

  6. Our internet has been down so I haven’t been able to participate while it’s been out of action.
    A year or two back I went on a guided tour of our local nature reserve. The man showing us around pointed out the abundance of Hemlock growing wild and mentioned the vast quantities growing in the roadside verges, more than enough in a few miles to kill the entire population of Peterborough, (the nearest city).
    I haven’t studied poisons so I can’t give any authoritative answers but there are some I think that can cause heart failure in a similar way to a heart attack.
    Cathy Cade used poisoning in one of her excellent short stories, mushrooms if I remember correctly.
    Sheila is naturally cautious, which is why she stayed on the guided bus rather than finding out what the police were up to. She is successful because she plans and is resourceful.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. I’m sorry I hadn’t seen all the comments. This was the original the full version is about 1000 words longer.
    The guided bus follows the route of an old railway.
    I used it a lot when I researched Killing Time in Cambridge, as for the lottery, right from day one I saw the potential for making untraceable payments.
    If people are interested I will post the longer version on my blog after the launch of the next collection, Three Sheets to the Wind.

    Liked by 1 person

    • That would be a great idea, and I’ll include the link in the summary post. Meanwhile, enjoy commenting on all the lovely comments you have earned. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  8. Hi Marsha, Sheila is a hired killer presumably and she must have poisoned her victim. I wonder what kind of poison would go undetected these days? I did enjoy this story, but the last line was a little strange for me. I’m not sure what it was intended to convey. It seemed a little superfluous, but I could be quite wrong about that.

    Liked by 2 people

    • She must be the poison queen. No blood or guts. The victim just keels over after she gets away. You might think that an employer might think that was a little sketchy that an employee that he/she didn’t know would somehow superempt their own employee to wait on a specific customer, then disappear right away. If the employer didn’t, the waitress that got pushed out from the big tip might have been a little put out to notice Sheila. You made me think about other possibilities. I like the last line because it seems to draw everything together for me.

      Liked by 2 people

        • At least for authors. I wonder how many murders are by poison. If women are the only perpetuators of poison that would sure make solving murders easier by half.

          Liked by 2 people

          • Serial killers even. Yikes. I thought women were above all that. What’s up with women killers anyway? That’s just not very cool! Sorry, Phil. I know one of the tricks to writing is to make your characters do things that are out of character for the gender or profession or whatever. Phil’s character might have experimented with accidental hanging, or dismemberment. Those would not be as stereotypical women’s methodologies. 🙂

            Liked by 2 people

          • HI Marsha, what a conversation Phil’s story had generated. It seem that women serial killers have a tendency to kill their husbands, children and other relations rather than strangers. I suppose women aren’t as strong as men, generally, and so hanging and some other forms of murder aren’t as accessible.

            Liked by 2 people

          • Very interesting, then we could go into the psychology of killers in general. Are they mentally ill? This is a huge discussion around gun laws and mass killings here in the United States after several mass shootings both in loosely controlled states and heavily controled states. All men, though. Which leads us to ask is Sheila a serial killer -with that kind of mental profile or a good guy – like a Robin Hood? I definitely think she has some mental illness issues to be able to go on about life as easy as you please.

            Liked by 2 people

  9. An intriguing short, for sure. Lots to enjoy in a lead who sounds rather homely but for her career choice.

    I’m a bit of a sucker for crime books and TV programmes and one of my joys is looking for plot holes. I’m not proud so don’t judge.

    Of course I’ve only read this a couple of times and I may have misread the intention. And leaving the reader guessing with constructive ambiguity is a fine skill.

    Even so…

    The lottery ticket had me wondering how this could be used for payment. I doubt Camelot is beyond corruption but still!
    The bus also confused in that I imagined an open top to be a tourist bus but it appeared to double as a park and ride. Did I miss something? Maybe it doesn’t matter but it distracted me.
    Sheila took us on a bit of a ride. If she is a competent assassin – which seems a fair assumption if she’s getting an immediate second commission – how can the police trace her to her car so fast? I’d love to think Cambridgeshire’s Finest were that good…. So she left a clue to where she was going, did she? Or were they there for another reason? The reader would suppose not given she adopted her plan B. But again I was distracted from the pacy narrative as I pondered.
    Her method of assassination seems high risk. Poison sounds a fair way but surely her handing him the glass… she’s under suspicion immediately. Just being in the kitchen when he keels over wont lesson that. And how has she ensured she leaves no prints or other DNA without arousing suspicion amongst the other wait staff? Gloves? Hair net?
    And we are told she’s changed to jeans and. T shirt so her face is exposed to every CCTV camera? It may take a while but the cops will track her to the park and ride bus and her abandoned car and probably to Huntingdon from the CCTV on the bus and her new old car to her cottage – all London buses have CCTV these days so I imagine would a local authority park and ride and it’s congruent car parking.
    I can see so much potential, too, and I read from Cathy’s comment this is extracted from a longer piece. Did some connectivity get excised in translation?
    Of course, I’m perfectly capable of missing links and if I’ve done so, my failure. Individually they’d not matter, but together I can’t help feeling a touch disappointed.
    I don’t know if any of this helps. It’s still highly enjoyable as a tale of callousness wrapped up in domesticity but the above, for me, disrupted the flow which was a shame .

    Liked by 2 people

    • I missed the homely connection, Geoff. How could the police fail to solve any crime with all the technical assistance? You raise some excellent questions. I’m anxious to hear the answers.

      Liked by 1 person

  10. Lots of local colour in here: Cambridge’s controversial but now widely used guided bus, the park-and-ride carparks, bits of the university and, of course, the tourists.
    For those wondering about the lottery ticket, collecting her winnings is the means by which payment is made. (You see, I’ve read a longer version where this becomes clearer.)
    As I have read the complete version of this story (to be published in the Wordsmiths’ next anthology) I have an unfair advantage over the general reader so I won’t comment much on this one. But one can’t help but wonder at the connections of the paymaster to be able to engineer a lottery win at will (always assuming that this is our National Lottery and not a smaller-scale lottery. In the UK, such lesser lotteries would probably not pay out a large enough sum without comment).

    Liked by 3 people

      • That was the original version as so often happens when I share a story with my fellow Wordsmiths, they say what happens next. The result is often a longer version, the most recent one I can think off is a story called Barry and Gill, only my second children’s story. I was persuaded to add a story within a story, ‘Polly and the Clock that Didn’t Know the Time’.

        The Not a proper job prompt was Little Red Riding Hood.

        Liked by 2 people




Hi, I'm Marsha Ingrao, a retired educator and wife of a retired realtor. My all-consuming hobby is blogging and it has changed my life. My friends live all over the world. In November 2020, we sold everything and retired to the mile-high desert of Prescott, AZ. We live less than five miles from the Granite Dells, four lakes, and hundreds of trails with our dog, Kalev, and two cats, Moji and Nutter Butter. Vince's sister came with us and lives close by. Every day is a new adventure.

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