Stories and other random writing

THE WIZARD OF WAS

Based on:  a memory stick, a mobile and a tablet

The man stood, arms protectively wrapped around the shoulders of two silent children.  The rain poured, and any indication that the situation was unusual was normalised by the look of eager expectation on their faces.

The hologram flickered, almost faded, flickered again, then strengthened until the figure appeared almost tangible.  The children wriggled, but the man held them firmly knowing, as he did, the fragility of the connection.

“It’s gone,” Flora looked sadly across the park.  “My tree is gone.”  James felt uncontrollable grief sweep over him.  “What happened?” she asked.

“We don’t know.  We asked Mr. Angellis, but he didn’t know either.”  The little girl, no more than eight offered the explanation.

“When we arrived some trees were laying down, like they were having a little sleep,” her brother added.

“I think there was a storm,” James shook himself from his revery.  “We’ll get a new one.  What would you like?”

Flora sighed.  She felt, if she could feel, hurt, a sense of loss.

“Another oak,” she said finally.  “They live such a long time.  How are you all?” she added after a long pause.  “Tell me your news.”

The children started to unpack their satchels.  Ty hauled a large tablet up on the wooden bench in front of the hologram, whilst Em rummaged in a side pocket looking for her memory stick.

“There’s quite a lot,” James murmured apologetically.  “How long can you stay?”

“I have fifteen minutes.  If the signal is good that should be enough.”  Flora stepped to the edge of her platform and peered at the children’s fevered activity.

“Ready,” Em said to her Dad.  “Have you got the code?”  James checked his mobile.

“Yup,” he said and dialled it quickly.  “Signal’s not too good,” he grumbled, “the unsettled weather I suppose.”  He groaned – signal failure, connection error.

“You’ve both grown so much,” Flora said to the children.  “You must be up to Grandma’s shoulder by now.   Ty and Em nodded happily.

“I’m going horseriding now,” Em was distracted into chatty mode.

“And I’m having ice skating lessons,” Ty was not to be outdone.

“Okay, you two, concentrate,” interrupted James, “ready to download?” he asked Flora.  Flora nodded.  She stepped back onto the contact points and held her arms out, like a crucifix.

She was still for a long time.  Perhaps ten minutes had passed.  Her image fluctuated with the download.  This was normal.  Sometimes she was so vivid that she appeared solid, but then she would also fade, more ethereal and wispy, in danger of blowing away in the ever more violent wind and rain.  The children huddled under a nearby horse chestnut, its spread and density offering some shelter.  James braved the elements to shroud the assembled technology with a small tarpaulin, which writhed and fought in his hands.  Flora, of course, was dry and unaffected, her floaty pink and grey dress draped gracefully to her ankles.  No matter when they visited, it was always summer to her.

The children started to shout.  They ran out into the deluge, tugging at James’ coat.  They took corners of the tarpaulin to help shield the tablet and stick , all the time telling him there was something wrong.  James looked up from under his dripping hat, the brim of which had obscured his view.  He saw what they saw, but more importantly, he felt her fear.

Flora was no longer receiving.  Her arms were up in front of her face, pressing, as if against a window.  Her face was contorted as if she were in great pain.  Her image was fading until her essence was a mere whisper and her piercing scream lingered, buffeted by the wind into a swirling howl.

The children stood in frozen horror.  None of the little group moved.  The wind and rain had torn away the tarpaulin and the tablet and stick were wet and shiny.  James looked at his phone and noted the blank screen.  It appeared to have died.

Ty and Em looked up at him.  “What happened?” they wanted to know.  “Did Mum get our messages and news?”  Their anxious faces looked to him for reassurance and answers.  James shook his head.

“I don’t know.  I can’t tell you.”  He looked helplessly around the park.  No-one else was there, the place was deserted in a way he had not experienced before.  The stone platforms, engraved with the names of those they received were all slightly submerged, their contact points glistening just under the water surface.  The trees bent precariously under the increasing onslaught of the elements.  A few more were laying forlornly on the waterlogged lawns, their roots partially exposed, the turf opened like a wound.  The scene was drowning, receding to murky depths.

James started to pack up the equipment, urging the children to help.  They retreated to the horse chestnut while they rolled up the tarpaulin, forcing it reluctantly back into its bag.  Eventually, drenched and shivering, they headed for the park lodge.

__________________________________

Mr. Angellis peered between his curtains at the expanse of swaying green stretching away from his garden wall.  It looked quite threatening he thought, and he decided that any casualties would have to wait for a substantial change in the stormy conditions.  He didn’t like summer storms.  The trees were far more vulnerable when their canopies were laden with windsock leaves.  No knowing how many he would have to replant.  He tried to engage in a mental reckoning of how many stakes and ties he had in the shed.  Of course he would also have to check the receptor pads.  Head Office may well have to get a technical team out.  He turned back to the monitors.  The park looked deserted.  Mr. Angellis flipped the light switch and left his control room.  He made his way to the kitchen and started to make tea.  There was a bang on the door.  It was repeated, vigorously, several times more.  Mr. Angellis put down the kettle and opened his back door.

Two small children, about eight or nine he thought, stood either side of a tall, academic looking, young man.  They were all very wet and clutched an assortment of satchels and rucksacks.  Mr. Angellis stepped back and ushered them in.

“Thank you,” James said, “you are the curator aren’t you?”

Mr. Angellis wished for a split second that he could deny this, but he could not, and said so.  The children responded immediately by unpacking their bags and trying to explain, ask questions and intermittently cry, all at once.

James, equally agitated, made his apologies and then explained.

“It’s her birthday you see.  We come on each of our birthdays and Christmas.  We always bring her photos, videos, letters, audio messages.  It keeps her close you see.  For them,” he indicated his sobbing children.  “It’s the only way they know her.  She died,” he lowered his voice, “she died having them – the twins.” James looked around him helplessly.  “Now, well now we’ve lost contact.  Can that happen?  I mean … permanently?  Is it just the weather?  Has it happened to everyone?”

Mr. Angellis laid a hand on James’ shoulder and pushed him gently down into a seat.  He went back to his tea making, now adding hot chocolate to his menu, and dug out a tin of biscuits.  Ty and Em subsided a little at the sight of choc chip cookies and Mr. Angellis felt somewhat back in a more comfortable zone.

“Most people do not come when the weather is bad,” he observed, as he passed out mugs and offered the tin round.  “Most people won’t risk the journey.”

“I know,” conceded James, “but we book our flights a year advance, to get the best price.  We just have to put up with the weather.  We couldn’t afford to come otherwise.”

“I see.”  Mr. Angellis lied.  He had no idea, money meant nothing to him.  “When is your flight back?” he enquired.  “We have no scheduled landings until tomorrow.”

“That’s the one,” James sipped his tea, “1500 hours launch, report to base 1200.  We stay at the Eclipse just outside the airbase.  You know it?”

“I do,” agreed Mr. Angellis.  It was the only one.  “We will go to the control room and I will ask the Eclipse to send transport.  Meantime we will check your wife’s status.”

They piled into what was little more than an understair cupboard.  Mr. Angellis entered Flora’s ID number.  There appeared to be no response.  A buffering signal circled incessantly and everyone groaned.  Mr. Angellis pulled leads from various parts of his anatomy and plugged them in to the consol housing the monitors.  He started a diagnostic program.

The children grew restless.  James frowned playfully at them and eventually Ty pulled out his tablet and stick from their bags.  The twins settled just outside the control room door and started reviewing their photos and messages.

After an hour Mr. Angellis unplugged everything except one hdmi lead.

“The whole park was down,” he announced.  “I think we are functioning again.”

The children jumped up eagerly.  “Can we speak to her again?” they asked.  “Did she finish downloading?”

“That’s difficult to assess,” Mr. Angellis confessed.  “The principal router was badly damaged.  I’ll replace it, but it will take a few hours as I have to carefully manoeuvre through everyone’s data.”

“Oh!” Ty and Em slumped, then Em brightened.  She pulled the memory stick out of the tablet.  Offering it up to the Curator she said, “Mr. Angellis could you resend this if we leave it with you?”

“Well, it is highly irregular,” he hesitated.  It was always a problem for him when faced with so much emotion.  “I will get clearance and attempt a data transfer once the systems are fully re-instated,” he said.

____________________________________________

The journey home was interminable.  There was no appeal to seeing the earth majestically rolling away from their ship.  The trio were quiet, each sunk in their own disappointment and worry.  No-one said anything, but they were all thinking the same thing, “what if the link was broken forever?”

At the Eclipse, the manager, Mrs. Angellis had tried to reassure them.  “You know,” she said, “they call that Curator ‘The Wizard of Was’.  He’s an older model android now, but what he can’t do with cross-dimensional computing systems isn’t worth doing.”

James stirred as he dozed.  Was that a vibration?  He reached into his pocket and switched his phone to audio.,

“Memories, like the colours of my mind,

Misty, watercoloured memories,

Of the way we were …”

Momentarily trapped in a distant time and place, James waited for his ringtone to finish before answering.

A picture appeared.  James woke Ty and Em … Together they looked into Flora’s smiling face and the words at the bottom of the screen:

“I’m back.”

 

THE JOB

 

Based on: a calendar picture of a robin and a snowman

 

It didn’t get any easier Joe mused. He looked along the queue – it could be a while. He sighed, why did they keep it so warm in here? He recognized some of the others waiting to show their portfolios and audition pieces, and he guessed his chances were about 10:1 looking at the quality of the applicants. He glanced up at the clock. Two hours – he’d already been here two hours! What could take so long? Good afternoon, flick some pages, five minutes of poses and chat – fifteen minutes each applicant at a stretch. He tried to count how many were in front of him, but the corridor rather unhelpfully turned right about two yards away, so he could only see three more weary looking hopefuls. He took out the flyer and read it once more. This shoot was late in the season. He was surprised to see it in the magazine. This kind of work was usually done and dusted by October at the latest. Still, he couldn’t complain, he supposed. He had finished a contract three weeks ago and had thought that was it for the year – any work now was a bonus.

 

The line shuffled along the corridor and Joe looked hopefully round the corner. Only two more now. Thank goodness. The air conditioning unit blasted overhead and a huddle of bodies had formed under it. Joe was tempted but was afraid to lose his place.

 

Another shuffle. How long had that been? It didn’t seem long. Joe hoped they hadn’t selected already. He waited anxiously for someone to come into the corridor and tell them all to go home. One to go. Joe moved under an open window. Cold air trickled in and Joe turned several times. It wouldn’t do to appear dripping. Not a good look.

 

A young woman appeared at a door and suddenly Joe was front of the queue. He waited, almost holding his breath. Please don’t give the job away at this stage. The door opened again. The young woman, now wielding a clipboard, walked past Joe to the corner and called down the corridor.

 

“We are shortlisting five, and as we have four already, we are going to select just a few of you to see the panel.” There was a loud, collective groan. “It will save you waiting unnecessarily,” pointed out the young lady. She proceeded to call out names. Joe turned to walk away when he heard “Joe Crystal.” He looked back and the young lady beckoned him. “You’re the last one,” she explained. “Come this way.”

 

The room was much cooler. It had a mock up of a snow scene and a rather poor imitation tree stuck in a plastic pot. Joe leant on the wall and surveyed the scene. The panel all wore overcoats and scarves, a couple had woolly hats, but Joe recognized three of them and they signalled ‘hello’ to him.

 

Joe suddenly became aware of a buzz of disquietude among the candidates A rumble of displeasure and complaining tones. He leant forwards and looked along the line. A few were moving away, shaking their heads. Joe grinned. He could see clearly what the problem was: Will Waistcoat. Joe couldn’t believe his luck. No-one enjoyed working with Will, but luckily for Joe, he didn’t mind so much … and Will, Will positively loved working with Joe.

 

Will had a reputation. He was a bad-ass robin, peck your eyes out, or steal your nose as soon as look at you. He was temperamental, demanding and could hold shoots up with his histrionics, but with Joe he was putty. Joe waved to where Will was perched on a glitzy stand, fat mealworms wriggling in the bowl at his side. His small black eyes glinted as his head inclined, then, suddenly in a flurry of feathers, he was on Joe’s battered hat.

 

“Well, Joey boy,” he chirruped as he pulled threads from Joe’s woollen scarf. “How goes it? Run that new nose in yet?”

 

Joe automatically put his hand up to the carrot protruding from his face. “A great improvement on the parsnip,” he said amiably, “I never did thank you for that.”

 

“Don’t think of it old boy,” Will puffed out his red chest. “We professionals get an eye for these things. How’s Jenny and the youngsters?”

 

“Fine,” Joe lifted his hat down to the look the bird in the face, “though Jenny frets about their growth. She puts it down to global warming …” Joe trailed off and looked thoughtful, “and your brood?” he added politely.

 

“Oh, chased them off a while ago. Can’t have that much competition on my patch. Look stay where you are. Be back in a mealworm’s wiggle.” He flew off to the table of muffled people at the end of the room.

 

“I’m telling you,” one was addressing the rest, “unbearable once he appeared on that Countryfile calendar – no-one else will work with him.”

 

“Ahem,” Will tried to sound annoyed, but this was hampered by the jolly trill of his voice. “You have the perfect snowman right here. I suggest you send the others away. Grumpy lot if you ask me – and Joe Crystal is very professional and obliging.” The panel all leant forward to look at the lone snowman propped against the wall.

 

“Mr. Crystal,” Joe’s revery was interrupted by the young woman with the clipboard, “the panel would like to speak to you.”

 

Joe followed her over to the table where the assortment of overcoats, scarves and hats sat. Joe tried not to look nervous.

 

“Mr. Waistcoat has commended you to us,” the Chairman shuffled his papers, “and frankly, Mr. Crystal, all we need is to know if you are happy to work with him?” All eyes shifted towards Joe. He fidgeted.

 

“What kind of work is it?” he enquired. It was the panel’s turn to look uncomfortable. “Something unusual,” he was told.

 

————–

 

Joe had not slept for several days. Persuading Jenny, that the risks involved were worth it for the fee he could command, had taken hours of cajoling, but finally, and somewhat tearfully, she had conceded.

 

Joe held the steel roller door above his head and yawned. The gang had been inside for a long time now. Will fluttered in. “Still no sign of the police,” he reported. “Hang in there – they just need ten more minutes.”

 

“You have got everything in place?” asked Joe anxiously for the fiftieth time.

 

“Relax Joey boy, I’ve got it covered” the robin turned his head to lock one black, gleaming eye on his friend. “Trust me.” He flew back down the alley. “Not long now,” he called.

 

Joe’s arms were numb as the gang rolled under the door, throwing bags ahead of them. He sighed with relief as the sun lifted over the buildings, flooding the alley with light. When Will arrived, he whipped away coal eyes and mouth, carrot nose, hat and scarf.

 

“You can let it go now,” the little bird chirruped, and Will relaxed, allowing himself to melt into a gully, draining away to the waiting bucket.

 

The policeman scratched his head.

 

“They had to get it out this way, but blowed if I know how,” he looked at the reinforced door.   “This weighs a ton and the alarm linked to the motor wasn’t triggered. Forensics have found nothing.” He stomped back through a small puddle. “I’m stumped …”

 

———–

 

Jenny looked anxiously at the freezer door. “You’re sure Will will give them the right instructions?” she asked the muffled man waiting at her side.

 

“I’m certain,” he reassured her. “Will had the last calendar your husband and he worked on together. You won’t know anything has happened.”

 

At that moment, the large freezer door opened and Will flew out chirruping in excitement.

 

“Now, Jenny dear, close your eyes. Don’t look, don’t look – now open your eyes!”

 

Jenny opened her eyes. Joe held out his arms and Jenny gasped. “You look younger,” she cried, “fresher. What have they done to your eyes?”

 

“Oh,” he chuckled, “they had a couple of sapphires spare.” He twinkled down at his wife. “Fitting now I have Mafia connections.” He gave her a hug and winked. “Just like ‘ole blue eyes’.”

 

Laughing, they headed off into the blizzard filled night.

 

FLASH FICTION

Based on: a magnifying glass, a snail (glass) and a coaster with birds pictured on it.

 

The young woman looked disapprovingly at the elderly gentleman as he moved her son’s glass onto the coaster he had found in the sideboard drawer.

 

“As I was saying,” Mr. Pettigrew refolded his napkin for a third or fourth time, “Philip is not making the progress we would like. He is easily distracted. His teachers complain that he does not listen …”

 

“Mum,” Philip seemed unaware that Mr. Pettigrew was talking about him. His attention had been grabbed the moment the coaster had appeared. “Mum look. These are Emperor Penguins.” He removed the coaster, placing his glass on the polished desk, spilling water as he did so. Mr. Pettigrew eyed the glistening droplets with displeasure.

 

“Did you know,” the boy continued enthusiastically, “that the male penguin huddles with other males with their eggs on their feet and their backs to the snow ‘til the Mummy penguins come back from feeding and …”

 

“Yes, yes, yes,” interrupted the Master impatiently, “but we are discussing your schoolwork young Drayton.”

 

Philip subsided under his mother’s glare and gazed miserably out of the window. He concentrated fiercely on the frame and glass, trying to shut out the conversation going on in the room. Suddenly, he noticed antennae peeping round the wooden sill and he exclaimed in delight. “Oh, look at that little common snail. Do you know they have a homing instinct of twenty metres, so you have to take them quite a long way from your garden if you don’t want …”

 

“Philip,” his Mum sounded exasperated. “Please listen to Mr. Pettigrew.”

 

Philip idly wandered across the room and took up a magnifying glass. He looked at books, models, anything but listen.

 

“Well,” said Mr. Pettigrew, “I have no choice but to submit this report to the board.” He turned to select the piece of paper from the tray, but smoke trailed upwards as Peter trained the magnifier between the sun outside the window and they tray.

 

ENTENTE CORDIALE

“I am bringing in a specialist,” the Commander did not need to add, “and that’s final,” his team understood his facial expression and body language only too well.

“If we are to negotiate peace, we need the expertise of someone steeped in their culture – and,” he muttered as a private afterthought, “who can speak their damn language.”

“Well, that only leaves one person,” mused the Ensign.  She smiled, turned smartly on her heels and left the control room.

__________________

Sunlight dappled the lush, green undergrowth and highlighted the startling colours of the more showy blooms scattered in its midst.  A small boy negotiated the billiard board smooth lawn on his electric trike, straining his neck to glimpse the familiar battered straw hat.  Once located he homed in with surprising speed.

The tall woman, kneeling at the flower bed with her long, tousled, blonde hair bundled up inside the straw hat, brushed an offending stray curl out of her eyes and stood up.  She wiped her hands on her rather threadbare combat trousers and turned to look at him as he abruptly came to a halt two feet away.

“Have you taken off that limiter again?” she asked, trying to keep the amusement out of her eyes, and her voice.

“No Mum,” Terry avoided looking at her.  “Are those dahlias?” he added, deciding distraction was his best weapon.

“No, they’re not, they’re roses,” Caro did not look where he was pointing and sighed.  “Terry, you have to stop tinkering with your scooter.  Last time you were confined to your wheelchair for a week whilst your Dad was repairing it.”

Terry shrugged.  “It was a bit sluggish this morning, that’s all.  I only tweaked it a bit.”

They moved up the lawn together, Caro’s languid, long strides matched exactly by the boy’s “sup-ed up” mobility scooter.

Terry diverted to the ramp to the conservatory, but his Mum answered a call from the kitchen door and ran up the steps to where her husband Alan was holding out a phone.

“Your office,” he said, “you’re on leave,” he reminded her.  She grimaced and took the receiver.  Moving through the hall to their study her voice wafted out to Terry as he transferred to his wheelchair.

“Oh hi Angela, yes of course it’s okay.  What’s the problem?”

His face fell.  “Some holiday,” he thought.

______________________

Transfers were still impossibly slow.  Considering how long the space station has been running, the whole docking and undocking procedure took too long.  This was partly because the station had grown so much in recent years and the volume of traffic had become almost unmanageable.  It was, of course, the favoured stop-off point for emigrants on their way to the moon settlements, and it was often used by photographers, and other creative groups, for seminars.  The bustle was quite exciting and stimulating, “unless,” thought Lieutenant Pyke, “you are trying to get somewhere fast.”

Commander Drimpton stood up and crossed the conference room in three long strides.  He held out his hand and nodded grimly at the officer facing him.  “Lieutenant Pyke,” he said curtly.  “Has your aide filled you in?”

“She has.  I understand they are asking for asylum,” Caro Pyke lifted her briefcase onto the table, pressed some buttons and looked at the projected paperwork on the desk.  She swiped a few documents to one side until she found what she wanted.  “Orichian.  A complete family.  Three generations.  Always difficult to place.  What is the Council’s take on this?”  She looked from the Commander to the other occupants of the room.  Heads of Continents, Military Attachees and Alien Representatives.  Her direct gaze was undaunted by the array of uniforms and badges of honour.  She quickly grew impatient and moved along the table pausing at each delegate in turn.

A large man in a long tunic and highly decorated cloak stood up.  He looked sternly at the ‘expert’.  She was tall, her blonde hair held sleekly back in a demure chignon.  She wore a designer suit, understated, but impeccably styled with a fine silk blouse.  Her make up was immaculate, but her face was impassive and she waited with the air of someone used to getting answers quickly.

“We have agreed that to offer them the protection they want would place the United Civilisations in an impossible situation.  The Lantari in particular would be very unhappy.  We think,” he looked uncomfortable and looked around the room at the other delegates,  “we think they should be jettisoned in stasis.  Supplies, makeshift shelter, water – all to be stored in their pod so that on arrival in deep space they can survive for six months while they find a new home.”

Caro extinguished her documents.  “You wish for me to communicate your decision.”  It was a statement, not a question.  “Is the pod prepared?  Ready to go?” she enquired of the Commander.

“Affirmative,” he replied.

“I suggest four months to find a new place.  They are used to it.  I will meet them now,” she said and left the room.  The delegates fidgeted, no-one challenged her.

“Is she really the best we have?” asked a delegate from the Asian Continent.  “She doesn’t strike me as empathetic … won’t she upset both sides just storming in?”  Ensign Crow stood up.

“Actually, she said, “she is all we have.  No-one understand the Orichians and Lantari, or speaks their languages as well as her.”

_____________________________

Meanwhile, Lt. Pyke marched through a labrynth of shifting living membrane.  Her entourage of armed military maintained a professional neutrality, but she could sense their feelings of disquiet and … what was it? … yes, mistrust.  The membranes trembled as the group progressed, its sinuous coils leading them out of the Lantari quarters, Caro unruffled, not a hair out of place; her company agitated, sweating.

The interview had been brief.  Caro had removed her clothes, released her hair and entered the control area alone.  The Lantari had greeted her cautiously, their tendrils exploring her, absorbing her communication and relaying their views through pulses of energy, vibrations and shockwaves.  Caro allayed their fears.  The Orichians would be expelled.  The Lantari existence of unpolluted, pure thought would not be threatened.  The United Civilisations were their allies and would protect their interests at all costs.

“Stand down your weapons,” Caro thought. “Be at peace.”

__________________________

The Orichians were delighted to meet Lt. Pyke.  She was so beautiful.  Her curling blonde hair hung to her lower back, wild and flowing.  Her long gown covered every inch of her skin except her face.  The gown was deep blue and glinted with points of light like the night sky.  She carried a stringed instrument and sang a lament about the Orichian plight, destined to roam space, homeless, but not, the song ended, friendless.

There were twenty of them.  All hermaphrodites, tall, graceful. They sang so sweetly, they brought tears to the eyes of the listener, even when the song was of ridding the Universe of the scourge of the Lantari, of war, of hate.  They were the most aggressive race known to the United Civilisations and their presence was a threat to the universal peace, brokered and negotiated over 500 years.

They did not like Lt. Pyke’s message.  Their forms began to change.  They darkened, shrank and spread, oozing towards her.  She responded by stepping into them and spreading her arms wide.  They soaked into her dress turning it muddy brown, then retreated into large puddles that looked like blood.  The soldiers outside the chambers entered, froze each puddle and lifted them into stasis boxes to be loaded into the pod.

____________________________

It was raining, and Terry, bored with his computer, had taken down a book of photos that his Mum had taken.  That last mission had been tough.  He looked across the room to where she lay in a life support casket.  She had, so they said, single-handedly saved the universe from war, but she had not woken from the coma for three months.

“She shouldn’t have absorbed their hatred,” he thought.  “She should have let someone else …”, but he stopped mid-thought.  He knew no-one else could have done it.  He looked at his favourite photo.  Him, Dad and Mum.  She wore jeans and a tatty, floppy jumper.  Her hair was windswept and tangled.  She was tall and slender, towering over them, mouth open as she sang her favourite, native, Orichian song.

 

SOMEONE TO LOVE

Caked in mud, she stood up to her knees in the flooded depression that signalled the entrance to a mine adit.  She wiped the smelly, brown gloop from her face, and realised belatedly that her laden glove was plastering more on than it was removing.

“Good for the complexion,” she murmered with a mischievous twinkle, and started to clamber back up to the rocky footpath where her two dogs waited.  Buffy and Angel looked patiently on, heads on one side, apparently curious about her state, when they were relatively clean in their green wax coats.

“Don’t look so smug,” she threatened, “or I’ll throw your ball in there and you will be contractually obliged to go in.”  The dogs moved forwards, wagging their tails in encouragement.  She pulled off her gloves and groped in her pocket for titbits.  The dogs, satisfied she wasn’t going back for a second dip, ran off towards the car park leaving her to clamber up the slope and squelch along behind them.

It was times like this, Harriet told herself, that she would have been glad of someone at home.  “Someone,” she thought wistfully, “to dry me off, make me a hot chocolate, and give me a cuddle.”  She shook her head.  These musings only confirmed that she needed a new project … a worthy cause, to distract her from her single state.

It had started to rain now, and the walk back turned into a head down, hood up, endurance exercise.

“Excuse me,” the voice made her look up, startled.  She hadn’t been aware of anyone else walking the hill.  “Sorry, didn’t mean to make you jump.”  A body, rather misshapen and hazy through the downpour, began to reassign its parts, revealing a man in his thirties dressed in an all engulfing plastic kagool.  He looked like a hunchback, lopsidedly holding the hand of a child, so swaddled in oversized waterproofs as to be indeterminate of gender or age, although Harriet thought it was quite young, just based on height.

“I wondered,” the man continued, “if you had seen my daughter’s doll on your walk?”  He looked hopefully at her as the little girl added helpfully from the depths of her wrappings, “her name is Annabel.”

Harriet shook her head.  “No,” she answered, “I’m afraid I haven’t,” and instantly wished she hadn’t as the little girl burst into tears and started to berate the man.

“I told you she was gone … you wouldn’t look, you w-w-wouldn’t look,” she gulped in sobs, “I told you, I told you.”  She wrestled to free her hand and the man tried to restrain her by putting his arm round her shoulder.

“I’m sorry Cassie.  I really am.  It was just so wet.  I’ll go back, I promise.  I’ll come back with a torch and retrace our steps.  We’ll just get you home, in the dry.”  But Cassie was not to be consoled and cried with more vigour.

Harriet looked at the little drama and then at her dogs, who were more than eager to explore further.

“I’ll tell you what,” she said, “tell me where you’ve been and we’ll go and look.  I have my head torch, and,” she indicated her bedraggled appearance, “I’m already soaked, so a bit more won’t hurt.”  She pushed back her hood.

The man looked at her incredulously.  “Would you really?” he asked.  “That’s really kind.  We stayed on the main path.  We did the long figure of eight walk.”

“Okay,” said Harriet, her organising genes kicking in.  “Have you got a mobile number.  I’ll call if I find Annabel.”

“Who?” the man said looking confused.

“Annabel,” repeated Harriet, “the doll.”  There was a nervous laugh from within the diminuitive waterproofs.

“Oh right,” the man tugged the girl’s arm.  “I’ve got a card in the car, hold on.”  He seemed anxious to leave.

Armed with her LED head torch, walking pole, mobile and the man’s card, Harriet set off back up the hill.  She turned and watched thoughtfully as he pulled out of the car park.  He was in a hurry.

An hour later, even wetter, exhausted, and frankly a bit irritated, Harriet and the dogs once more approached the gate in the car park.  Not a car in sight.  Harriet sighed.  No doll and pneumonia.  She dialled the number on the card.

“oh hi,” the man responded to her greeting.  “I should have taken your number.  The doll was in the car, buried under a blanket … sorry,” he added into the silence.  Harriet could hear a protesting cry, but before she could speak, the phone went dead.

Harriet pulled off her boots and surveyed the boot room.  The dogs, towel dried and impossibly fluffy, stared at her reproachfully.  She had no sense of priority in their opinion.  Where was dinner?

Harriet rubbed her hair with the discarded towel, smearing more mud through her greying, wiry locks.  She scratched the wart on her nose and wondered if it were bleeding again.  She checked in the mirror.  Her crooked face peered back and she smiled ryely at her reflection, revealing blackened, broken and missing teeth.  She didn’t think the mud had done anything for her sickly green complexion.

“Oh well,” she cackled merrily, “I’ll just have to accept I’m not going to get a man for love nor money.”

She fondled the dogs’ ears.  “Still, I’ve got you,” she croaked affectionately.  “Come on then, dinner.”

THE BORROWER OF THE NIGHT

“I remember what it was like to be young. That feeling of being able to move suddenly and sharply, without any twinges or clicking. Walking along with no awareness of time, of how it will run out. Waking up in the morning, pushing back the covers and swinging your legs out with one fluid movement. Standing straight up, no pause, no adjustment of weight or joints. That feeling of freedom. Meeting friends and deciding on a spur of the moment to go to the pictures, or jumping into an old car and heading for Brighton. Freedom, that’s it, freedom of movement, freedom of thought, freedom of aspirations. Yes, I remember.” Nick stretched his slippered feet towards the flames licking at logs in the grate.

“And now?” his wife looked amused. The same speech. She knew it by heart, but she also knew it had to be said. “What now?” she asked.

“Now every joint aches. Responsibility weighs down on my shoulders. No spontaneous thoughts or actions and every physical movement measured. They feel it too,” he gestured out of the window. “They’re not getting any younger either.”

His wife put down her knitting and crossed to him. She put her arms over his shoulders and rested her cheek against his. “You’d better go and see them. They’re restless too.”

“What do you mean too?” he huffed, “I’m not restless. No,” he added thoughtfully, “I’m tired. And it affects everyone. The whole lot – manufacturing, distribution, the department managers. Everyone feels tired. Perhaps we need to update, modernize or something. Heaven knows I can’t go on year in year out. Something has to happen.”

He struggled to his feet and started for the door.

“Put on your boots if you’re going out,” she reminded him.

“What makes you think I’m going out?” he grumbled.

“You always do,” she sighed.

**********

The smoke winding upwards signalled the presence of a sprawling village of assorted buildings, and the coach pulled up on the outskirts as the lanes were too narrow for it to negotiate further into its interior. Several passengers alighted and chatter and laughter and cheery calls accompanied them as they dispersed, leaving a single figure standing in the brisk, whisk of leaves that swirled autumnal greetings. The figure fumbled inside a great coat, pushing aside a scarf and waistcoat with a mittened hand, and drew out a scrap of paper. Glasses were adjusted and a few curling locks of grey hair escaped from under the dark woolly hat. Having reassured itself of the required address, the figure turned into the village and strode with some determination towards the large low building at its centre.

************

Nick wandered absent-mindedly into the stable. The soft grunts and moans of resting animals, and the warmth and smell of their bodies and nets of hay always imbued him with a sense of calm and well-being. His hand stroked lightly over gleaming rumps and muscular shoulders and he paused now and then to fondle an ear, or allow a soft muzzle to rest in his hand. He breathed in deeply. This worked every time. Any worries, any doubts, a visit here drew a blanket of peace around his shoulders and worries slipped away. He turned for the door, ready for cocoa, but was surprised to hear Beth calling him across the yard. He pulled his coat closer and noticed his breath, blue and sparkling in the air. The first frost. A slight feeling of urgency stirred.

As Nick stepped into the hall, he noticed a case on the floor and an alien coat and scarf on the stand. He hesitated. This seemed a little early, but perhaps he had got it all wrong. This could be something different, not what he thought at all. He pushed past two large dozing dogs to get to his chair by the fire, only to find it occupied.

The younger man jumped up, smiling apologetically, holding out his hand. “Sorry, just warming up. First frost I think.” And with that he moved to another seat. Beth appeared. Nick recognized her best bustling mode. She looked flushed, almost excited he though reproachfully. Was she that keen?

“No, not at all,” he replied somewhat belatedly. “Yes, it’s crisp tonight. Just been to the stables. Like to check they’re comfortable.”

“Oh really,” the visitor looked eager. “I’d love to see them.”

The thought of dragging out on this cold evening made Nick feel even wearier. “Of course, perhaps in the morning.”

Beth clattered around with a tray of crumpets, butter, tea cups, milk jug and plates. “Nick,” she said.

“Yes,” they answered. Beth gasped, almost letting slip the tray and the visitor sprang up to rescue it from her weakening grip.

**************

The fire had burned low, but no-one moved to replenish it. The two men, sat either side of the hearth, holding glasses of port, and Beth sat in the middle on a sofa bulging with assorted furry bodies, who gently complained if she moved. Beth’s eyes were bright with tears and anticipation. If asked she couldn’t have separated her emotions and she was reluctant, no … frightened to try and join the conversation. They were, she thought, like mirror images looking at each other in the fire glow. The one, cracked and threadbare, fatter, more wrinkled and tired, the other jaunty, bouncy, energetic, younger, but not young. She sighed, remembering what it was like to be young.

She had met him at a village dance. She knew of him, of course, but he had been away, training, and so she was surprised to see him with a group of friends, telling jokes and laughing. A relaxed rosy face, already grey, and yet youthful and lively. He asked her to dance. He was a very good dancer. They had danced the evening away and he had offered to walk her home through the snow. As they left, his friends had called out their goodnights and one called, “see you next year when you’ve brushed up on night borrowing.” She had looked at him quizzically and he had said reassuringly,
“nothing sinister, I promise.”

They had fallen in love that winter and never been apart since, except when he borrowed nights to get his job done.

And now his job really was done. The two men stood up. “It’s no good,” he said to her, his eyes twinkling. “I’ve got to take young Nick to see them. He won’t sleep otherwise.” The two men chuckled and, pulling on boots and coats, they headed for the door.

“What now?” she wondered. “Retirement?” They had talked of it, of course, and they had plans. Not least to visit their children and grandchildren. And they had thought of moving. Somewhere near the sea. They both loved the sea.

****************

Nick pushed open the stable door and stood back for the younger man to enter. He heard him gasp and smiled to himself. He had reacted in much the same way when he first saw them.

“They are very restful,” he suggested, and young Nick nodded. He reached tentatively out and touched a large wet nose and soft muzzle. The reindeer shifted and surveyed him with large, thoughtful brown eyes. “Once they know you, they will keep you safe, and,” Nick added as a cheerful afterthought, “on time.” They moved between the loose boxes and Nick introduced the visitor gravely to each of the reindeer in turn.

Young Nick looked at the older man. How old was he? 150, 170 perhaps? The years dropped away as he fondled and whispered to the animals.

“They will be your best friends and your most valuable tools in achieving your task,” Old Nick explained. “Never underestimate them … and,” his voice faltered, “and you must always love them. Promise me,” he turned urgently and gripped the younger man’s arm, “promise me, you will always love them.”

“I swear on Christmas and all it stands for,” Young Nick said solemnly.

“Splendid, splendid,” Old Nick patted his hand, his good humour restored. “Now, come and meet the rest of the team. Elves never sleep you know …”

WHICH SERVICE DO YOU REQUIRE?

It’s funny how you get used to sirens. We barely bat an eye-lid, and yet to someone, somewhere that siren could be everything. Miss Bennett was musing on this as she lifted her head to watch two small members of her classroom race to stand on chairs at the window, stretching to see what vehicle would rush by, blue light awhirl. Outside in the playground, mid P.E. lesson, the unfolding drama was of no interest to Michael Davies, the latest student teacher to join Trehove Junior and Infant School. He was far too pre-occupied with his lesson plan and his objective of teaching boys and girls to use both sides of the foot whilst weaving a football through a line of cones. It was, however, an uphill battle when several boys broke away to race the fire engine, which roared into view with an entourage of attendant ambulance and police cars.

“Sam, Toby,” Mr. Davies called after the excited retreating figures, “back here, now if you please.”

The boys reluctantly turned, covering the tarmac back at half the speed of the outward journey, and with many a backward glance. Mr. Davies resumed his lesson. The siren and passing vehicles providing the final nail in the coffin of his confidence, his objective slipped and his interactions with his pupils became terse and authoritative. The children responded with a restless disinterest and soon he found himself trying to regain control over several breakaway football games, one of which involved kicking the ball against the classroom wall, causing Miss Bennett to come and glare at him through the windows.

Sam and Toby, changing from PE kit to school uniform in the boys’ toilets, discussed the likelihood of various disaster scenarios with gruesome enjoyment.

“Praps,” Sam suggested from inside his school jumper, “they found a bomb and it exploded when the bomb squad tried to disarm it.”

“Or,” said Toby with a ghoulish gleam, “they might have found remains in one of the old mines.”

“They wouldn’t need an ambulance for that,” pointed out Sam.

“Mmm, unless someone fell from a rope when trying to explore,” Toby nodded knowingly.

“No, I reckon it was a bank robbery and the robbers shot everyone in their getaway,” Sam grinned, “blood everywhere.”

“And the helicopter they were using fell out of the sky,” added Toby.

“Are you ready in here yet?” Mr. Davies appeared in the door. He looked anxious. “Hurry up boys, Mrs. Hanley has asked for an assembly. You’ve got five minutes.”

______________________________________

I really don’t like those new sirens. The old nee-nah ones were almost comforting. Familiar I suppose and now – nothing is familiar. The world is all foreign to me now, and full of strangers. I did think, at first, that Jean next door had her TV up too loud again. Why she won’t wear hearing aids is beyond me. Anyway I realized they were real when I saw the lights flashing off the ceiling and I grabbed hold of Julia’s arm. She’d just brought in the tea and was offering biscuits around. I grabbed her and asked what was going on. She smiled reassuringly and said it was nothing for me to worry about, but you see I knew, or at least I had a feeling. About half an hour later another siren went by. We had moved to the lounge and that nice young chap, can’t remember his name, anyway he was playing the piano and we were having a bit of singsong. We all paused and listened. At our age they fill you with dread, memories of the war rush back, and the sight of an ambulance, well, we get our fair share of those here. It wasn’t until the supervisor called us into the dining hall that we found out, and even then some of us didn’t fully understand.

___________________________________

As rare as days off were, Philip Grant really didn’t know what to do with himself. He put it down to the fact that he had so many things on his ‘to do’ list at home that he didn’t know which one to tackle first. This inevitably meant he did bits of things rather than crossing a job off entirely. He sighed. As a result the list just got longer rather than shorter, and his wife’s air of understanding and patience was wearing rather thin.

He picked up his coffee and moved to the French windows to look out on the garden. Now, there was a case in point, he really should start pruning the shrubs. His decision made he pulled on his old gardening jacket and searched in the shed for a pruning saw and secateurs.

The siren caught him in the middle of an overgrown weigelia. He paused, trying to gauge how many services were involved in whatever incident they were chasing. He had just numbered three sirens when his pager vibrated in his pocket. Thank goodness … a reprieve. He hastily replaced the pager and, pulling of his gardening garb, headed back to the house.

“Janie,” he called, “I’ve been called in. Sorry love,” the latter added as his wife appeared at the top of the stairs.

She smiled to herself and then called down, “Oh what a shame. Well never mind. I may well get a call too if it’s an RTA. I’ll probably see you there.”

Philip hoped his wife, a surgeon at the same hospital, would not be called in. It always caused chaos when emergencies arose. He kissed her cheek, grabbed his keys and headed for his car.

__________________________

“Children,” Miss Hanley held up her hand. “Trehove,” she raised her voice, and the children shuffled and settled. “We have a visitor who would like to talk to you about something happening on the edge of the moor near Rainton Rocks. I am sure you all heard the sirens a little while ago,” the children fidgeted, turning to grin at each other, or to chatter about what might be happening, “and,” said loudly to regain their attention, “our Community Policeman, P.C. Griggs, would like to explain what is happening.”

Miss Hanley stepped to one side as P.C. Griggs came forwards. The children loved P.C. Griggs. He wore a cool flat waistcoat with all sorts of things hanging off it and he carried a stick that he could flick out to make it long. He had a walky talky and the children all called him Rob. Right now though he looked a bit worried.

“I want to start by saying that there is nothing for you to be worried about or frightened by. Those sirens you heard were an ambulance, a police car and a fire engine.”

“Oh cool,” mouthed Toby to Sam.

“They were looking for someone lost on the moor and found that an accident had occurred. That’s why we needed all three services. The missing person is safe. However, the accident means that we need to make sure everyone else in the area is in a safe place too, so we are going to move all of you to Fantor Community College. Three coaches will be here shortly and we need you to gather up your belongings as you will be there for the rest of today. Your parents are being notified to collect you from there.”

The children started chatting excitedly and barely heard the instructions given by Miss Hanley. Their teachers ushered them back to classrooms and everyone started grabbing coats, lunchbags and rucksacks. The noise escalated and a feeling of adventure permeated the building.

As the coaches pulled up, the rabble was tamed into register-checked columns, ready to board.

__________________________________

I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised. Nancy had been rambling for a while. Some of us slip into a forgetful and confused state without noticing; some of us live in fear of it happening and get anxious about any lapse of memory or concentration. For Nancy it had been the former. She was oblivious, bless her, to the fact that she mostly lived in a fantasy world of her own. But to hear she had been missing since the night before was very upsetting. We hadn’t noticed you see. Have we all become so bound up in ourselves that we didn’t take any notice of each other? Anyway, they had been searching for Nancy since dusk, and were very worried about her being out in the cold. She only had her cardigan on you see. No coat. And slippers. The sirens had actually been after she was found. But apparently there had been an accident. We weren’t told what, but we were going to have to go to Fantor, the next town. Everyone started asking questions. We can be quite selfish I noticed. A bit of an eye opener. No-one seemed worried about poor Nancy, only about whether their medicine would be taken or where their best walking stick was, or how their relatives would know where to visit them, or if the people at Fantor would know what food they liked. It reminded me of being evacuated when I was a girl. I felt sad and lonely, and irritated with everyone worrying about little things that really didn’t matter.

___________________________________

Dr. Grant looked cautiously over the edge of the large hole in the ground. He could see the paramedics down in the gloom guiding the stretcher up on the pulleys. The elderly lady looked white and small. She had broken her pelvis, her left leg and left arm as she fell. Not good for anyone, but even more worrying for someone in her eighties. But more worrying was what she had fallen on. It protruded, jagged and rusty from the boggy pit at the bottom of the hole and he could see lights being strung above the ominous shape to allow the fire service to assess its level of hazard.

Philip Grant swallowed, his mouth suddenly very dry. He wasn’t here for the elderly lady, who was being supported expertly into the ambulance. He was here for the emergency services themselves, ready to respond should any be injured or, heaven forbid, should the worst happen.

Nancy, wandering along lanes and onto the moors, had fallen twenty feet into a hole partially filled with mud, silt and water, grown over with mosses and saxifrage – a relatively soft landing, but perilously boggy and cold. The moorland rescue team, delighted to get a response when they called down to Nancy, had recoiled in horror when they realized that she was confined in the pit with what was unmistakably a bomb, of sorts, and had immediately called in all the other emergency services.

The bomb disposal squad had their man prepped and ready to go. The fire brigade had hacked back vegetation, hosed the area with fire suppressant foam and fixed anchor points for bringing up the stretcher and for lowering technicians.

The ambulance was clear, the police secured the area. The fire engine and personnel withdrew and Dr. Grant sat waiting and listening. Time passed. The silence grew heavy – it began to rain. It was then that they heard the explosion …

FAIRGROUND 1

The stars rotated overhead and the sounds of people chattering and laughing hung in the crisp air, almost musical, but faint. The lights flickered and faded and the silent mechanisms urged the rides faster and faster until the honeyed, dawn light broke behind the empty warehouses casting long shadows over the sparkling grass, black and crunchy underfoot. Slowly the sun rose into a blue sky and exposed the rusting corpses, lopsided on their corroded stands, silent save for the occasional echoing, metallic creak.
It always brought tears to sting Lucia’s lids. Her small, round face, with enormous brown eyes, was framed by long, dark hair, in two thick plaits. She often looked sad – no – wistful, dreamy, but when she smiled, the illusion was broken by blackened teeth, and her hands were twisted like they were wracked with pain. She shifted position, staying in the shadows until eventually she was forced to go home.
The warehouses were crowded these days. Lucia had complained to the Curator about it time and time again, but he had simply shrugged his shoulders and said he could do nothing about it. Her corner with its damp, lumpy mattress and filthy rag coverings was being squashed so badly, she could only sleep curled up. There was a break in the wooden slats high up, which allowed a spot of light to hover on the dirt floor, which everyone avoided and Lucia knew she was in danger of losing her nest.
The others settled quickly, but Lucia sat, hunched in the corner gazing out over the humped bodies. It looked like the deserted battlefields of the Great War – dead bodies strewn far and wide. She remembered them and shuddered. This wouldn’t do. “Sleep,” she thought, and turning, turning, she curled up like a cat.

2

There was a quota. It was unspoken, somehow unseemly to discuss, but the quota was there – heavy and dark. Weighted by age, coloured by gender. Very old fashioned, caught in its own frozen era, immovable, solid, inevitable. The quota loomed, haunting every night, causing sleepless days. Six in the evening, day in, day out, the quota was reviewed. Young flesh, young blood, that’s what nourished them all, kept them here in the warehouses. Old flesh, old blood caught in the web became a burden, adding to their numbers. Lately numbers had swelled, the quota had increased. The alternative lurked in the shadows, waiting to welcome them, to remove the burden of identity, history, memory.
There had been times when the quota had not been met. The collective memory threatening to explode Lucia’s mind informed her of the horror. No-one ever saw exactly what happened but they heard the wails and part of the memory disappeared, forgotten for ever.
As darkness fell, the lights sparkled invitingly, the music played, mechanisms roused into silent activity. The horde from the warehouses laughed and chattered, the quota driving them to enjoy the pressure and torture of their gaiety. Lucia watched the moon rising. Snow floated aimlessly, then settled unblemished on the ground.

3

Norris looked with patient affection at his friends. They were a good crowd to hang with, but, if he was honest with himself, he knew he was a bit too old for some of their antics. He was mid-twenties, an engineering graduate, the only one of his gang to have what his friends derisively called ‘a proper job’. None the less, he had grown up with most of them, and he enjoyed their company – well, mostly. Right now they were planning an outing to a gastro-pub, with live music, in a little village twenty miles away and, as usual, he was the nominated driver. He didn’t mind really. He had work the next day, so he didn’t want a heavy night of it.
They piled into the car and Aiden programmed the SatNav while everyone else made the obligatory jokes about Norris’s appalling sense of direction. Owen squashed into the back seat, delightedly sandwiched between Bethany and Ruth, and, much to Norris’s consternation, Doug sat in the space behind the seat, head ducked to avoid the slope of the hatchback door.
“Right,” Owen crowed, patting the knees of both girls, “let’s get this show on the road.”
Norris edged the car along country lanes whilst his passengers clowned around. It seemed to him the SatNav was leading him further and further from civilization, and to compound his confusion, snow darted around his headlights in a mesmerizing way, whilst settling heavily on the windscreen wipers forming a small mountain range, which threatened to impair his view of the road. He had tried to switch the wipers on once or twice, but for some reason they would not co-operate and he had been forced to clear the snow manually several times. Now he stopped once more and climbed wearily out, squeedgee in hand.
Despite the ever-deepening snow, the sky was hard and clear, a dizzying array of stars sparkling and shifting to echo the falling flakes. Norris gazed up, feeling tension slip away and a comforting peace envelope him.
Inside the car, his friends became impatient, and, one by one they emerged to urge him into action, but Norris held up one hand and said, “listen”. They all paused. There was no mistaking it, a light tinkling music, faint but clear, and as they turned trying to identify its source. Ruth suddenly exclaimed,
“oh, look at the lights. They’re so pretty. What is it?”
Bethany stood on tiptoe. “A fairground I think. Look, if we walk up that lane we should come to it.” She pointed at a cart track running off across the field.
The sounds grew jollier and louder as the group approached. Owen and Doug were in high spirits and dived into the crowds of people in search of hotdogs or burgers. The girls persuaded Aiden to take them on the ferris wheel, and Norris was left to wander the sideshows and stalls. As he wandered contentedly around, thinking he might try and find a coffee, he became aware of a young girl watching him. Her large brown eyes seemed to take up most of her small round face, which was in danger of being engulfed by two long, thick plaits. He smiled.
“Do you know where I can get coffee?” he asked. She smiled shyly and nodded.
“The best coffee is over at the Roundabout Shack,” she answered, gesturing across the park. “I’ll show you,” she offered.
Norris was delighted with his new companion and cheerfully chattered away to her as he drank his coffee. She had refused his offers of food or drink, but seemed happy to show him around and explain all the rides and stalls. She worked on the fair and knew a lot about its history, and despite it being her night off, she was an enthusiastic guide. Now and then they would pass one or two of his friends, all laughing and enjoying the atmosphere of the fair. They winked and gestured towards the girl (Lucia as Norris had now discovered) and he waved them away with a tolerant smile.
The night wore on. Norris was not really conscious of the time as he and Lucia found they had a lot to talk about. She was something of a junior engineer, here at the fair, and her understanding of the mechanisms that drove the various attractions was of great interest to him. But as the hours passed they grew quiet and when Lucia shivered, Norris put his jacket and arm around her shoulders. Eventually Lucia had turned and looked up into his face.
“You must go now,” she said firmly. “It’s late and you said you have work tomorrow.”
“I do,” he looked reluctant, “but I can’t leave yet. My friends aren’t ready, and you …” He put his hand up to her face and drew her towards him.
“I’ll arrange a taxi,” she pulled away, smiling and gently shaking her head. “Now you must go.” Norris took his jacket, wishing he had kissed her.
“Here,” he fumbled for a pen and an old receipt, “take my mobile number. I’ll try and come and see you again soon.” He handed her the piece of paper. “Tell my friends we’ll catch up next week.”
“Goodnight Norris,” Lucia lowered her eyes, “I will call you soon.” She walked back towards the lights and Norris headed for his car. She looked back, her shoulders beginning to hunch, her hands barely able to hold his note. She wistfully smiled revealing her blackened teeth. Saddened by the thought Norris would never see his friends again, she stayed in the shadows watching the dawn.

4

The walls shook. At first Lucia thought that they had failed the quota again. She waited anxiously for her memories to be disturbed, to hear wailing, but instead all she felt and heard was an intense stillness as the horde seemed to hold its breath, waiting, unsure what to do.
As the roof gave way and the sunlight poured in, Lucia felt the urge to rush forward, to end it all quickly, but she found herself frozen, watching as the numbers decreased in front of her. She felt weary, bone weary, and sad, her sorrow particularly focussed on the souls harvested only that night – such a waste.
Outside the engineers poured over their designs, discussing and pointing, redirecting the wrecker ball, and in their midst Norris, in his hard hat, could not shake off the idea that he had been to this site before. As the warehouses fell they revealed the skeletal form of the fairground and, in that instant, Norris became aware of a sigh, airborne by a cloud of dust, like collective souls breathing their last. Carried like an unseen messenger was delivering it personally to him, a piece of paper landed at his feet. He picked it up and shoved it under the clip on his board. “A quick coffee,” he thought, “it’s going to be a long day.” But even as he turned he caught sight of the writing, and releasing the paper, he read his own mobile number. Underneath in shaky letters was scrawled, “I’m sorry – Lucia.”

——————————————

Sentimental old tosh – or is it …?

BOB
He has shared every important moment in my life
Good and bad
He’s rubbish at saying the right thing at the right time
Compliments never occur to him
He has watched me change from girl to woman
Lover to mother
Dependent to breadwinner
Efficient to challenged
And his confidence is unwavering.

He does not always let me in to his private world
Mental or emotional
He can be restful and volatile in the blink of an eye
Yet he is an immovable secure object
Anchoring me in stormy seas
Offering opinions and advice
Love and understanding
Patience and frustration
Support and encouragement

He filters out information that is not important to him
Drives me mad
Turns his back on computer technology
Give me pens and drawing board he announces
He has endless skills in making and design
In gardens and houses
In wood and stone
In plants and colour
In landscapes and buildings

He is my everything
I am his
Love has no reason or logic
I am not beautiful as he is handsome
I cannot keep up with his energy and drive
And yet now I see age begin to pause him in his activity
And I know without him I have no existence
And that although we have shared forty five years
I am only just beginning to know about Bob

ON VISITING AN AILING PARENT – an unspoken conversation

I hold the wrinkled hand,
Skin paper thin,
Rasping breath,
Eyes roving restlessly.
I need to be reassuring, confident,
Fear wrestles my heart.

Why does it scare me so much?
The silence waiting patiently without a tremor.
Is it leaving people I love?
Heavy darkness shifting uncomfortably.
Or is it life itself I’m reluctant to leave?
Clasping the hand I seek reassurance.

Now emotionally preoccupying,
Bearing down like a ragged, dark bird of prey
Its talons ripping at my heart, this fear.
The breathing settles for steady and calm,
The eyes close, lids relaxed,
Did I give myself away?

I hope not.

PILGRIMAGE

She skipped across the top of the stairs in the darkness feeling the usual tremor of fear that always afflicted her when woken from a dream to visit the loo. For some reason this had got worse as she got older and she sighed with relief when she reached the safety of her bedroom. Snuggled into bed once more she settled her mind to vacant inactivity, which swirled annoyingly and busily, driving sleep away into the recesses of the night. Restless she crossed to the door – this old thing again.

Silently she descended stepping past the sleeping dogs out of the front door. The night folded its wings around her protectively and she crept out into the lane noticing once more how the cold made her bones hurt and her joints ache. She looked up and marvelled at the sequined fabric pulled across the sky and followed the beckoning silver light turning the road from remote and desolate to inviting, even alluring.

She tried to pull clothing around her shoulders and shivered when she found that covering one area exposed another. She made a mental note that repairs were in order and regretted once again her lack of skill with a needle.

She found as she approached the lights of the town that the comfort of sky and moon were lost in the sickly sulphur yellow of street lighting and she clung to the shadows for comfort. Exposed, she felt herself shrinking, cowering, creeping until she started to wonder what she was afraid of. Ghosts? Perhaps, they were the most unpredictable. Zombies were no bother. They were all stomping, groaning and reaching. You always knew where you were with a zombie. Ghosts though, they were different. There were so many categories and unless you held a catalogue in your head of their various attributes, you could never be quite sure what behaviour they would display. And let’s face it, it’s the unknown that is really scary – the unexpected.

She turned, near her destination now and she risked the light to speed her journey. She always found it distressing if she met anyone. The look of horror was frankly offensive, but the screaming … the screaming put her teeth on edge and she really didn’t want to frighten anyone. Then there were the dogs and cats. Barking was annoying and the chasing was downright inconvenient, but the cats, wailing, rubbing, following, they were … well, spooky.

She tried to concentrate. Last year she missed it because her irritating brain had gone on a little trip and she had forgotten to take a turning, but this time, oh this time, she was on the ball. She scurried forwards, on all fours now (it was quicker, especially since she lost her foot last year) and sniffed the air. It was worse if she met someone now, this wasn’t her best look. Bits of clothing floated in the air behind her and some teeth jolted loose (damn, harder to chew) but she hastened on swinging her head left to right tasting the air.

She turned the final bend and there it was. Gleaming, or was it glowing, no gleaming. Stripped bone in the spotlight of the moon. It pulsed and writhed, eager to be off, and a boarding party was still there, helping passengers up the stairs into its open jaws. She scrambled forwards trying to stand upright and look less eager, but without slowing her pace. Almost there. She held up her hand and heads turned and empty eyes stared. To her horror they started to laugh. She missed a pace, her joints ached so badly, her limbs were heavy, wading through treacle. Tears ran down her face – not another year, please no, not another year. The bones rippled as it turned away moving without moving, no sound, no … gone.

She slid down against the wall oblivious to muffled screams from a group of inebriated youths. She sobbed. Every year she tried, every year she failed. Now all she had was the long crawl home, the torment, the pain, the yearning.

THE DIARY OF A HAS BEEN

(My main objective with this (not so short) short story is to try and tighten up my writing process.  Moving from A to B in a realistic way whilst maintaining a sense of place and developing character.  Pace is very important and also the ability to control a stream of consciousness, to direct it and not end up in a cul-de-sac.  Well, anyway enjoy.  All constructive criticism gratefully received.)

The dog sighed as he shifted his position in front of the black stove, eyebrows lifting and falling in some imaginary chase across the rocky moorland of his daily walks.  One leg twitched in a feeble effort to give chase and a slight yelp escaped like a bubble exploding from under his soft relaxed lips.  A woman with hair that without the wonders of modern science would have been grey, lovingly scrunched some of the curly black coat and the limbs relaxed back into slumber.

Ria didn’t know how to express what she felt for this dog, or his sister stretched with her back against the bottom of the sofa and her head planted with firm ownership on a slipper.  They weren’t child substitutes as she had two strapping sons, no longer at home but very much part of her life, but they did help populate a home that no longer bustled with young people and all their paraphernalia.

Ria allowed her own eyes to close a little and she thought back two … no two and a half … years ago to that awful day when she knew she wasn’t up to her job any more.  She had heard of breakdowns.  She had no idea what they entailed and it wasn’t until over a year later that she realized that that was what she had experienced.  The feeling of worthlessness, the emptiness of every day, the river deep, mountain high nature of her emotions, the insurmountable fatigue, and then the depression.

Depression (oh shame you feel a bit down do you?) the yawning guilt of it.  After all she had a husband she adored, two lovely sons, a good quality of life in a beautiful location, what had she to be depressed about?  But depression, she quickly came to learn, has no reference point for whether it is justified, it just feeds with vampire thirst, draining its host of every ounce of hope and self worth, and worse, motivation.

It probably was her idea thought Ria, although she couldn’t quite remember through the fog that protected her from that time, but as soon as she knew she wasn’t going to be returning to work, the need for dogs in her life once more became all consuming.  It was five years since their last dog had died and work had dictated a period of abstinence, but the empty house screamed for movement and sound and Ria screamed to be needed.

She moved her foot before it slipped into complete numbness and the dog rolled onto her back and her soft lips obeyed gravity and slipped up her face to expose a white jagged grin.

Oh how she loved them.  They had been challenging.  Two very small puppies at the same time always do, but these two were very bright and they had recognized immediately that this human wanted something special of them.  They didn’t demand her attention or her love, they just absorbed it, luxuriated in it, and reciprocated it without question.

She sighed, this was no good, time for a walk.  She stood up allowing her knees to straighten somewhat gingerly and then headed for the stairs.  The dogs watched intently.  In the bedroom she pulled on her long socks and walking boots, and as she closed the door on the landing she heard the dogs fidgeting and pacing at the bottom of the stairs.  As she came down they became more frenzied, teddies in their mouths, a bright light of excitement in their deep brown eyes.

She laughed and grabbed their leads and collars from the coat hooks in the hall.  They spun in tight circles and bounced up and down.  She raised her hands and they sat, their busy tails shuffling their bottoms from side to side.  Slipping their collars over their heads and watching them carry their leads in an effort to speed her to the door, she smiled contentedly.   It was a different life from what she had had before.  It was, perhaps, less important, less productive, but it was good, very good … on the good days …

Technophobe

‘What happens if I press that?’ he asked and, before she could get to him, he pressed it. The lights went out, a siren sounded and the doors gave a throaty groan as the locks slid into place.
‘That,’ she sighed. Martin smiled apologetically.
‘Hmm, that wasn’t quite what I expected,’ he explained.
‘No,’ agreed Jo through tight lips, ‘I don’t suppose it was.’ There was a tense silence whilst she flipped switches, pressed buttons and clicked her mouse. Eighteen minutes later, the locks slid back, the lights flickered back on and the siren wound down.

Jo turned to Martin, hands on hips. ‘I only agreed to do this because you promised that you wouldn’t rush in before I had explained things.’ Martin looked suitably sheepish.

‘I won’t, I promise. It’s useless anyway, I just can’t get the hang of all this. I don’t know why anyone would want to … after all it always goes wrong. And you don’t really need all this.’

‘Spoken like a true technophobe,’ Jo replied. ‘You only say that because you find it difficult. You have to stick at things, and …,’ she reached over and stopped him pressing yet another button, ‘you have to listen to what is being said before you do anything.’

…………………………………………

Jo stopped at the front door.  She had forgotten an important email so rushed back into the house and started tapping away furiously.  Martin sighed, this was all very boring. He meant it, he didn’t need to know any of this. After all Jo could do it all for him. He had a new mobile phone that he could just about use to make a call and take a photograph. He had a digital camera, but didn’t like using the screen and lamented the lack of a viewfinder like a ‘proper’ camera. He lived in a house with a pc and a laptop and didn’t know how to switch on either, and he was, quite frankly, a bit annoying with his stubborn resistance to anything that smacked of computers.

Jo put up with it – at least there was no competition to use the computer. But there were times when it was frustrating and irritating that he blamed technology for all the ills in the world. What was worse, even the technology he could use, like his phone, was often ignored or wilfully forgotten, just to prove how useless it was.

It was a crisp Autumn day, his sixty-first birthday, and the blue sky sparkled in an early frost. The walk had been arranged for ages. It was going to be the whole family, but as usual all sorts of previous engagements and last minute crises meant that it was just Martin, Jo and the dogs that set out.  Shutting her laptop, Jo headed back to the front door and adjusted her backpack. She had intended to travel light, but the picnic had grown with a variety of small luxuries, and at the last minute she had packed a bottle of wine and two plastic glasses. By the time she pulled up the tie it was quite heavy and she grimaced as she dragged it onto her back. She looked at the car. Think – compass, stick, water for dogs, water for us, biscuits for dogs, picnic, kitchen roll, small first aid kit, camera, mobile phone, leads, poop bags, warm hat, gloves (in case the promised sun didn’t appear) … that was it, everything. She looked across at Martin. He was slouched against the bole of a tree with his bag on one shoulder and the dogs on their leads at his feet.. She wondered what was in it … not much judging by the ease with which he swung it around. Never mind. Birthday, lovely day, great scenery – off we go.

They had decided to visit their favourite beach, which had the advantage of seclusion and privacy, but the disadvantage of a very steep, narrow path down the cliff face.  They wouldn’t be entirely alone, they knew, because there were always a couple of diehard locals there fishing or walking their dogs, but the call of blue skies, rolling waves, the odd seal head popping up in the froth and foam of the breakers and the piercing cries of hunting falcons, made it the perfect place to have their picnic and a walk.

As they pulled the car into the makeshift layby, they noticed that there were only two other vehicles there.  They were a little surprised.  It was a glorious day, even though a little chilly, and they expected to encounter more people than this.  Jo pulled out her rucksack and was grateful when Martin reached over and took it from her.

‘You need to be careful of your back,’ he reminded her, ‘and you need both hands free on the rocks.’  Jo smiled her thanks and grabbed his lighter bag, which she was able to swing onto her shoulders with ease.  ‘I’ll get the dogs out,’ he added picking up their leads from the back seat.

Half way down the cliff path, with the dogs running free, Jo and Martin paused and shaded their eyes as they looked down on the golden expanse of sand framed by black rocks below them.

‘It still takes my breath away,’ she commented, ‘even after all these years.’  Martin nodded his agreement.

‘Forty years on and I still feel like an ant at the bottom of a mountain when I look up at those cliffs.’

The corner of the beach they chose to set up their camp was sheltered, tucked in amongst the rocks.  Martin immediately took out the small camp stove and started boiling water for a drink.  Jo sorted out the picnic and gave the dogs a drink.  Both busy, they didn’t notice the figure walking along the beach.  Well, they wouldn’t have.  It sort of crept from one pile of rocks to another, often pausing and peering through crevices or over boulders.  It was only when it got to within thirty yards or so of their camp that the dogs suddenly became aware of it.  They jumped up, frozen, and stared.

‘Strange,’ thought Jo, ‘that that person should have got so close and the dogs still haven’t rushed to greet him or her, and they haven’t barked – what’s that about?’  She nudged Martin who was busily stooped with the little kettle over their cups.  ‘We’ve got company,’ she hissed.  He straightened up and turned to look at their visitor.  The young woman, for that’s who it was, stepped out from behind a rock.  She looked anxious and kept peering behind her. She eyed the dogs suspiciously and Jo put her hands on their backs to keep them from running and jumping up.  The woman pushed her dark hair out of her eyes and asked,

‘Hi, have you seen a man with combat trousers and a leather jacket come this way?’

‘No,’ answered Jo and she smiled encouragingly.  The woman appeared to relax a little, but stiffened again when a buzzing emanated from her bag.  It was a large canvas shoulder bag and she rummaged for a while before finding her phone.  ‘You’re lucky to get a signal here,’ commented Jo.  Martin was delighted.

‘Yeah,’ he said.  ‘They’re not all they’re cracked up to be are they? … y’know mobile phones?’

An expression difficult to read passed over her face as the woman read the message on the screen.  Jo was looking at the phone curiously – it was different to any she had seen before.  There appeared to be numerous flashing lights and two screens.

‘Problems?’ she queried.  The woman’s eyes flashed and she hastily stuffed the phone back in her bag.

‘No, I’m fine,’ she muttered, and without a second glance she set off across the rocks towards a distant archway in the cliff.  Martin watched her go and then let out a low whistle.

‘Look,’ he said, ‘am I dreaming?’  In the distance there appeared to be a cigar shaped object hovering above the sea.  It darted, rather like a dragonfly hunting over the suface of a pond, and finally landed on the shingle just out of reach of the incoming tide.  The dogs suddenly galvanized into action and shot off, clambering over the rocks, their tails swirling in circles and their barks echoing off the cliff face.

Jo and Martin didn’t even look at each other, they both yelled. scrambling after them.  Ten minutes later, breathless and somewhat dishevelled and bruised, they reached the enigmatic silver bullet resting on the beach.  The dogs were both laying, staring at the object, growling throatily.  Grabbing the dogs by their collars, they tried to move them away, but they wriggled and growled, squashing fingers in the twisted chains.

‘I can’t hold on,’ moaned Jo and before Martin could answer, they had both let go.

The silver object hummed.  Not a tuneful hum, a mechanical hum, satisfying to the ear in its own way, and the young woman suddenly appeared at the top of steps that had silently and rather mysteriously materialized under a sliding doorway of obviously superior engineering.  She looked up and down the shoreline anxiously and beckoned to the couple below.  The dogs rushed up the steps and into the bullet shaped vehicle.  Jo and Martin abruptly shaken into action, cried out and stumbled after them.  Once inside, the door closed behind them and lights glowed with increasing intensity from parallel lines in the floor.  They instinctively turned to get out, but there was nowhere to go, so they stood irresolute, each trying to think what to say to keep the other calm.  Eventually Martin took Jo’s hand.

‘Well,’ he tried to sound jolly, ‘this is a bit of an adventure – is it my birthday surprise?’  He chuckled nervously. ‘You needn’t have gone to all this bother, a few beers would have done.’

Jo squeezed his hand.  ‘Next time that is exactly what you will get,’ she assured him.  ‘What on earth do we do next?’

‘Not sure,’ mused Martin.  He felt sure that she was expecting him to take control, but he was sweating and bit breathless.  ‘Better follow the yellow brick road,’ he suggested.  She nodded and holding hands like two small children they walked on down the corridor.

The lights flickered and, as they did so, changed colour slightly, working their way slowly through the spectrum.  The corridor appeared smooth and endless as it coiled its way through the vehicle causing Jo and Martin to walk slower and slower.  Ten minutes later, almost at a standstill now, the pair saw an opening ahead of them which glowed pale blue.  Instinctively they picked up the pace and when they got to the door found that the dark-haired, young woman was waiting for them.

‘Thank you for coming in,’ she said.  ‘I should explain.  This vehicle normally travels at high altitude carrying out scientific investigations.  Unfortunately it was infiltrated by the enemy and I was forced to land here and try to lure him out, away from the laboratory.’

‘Hold on,’ interrupted Martin, ‘are we talking about the guy in the leather jacket that you asked us about?’

‘Correct,’ she replied. ‘He is from a rival organisation that is trying to obtain our scientific data and he somehow smuggled himself on board before the start of our latest mission.’

Jo looked around, ‘our mission?’ she queried.  ‘Are there other people on this craft?’

The woman looked uneasy.  ‘Aah, I see, you think …’  She shifted weight uncomfortably.  ‘Look,’ she said, ‘I haven’t even told you my name, it’s Gyla.’  She smiled reassuringly.

‘And who are the others?’ Jo persisted.  Martin placed a hand on her arm and when she looked at him he shook his head slightly.

Gyla walked across the room to a console.  She pressed a button and the lights went out, a siren sounded and the doors gave a throaty groan as the locks slid into place.  Gyla turned back to Jo and Martin and indicated some chairs.  They reluctantly slid into the seats, although Jo sat right on the front edge looking anxiously around her.  Gyla looked grimly at them, suddenly looking much older.

‘The others,’ she said quietly, ‘are not like me.  They are made up of representatives of many other societies.  A coalition if you like.  They are working with us to try to resolve some of the problems that humans have made for themselves through overusing the earth’s resources.  They are from places that have experienced similar problems.  Some of these places no longer exist.’

Martin held up his hand, ‘hang on, are you trying to tell us that you are working with foreigners?’

‘Not foreigners exactly,’ Gyla passed her tongue over her lips.

‘Oh my God,’ exclaimed Jo, the penny having just dropped, ‘you’re talking about aliens.’  She turned to look at Martin’s alarmed face.  ‘For ‘places’ read ‘planets’.’  She stood up and looked around.  ‘Where are they?’ she asked.

Gyla again looked uncomfortable.  ‘They are dealing with our unwanted visitor.  Don’t ask …,’ she held up her hand and looked away.  ‘If it weren’t a matter of life and death for our entire world I would be horrified like you, but please …’ she looked imploringly at Martin, ‘please understand that this is vital to the survival of our planet.’

Jo sat down again and took Martin’s hand.  ‘What do you want with us?’ she asked.  Gyla finally came and leant against the console.  She looked earnest.

‘We really need help.  I need to have someone on the ground I can trust.  It is obvious from the invasion by our unwanted visitor, that we have got some leaks in our security.  I need to be able to communicate with our governing organisation through a new and unknown person.  I don’t know you, I don’t know how good you are with computers, but I need to train someone to take on this role.’  She looked appealingly at Martin.  ‘Could you consider it?’

Jo burst out laughing and Martin smirked with embarrassment.  ‘It’s not me you should be speaking to,’ he explained, ‘it’s Jo.  She’s the technology wizard in our house.’  Jo waved her hands and shook her head.

‘No, no, no,’ she protested, ‘I’m not that good, and I have the dogs to look after, and my garden …’

Gyla interrupted, ‘six months,’ she said, ‘six months, that’s all it would take.  Please, no-one knows you, where you live, what you do … you are just what I’m looking for, someone random who can’t be traced …  please.  Think about this place, I overheard you say what it meant to you?  Imagine if it were gone, if nowhere like this existed anymore.’  Jo lifted her head and looked into Martin’s eyes – there was no need to say anything.

And so …. ‘What happens if I press that?’ he asked and, before she could get to him, he pressed it. The lights went out, a siren sounded and the doors gave a throaty groan as the locks slid into place.
‘That,’ she sighed.

Martin smiled apologetically … again.

Light at the end of the tunnel

It’s almost here

I can feel it

It starts with the moist smell of growing

What is that like?

I can’t tell you – earthy, green

Then it’s light changing

Warmer somehow

Indistinct, though that could be the mist

And then it’s my energy level

The need to move, to do, to change

To (heavens forbid) clean …

And then it’s the birds

Colourful, noisy, busy

Finally it’s the natural clothing of the countryside

Tiny flower heads poking through the broken bracken

Tall green spikes surging up towards the sky

The reawakening of apparently dead wood

Spring – I can’t wait

Where is it?

Hurry up …

Grandma’s house

The girl shifted her foot from under her bottom. The buckle on her new sandels had been digging into her ankle through her short white socks.  She lightly touched her hair, recently bubble cut.  She felt very grown up.  She was wearing a grey and white checked dress with red piping on the sailor collar and above the frill at her knees.  She always wore ‘best’ clothes when visiting Grandma, and now, sat in front of the little black gas fire, she wished she could sit on a chair instead of the rag rug.

Grandma’s parlour had little furniture for sitting, as it only had to accommodate her and her son Sid – two kitchen chairs, two small armchairs and a stool.  When Barbara visited with her Mum and Dad, it was always a tight squeeze, particularly as the parlour doubled as kitchen/dining room and living area.  It was crammed with a table, sink, food dresser and smaller cupboard, which served to support Uncle Sid’s pride and joy … a television.  Barbara was fascinated.  There was no television at home and whenever there was anything to watch, she perched on a kitchen chair at the table and leaned on her elbows looking at the tiny greenish screen.  She didn’t understand much of what she watched but she loved the strange way the people on it talked.  They either spoke with very short vowel sounds and precise consonants, or they drawled in what her Mum said was an American accent.

Right now, there was nothing on the telly, so Barbara stared at the gas fire and fiddled with the rag rug.  Grandma had made this rug.  It had a black border and mixed red, grey and black tufts of fabric in the middle.  She pulled at it idly until hearing her name brought her back to the room.

‘Barbara why don’t you go in the garden for a while?’  Her Mother was looking at her meaningfully – this meant the grown ups wanted to talk about things that were not suitable for her to hear.  She stood up and smoothed her dress.  ‘Don’t get dirty though,’ her Mother warned.  Barbara sighed, that took the fun out of everything.

She always liked exploring the garden.  It was made up of rectangles divided by concrete paths.  A little lawn, rather lumpy and unkempt was immediately outside the door.  To the right was a garage which Uncle Sid used as a workshop.  Barbara had looked in once but found it very uninteresting.  It was full of bits of machines seemingly pulled apart and abandoned, and endless tools scattered on benches and the floor.  Everything was covered in oil and the whole scene looked drenched in gloom.  Ignoring the workshop, Barbara walked up the concrete path.  On the right there were the remains of a greenhouse, in which, Barbara mused, she had never seen any plants.  On the left the lawn ran into what Grandma called the shrubbery, but there were no shrubs, just an abundance of weeds and a few straggly herbaceous plants.  Next on the left was a concrete path dividing the shrubbery from a patch of scrubland.  This was echoed on the right and Barbara understood that Grandad, when he was alive, had grown vegetables there.  A post and wire fence divided this garden from that of the neighbour at the bottom.

It was an exaggeration to say she explored the garden.  You could see everything from the back door, but she had one spot that she considered hers – almost private.  It was a large shrub behind the greenhouse.  No-one seemed to know what it was, but it was covered in large opaque white pods which made a very pleasing sound when squeezed until they burst.  Pop, pop, pop … Barbara loved the sound, but she limited herself to a few pods each time for fear she would run out.  They never seemed to, which was strange considering she popped them every Sunday.  This, Barbara realized in later life, should have given her a clue that things were not as they seemed.  At 8 years old, however, it never occured to her that it was out of the ordinary.

One day whilst engaged in her popping pleasure she heard a voice coming from within the shrub.  She froze and peered in amongst the branches and saw a small round face under a sandy fringe.

‘Hello, what’s your name?’  Barbara stared unsure what to do next.

‘Did you hear me?  What’s your name?’ persisted the round face.  Barbara stepped back and peered round the shrub.  The boy was crouched in an awkward position with his head pushed through the broken wooden panels of an old fence.  He straightened up and stood on tiptoes so that Barbara could just see his eyes and eyebrows above the top bar.

‘I’m Barbara,’ she said, ‘ who are you?’

‘Jamie,’  he answered.  ‘Do you live there?’

‘No, it’s my Grandma’s,’ Barbara pushed the shrub to one side in an effort to get nearer the fence.

‘Oh,’ the boy sounded disappointed.  ‘We’ve just moved in and I don’t know anyone yet.’  He disappeared and after much grunting and scraping appeared taller above the fence, so that Barbara could see him from his chest up.  ‘I’ve been watching that shrub,’ he commented.

‘You haven’t popped the pods,’ accused Barbara, ‘there aren’t many left.’

Jamie grinned, ‘I wouldn’t be so sure about that.  I popped all the ones on this side and they’ve all come back.’

‘What do you mean?’  Barbara stretched her neck round to try and look on Jamie’s side of the bush.

‘Just what I said.  I popped them and left them hanging split open on the bush and when I came back a couple of days later, they were all puffed up with no holes in them.  I popped them all again and the same thing happened.’  Jamie looked pleased with himself as the girl looked at him incredulously.

‘I don’t believe you,’ she announced and turned to walk away.

‘Try it yourself then,’ he shouted as she disappeared behind the leaves.  She hesitated, then turning back she popped two pods that rested on the remains of the glass at the end of the greenhouse.

‘There,’ she thought, ‘that’ll show him.’  Although what it would show him, she wasn’t at all sure.

Barbara considered the pod mystery during the following week.  How could they come back?  He must have been mistaken.  New ones must have grown … but was that possible?  Hadn’t she read somewhere that plants only produced seeds at certain times of the year?  ‘I suppose he must know that,’ she thought.

On the next visit Barbara rushed to the bush and observed her squashed pods which were now round, complete and full of air.  She stroked them cautiously and nearly jumped out of her skin as a voice said,

‘Told you … that’s what happened to mine.’  Jamie clung to the top of the fence and tried to lean over to look at her.  ‘Did I tell you I’ve just moved here and don’t know anyone yet?’

‘Yes,’ she said absently, ‘how do you think it does it?’

‘Does what?’ he mumbled, stuffing a toffee into his mouth.

‘Repairs them,’ answered Barbara thinking how rude he was not to offer her a toffee.

‘No idea,’ he chewed.  ‘Want to come over and play?’

Barbara hesitated.  An only child, she was not used to playing with boys, particularly rude ones, but she did get a bit bored on her visits so …

‘I’ll ask,’ she said and turning away she popped the two pods once more.

Grandma and Mum had responded very strangely when she asked if she could go and play at the neighbour’s house.  They looked at each other and Grandma shook her head and made tch tch sort of noises and Mum hastily put her arm around the girl’s shoulder and invited her to eat some sponge that she had made for Grandma.  Barbara wasn’t sure what this meant but was soon distracted by the combination of cake and a comedy programme on the television.  She didn’t give the boy another thought.

Several weeks passed and although Barbara visited her shrub and popped pods, she did not see Jamie.  One day she asked her Grandma if she had seen him, but Grandma just shook her head and changed the subject.  Then one Autumn day when frost transformed the scruffy garden into something ghostly and a little scary, Barbara saw the round face peering through the glossy green leaves of the pod bush.

‘Where have you been?’ she asked.

The boy looked thoughtful and then said, ‘I’m Jamie – we’ve just moved here and I don’t know anyone yet.  Do you live there?’

Barbara gave a little gasp.  ‘You have a very short memory,’ she observed.  ‘We have met before – this is my Grandma’s house.  You told me about the repairing pods – don’t you remember?’

The boy looked at her almost blindly – as if he were looking right through her.  ‘Would you like to come round and play?’ he asked.

Barbara looked back down the garden towards the house.  No-one was looking.  She made up her mind.  ‘Okay,’ she said and started back up the path, past Uncle Sid’s workshop, out into the road.  Turning left she came to the junction with the next road.  She turned left again and then stopped and stared.  The houses were in very poor repair.  Many of them were boarded up and some appeared to have bricks missing and crumbling roofs.  Barbara hesitated, not sure whether to go on or not.  After a moment she convinced herself that if Jamie was not there she could turn back quickly and get back to Grandma’s garden before she was missed.

Taking a deep breath she walked along the pavement counting the houses until she came to the one which she calculated should be Jamie’s.  The path was badly broken up with weeds pushing through the old pavers.  The gate hung crookedly on its hinges, half open.  She squeezed through the gap and stepped over the cracks and weeds on her way to the house.  It was not boarded up, but it looked empty.  There were no curtains and, in some windows, no glass.  The door was splintered with peeling paint and the privvy leanto was a ruin.

Feeling more and more nervous the little girl walked on.  ‘Jamie,’ she called, ‘Jamie, it’s Barbara, I’ve come to play …’  The garden was a wilderness pitted with holes.  Rocks were strewn across the surface, partially concealed by tall weeds and straggly grass.  Barbara could see the broken fence and the greenhouse in Grandma’s garden beyond.  She could see the pod bush covered in pearlescent, plump seedpods.  There was, however, no sign of Jamie, or indeed anyone else.  Turning back Barbara heard her name being called.  The voice didn’t sound angry, just anxious, and a little frightened.  She made her way along the path back to the broken gate and there was her Mum.  She didn’t appear to see the little girl and walked past the gate on her way further up the road.  Barbara rushed the last few feet until out on the pavement.

‘Mum,’ she called, ‘Mum, I’m right here …’  Her Mum turned and ran back to her throwing her arms around her in relief.

‘What were you thinking of?’ she asked gripping Barbara’s shoulders, ‘I was worried sick.’  Barbara buried her head in her Mum’s shoulder wondering what she could have done to cause her to react like this.  Her Mum pushed her to arm’s length.  ‘Come on, hot chocolate and biscuits …’, she wrapped her arm around her daughter’s shoulders and started back down the road.

‘But Mum, what about Jamie?’ Barbara asked trying to look back over her shoulder.

‘He’s not there,’ her Mum answered firmly turning her up the road.

Back at Grandma’s nobody spoke about Barbara’s excursion and the radio was turned on unreasonably loudly so that no-one could discuss anything.  Barbara sipped her hot chocolate and picked out her favourite biscuits.  After a while she became distracted by the Clitheroe Kid on the Light Programme and she forgot to ask any more questions.

Years passed.  Barbara lost interest in her little trips up the garden.  She had a new puppy that kept her busy – Grandma liked dogs but not the little puddles – Barbara had her work cut out training the little mite.  The popper bush kept its pods and its leaves remained glossy green.

Grandma passed away on a cold winter’s day.  She had been in a nursing home for a few months and Barbara and her husband had visited her every week.  In the last few days her bedside was crowded with Uncle Sid, Mum, Dad, Barbara and a few of Dad’s other brothers and sisters who did not live locally.  They took it in turn to sit and hold the old lady’s hand, or go back to the house and collect clean nighties, or tidy up a bit for Uncle Sid.  Barbara was on one of these trips, rummaging through drawers in Grandma’s bedroom looking for bed socks, when she found it – a newspaper, tissue thin and severely yellowed.  She gently unfolded the single sheet and read the headline:  BOMB BLAST IN ROLAND STREET – THREE FATALITIES.  The sheet was dated 3rd November 1941.

Barbara collected together the things she needed and headed downstairs.  She walked out into the street and headed for the neighbouring road to look at the name sign.  Roland Street!  She looked back at the article and read:

At 10 p.m. on the 2nd November 1941 a lone German bomber deposited its load on Slough.  Thankfully it missed the gasworks but most of Roland Street was razed to the ground.  It is believed that most people had made it to the shelters, but sadly Mr. and Mrs. Handley and their grandson Jamie were killed before they could reach the Anderson shelter at the bottom of their garden ….

Barbara gasped – Mum and Grandma had known.  She walked back to the garden, past Uncle Sid’s workshop, past the broken greenhouse, to the popper bush.  It stood placidly, lit up by pearlescent pods glowing white against the glossy green.  Barbara reached out to the pods holding one lightly in the palm of her hand – keeping Jamie alive forever …

My comment:  I’m not sure I am happy with the ending.  My attempts were either too drawn out, or too abrupt.  This is the first semi-ghostly/mystery story I have attempted so I am on a learning curve with this genre.

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