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Short Stories

The following complete stories have mostly been written during my time with Biggar Writers, usually based on one of the various writing challenges we set ourselves. At heart I'm a novelist, but I find dipping my toe into other forms interesting, instructive and fun. I've included some explanatory comments next to each piece. 

Coronation 2023

 

When Gabriel returned with a face so glum, his friend and partner wondered if he'd forgotten he was in heaven, and a privileged angel to boot.

            "What did the Old Man say?" Michael asked him.

            Gabriel's eyes rolled. "He only wants us to put on a show for … you know … one of the difficult ones."

            "Which difficult one?"

            "The one latterly known as Diana: Princess of Wales," Gabriel sighed.

            "Oh?" said Michael, intrigued. Then he frowned. "Hmm, she's one of those that insists on the personal temporal unfolding vision of the cosmos."

            "That's her!"

            "And where has she got to?"

            "April 2023, on Earth. Specifically, England and the upcoming coronation of her ex."

            "Oh dear," sighed Michael, staving off a groan. "Is it really her or is it the Old Man?" he continued, whimsically, before proceeding in disgruntled tones he couldn't disguise. "He seems obsessed with 20th and 21st Century England. Race her through it, Gabs. Wave your wand in that subtle manner of yours. She'll never know the difference."

            "Can't," Gabriel whined, with the air of someone who'd already considered that option. "The Old Man won't allow it. It's every deceased being's right to experience the afterlife in their own way. He's very hard-line about that, Michael, as well you know."

            "Okay, okay," Michael snapped. "What's the mission? What's this show he wants or, rather, she wants."

            Gabriel gulped. "To attend - be there - be there at the coronation."

            "What? A haunting? Doesn't she know she can't rewrite history?"

            "That's the whole point," Gabriel groaned. "To her, it's not history. It hasn't happened yet. And she wants a say in it."

            "Doesn't she know dead people don't have a say in things any longer?"

            Gabriel shook his head. "She didn't know very much while she was alive, Michael. What makes you think death has improved her cognitive abilities?"

            "What?" Michael queried, to himself as much as Gabriel, a hot glare invading his angelic features. "What? She wants to haunt the ceremony, or something ghastly like that. I say we set her down in an empty pew, or whatever, let her feel like she's there, but on no account let her be active. That would be against all the rules and regs. We could do that, I suppose. Bit weird, but …"

            "No, no, no," Gabriel hissed. "You're missing the point. She doesn't want to be a passive viewer - she could be that from here - she wants to partake."

            "What!" Michael exclaimed. "She can't do that. It's happened. It will happen. It will always happen. What's the matter with her? What does she want? To materialise among them and start screaming at Camilla, It should've been me."

            "Now you've got it," Gabriel grinned. "That's pretty much what she wants."

            "Impossible," Michael declared. "It didn't happen. She didn't do it. So, it can't be done. Even the Old Man knows that. He made the rules along with everything else. If he'd wanted that kind of shitshow he should have just gone ahead and created one. But he didn't. And now he wants us to indulge that poor, dim lady's fantasy."

            "The Old Man was hardly going to create a cosmos where ghosts could flit around willy-nilly, wreaking revenge whenever the fancy took them. Far too complicated," Gabriel explained patiently. "Much easier to put together a little fakery to indulge the deluded deceased, like Diana."

            "Ah," said Michael, as enlightenment dawned. "That's what you meant by a show. We pretend to take Diana back to Earth, pretend to let her haunt the coronation ceremony and invent some appropriate havoc for the moment."

            "Yep."

            Michael frowned, more deeply than before. "There is one serious flaw with your plan," he observed darkly. "We have to leave the true history in place. In fact, we don't have a choice; it's already there. Then, what are we going to do with Diana after she's exacted her revenge on Charles and Camilla. We might have her back here, but she'll be feverishly scanning her portal looking for the fall out, the stories in the papers, the broadcast coverage, the DIANA BACK FROM THE DEAD headlines. And there won't be any, of course. Because it won't and can't happen that way, Gabriel. I sometimes wonder about you and the Old Man …"

            "I wonder myself," Gabriel sighed. "Why don't you go and see him next time; why do I have to pick up the jobs?"

            "Because you're his favourite," Michael grinned.

 

The two angels lapsed into silence, both pondering how to put a smile on Dead Di's face over the coronation ceremony. The pyrotechnics were easy enough to achieve for angels of their stature; they wouldn't even have to execute a real dematerialisation. All they had to do was place Diana in the fake copy world right there in heaven, where they'd conjure up a whole parallel scene, with a fake Charles and a fake Camilla and a fake Archbishop and fake everything that Dead Di would expect to see inside a fake Westminster Abbey. They'd allow a bit of chaos, shrieking and screaming, have royal household guards charging the phantom Di before spiriting her away. They'd put the script together later, allowing, naturally, a window for Di to do her spot of haunting.

            The real problem, as Michael had intimated, was keeping the illusion intact for as long as they needed to fool Diana completely. They couldn't maintain the illusion (for her) for the rest of eternity, tempting though it was to try. But there was only so much entropy in the universe to go round, and they'd exhaust much of it with the fake coronation ceremony alone. As it stood, they would have to risk a little interference between the world and heaven, so when Diana was staring out of her portal - for a couple of days, say - she'd see she'd had an impact. After that? Well, she was dim enough to fail to notice the join. There was that much they could bank on. Still, it was tricky stuff, messing with reality. Far easier to mess with Diana's head, but the Old Man wouldn't allow that, even if it was a dead head. Besides, she'd suffered enough in that department when she was alive.

            It wasn't just Diana's insistence on counting out her time at the rate of 24 Earth hours to a day, day by day - refusing to skip forward or back - that had got her classified as "difficult". It hadn't started well for her, arriving with Dodi Fayed and him insisting he wanted access to the promised vestal virgins. What strange ideas humans harboured about what heaven was going to be like. But implementing the Old Man's dictum that each expired being could have the heaven he or she wanted, Dodi got what he wanted. Diana had been candid about the whole arrangement - Dodi was welcome to his virgins so long as he agreed he'd not spend another second of eternity with her. He chose the virgins and agreed to the bargain and Diana had become instantly exceedingly difficult.

            Her temporal demands were the least of it, really; there were others like her in that respect. Fewer shared her demand to continue her eating habits, as if she still had an earthly body to support. She was oblivious to logic: she was dead; she didn't have an earthly body; the food she put in her heavenly body was illusory, like everything else, as she would discover soon enough when her illusory bowels and illusory bladder didn't work. She insisted she felt hungry - at regular intervals. As she insisted she felt alternately hot and cold, as if there was a weather system in play in heaven. She kept demanding new items of wardrobe based on her assessment of the meteorological conditions. Ridiculous! She organised parties, where she gathered some of the other Difficulties and they all spent time together staring through Diana's favourite portal at London West End shows or browsing high class restaurants and ordering the food they spied. She even tried promoting, and engaging in, romantic liaisons, with comic, if not discouraging to her, results. Though she soon discovered it was one thing putting phantasmagorical foodstuffs into your ethereal mouth and pretending you're enjoying a meal, quite another trying to get the phantasmagorical genitals of another dead-un inside you, she tried and tried again. All the angels were far too polite to investigate quite how this particularly fantastic experiment-cum-fantasy turned out, but they agreed that Diana was one of those unlucky beings that brought all their messed-up wiring with them when they died. It was a fault in his creation the Old Man appeared loathe to correct. Perhaps he did have a sense of humour, after all.

 

"You've spoken to her?"

            Michael nodded. "Yes. Gave her the deal: a short haunting, no more than 30 seconds, and no one's life to be endangered. First sign of any of that, and we'll pull her out. She said she only wanted long enough to frighten the knickers off Queen Camilla."

            "Good," said Gabriel gravely.

            "It gets better," Michael informed him, almost smiling. "She chewed it over, and then she said she didn't want to do it after all."

            "Good. Whyever not?"

            Michael smiled broadly. "She said she didn't want to upset her boys."

            Gabriel grinned back. "First line of sanity we've had out of her for …"

            "Not quite. She's asked if we could arrange a fatal heart attack for her, Camilla, or a stroke, something debilitating. Preferably something at least painful, if we won't sanction her immediate death."

            "She's not the forgiving type, then," Gabriel observed. "As if we didn't know already."

            "Not entirely sane, either," said Michael. "When I told her that was out of the question, she threw one of her wobbles."

            "Oh dear," said Gabriel. "What else? I can see it in your face, Michael. What else?"

            "She's organising … a street party."

            "What? Here? Here in heaven?"

            "Where else?" Michael shook his head. For an angel, Gabriel could be quite dumb at times. "And she's putting on her princess of the people mantle."

            "What do you mean?"

            "Well, her idea is to gather together anti-British Monarchy to shout and scream and holler anti Royal Family abuse throughout the ceremony, and burn effigies of Charles and Camilla, and generally call for the end of the British Crown. I thought she'd seek some high-profile speakers to get the whole shebang underway - Thomas Jefferson, or Ghandi, or Robert Mugabe, whoever had a sizeable grudge against the British Monarchy and-or the Empire, but well known. But she's been rounding up no one like that. Instead, she's corralling victims of the Irish famine, the Bengal famine, the Kenyan concentration camps, the Boer concentration camps, the Amritsar massacre, the Cyprus internment, the Aden torture centres …"

            "Good grief - a protest riot by the aggrieved deceased! You'd think they had enough of a grievance about just being dead. The Lady Di has surely not persuaded enough … I'm surprised she's persuaded anyone …"

            Michael grinned. "Of course, she hasn't. But she thinks she has."  

            Gabriel growled. "Going solo again?"

            "It's a level 5 delusion, Gabs," Michael smiled. "I didn't want to bother you with it."

            "Good," said Gabriel, relaxing for a moment. "'Cos we've got another one. The Old Man's had a delegation of Brexiteers insisting we're faking the true state of affairs in late 21st century Britain, moaning about the bad write-ups they're all getting in the history books, making out Britain has disintegrated into a palsied hellhole from which there's little prospect of escape."

            "What did they expect?" Michael sighed. "'Suppose the Old Man wants us to come up with a Level 1 delusion for that mob."

            "Would that be enough?" Gabriel wondered.

            "Probably not. In life they were never inclined to engage with reality. It's a tough one, I know, but we'll give it a go."

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A topical suggestion recently from the Biggar Writers, to compose something on the theme of  the coronation and the monarchy. I resurrected my favourite angels to assist Lady Di avenge her stolen future.

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Mia and The Burnbraes

 

As they tootle past the garage at the edge of the town centre - heading in - Mia's face rises from the tablet for a moment. Then back down she looks, at the swirl of cartoon colours she endlessly scans, her face once again a rictus of concentration. Grandpops coughs lightly as they pass the bookshop, his eyes briefly alighting on the door.

    "Do you think she knows where she's going?" he asks Grannie, driving.

    "Oh she does," says Grannie firmly. "Watch."

    They turn left into the road that runs past the Memorial Hall, up the hill, past North Back Road and then bear left into Biggar Mill Road. It's downhill from there, from the crest to the burn, down the slope that gives the latter half of the park's name, the Burnbraes. At the foot of the hill there's the burn crossing, a short cobbled section that is almost always flooded ankle or shin high, much to Mia's constant delight. Long before they get there though, as Grannie predicted, Mia clocks where they're heading. In fact, her head pops up from the tablet again as they leave the high street, and stays up until she is satisfied they are going to the park. Assured her day is rolling out to her satisfaction she goes back to her electronic friend, pausing only to acknowledge the splash as Grannie's car fords the burn. Mia is easily coaxed out of the car: it's her favourite place in all of Biggar.

    In a flash she's heading for the water, in her bouncy, foot stomping way. Grannie races after her. Mia isn't wearing her wellies - Gran and Grandpops are always forgetting - so keep her to the rest of the park for now is the plan. She will not be denied her water games, but best to leave them till nearer home time.

    Grannie grabs the little one at the edge of the watery cobbles and cajoles her in the direction of the swings. Mia squawks, but a nascent tantrum is quelled as the swings swing into view. She loves the swings. There was a time she'd sit on them forever, before Peppa Pig and muddy puddles began to dominate her life, and she'd scream the place down when an exhausted Grannie refused to push her anymore. Today - happy enough swinging back and forth under Grannie's controlling hand, smiling - however, she's got half-a-mind on the burn which, as far as the little one's concerned, is one giant muddy puddle. Gran and Grandpops can tell. Though Mia is now five, she still doesn't speak, her utterances no more than baby babble. But she has ways, audible and otherwise - grins, snarls, gesticulations - that convey her feelings and desires. Everyone is learning rapidly how to read her.

    After twenty minutes of swinging, Grannie persuades Mia off the swing and the little one lurches towards the burn. Grandpops holds her back and gets a growl for his trouble. Grannie swiftly takes control, excitedly advising Mia it's time to play on the other equipment. She races past the climbing frames, pauses for a brief turn of the seesaw, but is only really engaged once more when she's across the small bridge at the edge of the play area leading across to the slides. Sniffily, she marches past the baby slide and heads for the big one, tugging Grannie's arm as she goes. Grannie is needed to hoist her up to the platform at the top of the slide. Mia slides down toward Grandpops, scorns his assistance at the foot of the slide, bounces up and heads back to the top. This goes on for some time.

    Eventually, Grannie and Grandpops tire and concede it's time to let Mia at the water. She can dry off in the car home. So they about turn, an initially alarmed Mia placated by the promise that soon she'll be jumping in muddy puddles.

    There are plenty of them about either side of the cobbled crossing and amongst the grassy edgings. Mia tries them all, several times. Grannie keeps herself close, Grandpops too, but far enough away to avoid being in the way. Experience tells them it won't be long before Mia turns her attention to the giant muddy puddle, the cobbled burn crossing. Today there is only a thin film of water across so the splashes will be low, but the risk of slipping to a painful tumble no less than usual, perhaps higher. Grandpops tests his footing on the cobbles. Yikes - it is slippy.

    Meanwhile Grannie's getting anxious. In recent trips Mia has displayed a strong desire to wade into the burn itself. The rivulet may be comparatively shallow and fairly narrow, but the flow is fast, and it is most definitely a danger to a small child, as well as delicately constituted Grandparents. Grannie holds back Mia as she makes to shuffle closer to the burn bank, to ready herself for a reckless plodge.

    "No, no, no," says Grannie.

    This is not a word Mia likes to hear and she begins to wail. Grandpops sweeps her up and puts her beside him at the edge of the cobbles. She calms instantly. He holds her hand as she steps forward for a tentative splash. Grandpops takes a deep breath as he moves with her. A week before Grannie had been suckered into this manoeuvre and had landed on her arse, soaked from head to toe like her granddaughter. At least, thinks Grandpops, if Mia gets a soaking it'll take some of the mud off her clothing.

    But she doesn't fall. She's remarkably well balanced as she makes her deliberate Peppa Pig like stamps in the water. Grannie takes over the hold on her, telling Grandpops to go and fetch the car.

    This is the well-worn strategy developed to avoid a prolonged Mia meltdown: bring the car to her instead of trying to drag the poor mite away from the water and have her walk the fifty yards back to the parked car. Lifting her away from the muddy puddles straight into the car, for some reason, causes her less distress. No one knows why; it's something that's learned. Like so much else to do with Mia's behaviour, where there's no ready explanation, but a telling course of action has been painfully deduced.

    There's a car coming down the hill and Grannie has to hurry with Mia, stripping the wet clothing from her, strapping her into her car seat, wrapping a blanket around her. Grandpops backs up a touch and allows the oncoming car to pass before rolling forward across the burn and up the brae.

    Mia is quiet. The park and the burn and the swings and the muddy puddles are forgotten as she dives back into the electronically generated world on her tablet. She'll remain transfixed until they get home, lost in thoughts she cannot articulate, thoughts and feelings Grannie and Grandpops can only guess at. Sometimes she smiles, just a teeny bit - nothing like the squeals of delight when she's jumping up and down in muddy puddles - but enough to encourage her grandparents to believe she's happy, which is all they really want to see.

Old Photograph Burnbraes Biggar Scotland.jpeg

I wanted to write something set in Biggar. My beautiful granddaughter loves playing in the Burnbraes. She is so much fun and I love her dearly. I hope this little effort does her justice.

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You're Next

 

I never expected to be found out. I never expected to be hunted down. I never expected to be used as bait.

            As my colleagues dragged him away to custody, I looked my would-be captor and assassin in the eye, an extreme malevolence there, way beyond simple hatred. I realised then he'd meant to torture me before killing me, as he had the others, and he had been looking forward to it. My blood ran cold. Ever since this business had come to haunt me I'd denied its realities despite the evidence, despite my own memories, imperfect as they were.

            "Sergeant?"

            It was the DCI, come to see if I was quite all right. I assured him I was but he looked unconvinced, assuring me in turn there was nothing left to fear. I was sure there was.

            Back at the station I was already something of a pariah. Initial sympathy had long ago evaporated, lost in the building of the complex scheme to entrap my tormentor, the murderer of fifteen of our contemporaries, old school mates of mine. His note to me had listed them along with the threat: You're Next. Though I genuinely did not know who he was at that time or, naturally, why anyone would want me and a number of my old chums dead, I wasn't believed when the CID squad finally discovered the truth: I'd been the ringleader of a gang of thugs who'd mercilessly threatened and bullied a fellow pupil at school. The poor sod went on to take his revenge against every member of the gang over a thirty-year period, making him a very particular serial killer. And as it turned out, astonishingly difficult to track down until he revealed his hand by writing to me. You're Next, and the list, was enough of a clue for some of the younger, brighter detectives.

            By the time they'd figured out exactly who it was and had had it confirmed, after I'd ransacked my fuzzy memory, the story was well enough disseminated in my nick in hugely unflattering (to me) terms, cast in unforgiving, uncomplimentary hues. How badly had I and my gang treated this guy to have him morph into an avenging psycho?

            Want to know? The truth is, I can't remember. We called him names, sure. Personally, I never threatened him. At least I don't remember doing so. Some of the others might have. Some of the others might even have attacked him. I don't know for certain.

            I met him once a few years after we'd left school, about a year after I got posted here. We got off the same bus from town - I was home visiting family - and we collided in the street, so to speak. I remember he was awkward, tongue-tied to some extent, but he did manage to ask me what I was doing with myself. When I told him I was a police officer his first response was I could go a long way in clearing up all the crime on the north side of town, all by myself. I told him I couldn't grass-up mates so I'd had myself posted to the Met. He laughed, I think, but then he was gone, turning up his street in a hurry. I was glad to see the back of him.

            Was he harbouring vengeful thoughts even then, way back? Had he already decided to murder us all? Had he chatted to me in the knowledge that one day he'd come for me, come for me last, to taunt and torture me further for my leading role in his torment.

            My fellow bullies had died in a variety of ways and as far as could be established, unlike me, received no prior warning. Jimmy H, the first to die, was found hanging from a rafter in a disused warehouse, though the notion he might have committed suicide never took hold since a red hot poker had been applied to several parts of his anatomy prior to death. Thirty years later Billy G was found in a similar condition, the last victim before I was targeted. In between the pattern was always the same, torture first, by hot pokers, boiling water, boiling oil, stabbing, beating, gouging, cuts and amputations, and then death by hanging, strangulation, suffocation. A couple had their throats cut and another was beheaded. They had all been lured or conveyed to some remote spot where they met their end at a rate of about one every two years.

            I'd had time to ponder these bald facts from the moment the avenger was first confidently identified. I remembered him as a swot, a pathetic weakling destined to be teased and bullied. It beggared belief he could have executed these terrible crimes, that he'd have the gumption, gall, courage - call it what you like - to inflict such horrible pain and humiliation and then to kill, to get up close to another human being and wreak such havoc. There must have been something wrong with him, something messed up with his wiring, long before any of us had started on him. I wanted to find out. I wanted to sit in on the post arrest interviews and I was allowed a place in the observation room.

 

The detectives, the ones who can manage it, look at him with a mixture of disgust and condescension. From the off they attack him verbally with a commendable verve that at least appears to assuage a desire to do him serious physical damage. So they call him a "Sick Fuck" and a "Murdering Bastard" and confront him with photographs of his victims before and after he's finished with them. I'm hardly mentioned.

            I'm an embarrassment after all, the unwitting lynchpin of this sorry thirty-year drama, cajoled centre stage to catch the beast and hurriedly pulled back to the deepest recess of the wings. Even the beast, who I've been putting my hopes on, seems disinclined to usher me forward again. It's a belittling dismissal of my role in the affair, as if robbed of the chance to torture and kill me the only way he can show his utter disdain is to side-line me in my own tragedy. Only once does he make reference to me.

            "I see Geoffrey P - that charmless twat - never made it past Sergeant."

            As an insult it is hardly damaging to my ego. Years ago I resigned myself to being a life-long foot soldier. Besides, I appear to have fared better than most of my erstwhile chums, quite aside from remaining alive, if the files on them are a fair representation. The Beast relishes pointing out their inadequacies as he casually inspects the pictures of them.

            "Jimmy H: never held down a job. A complete dimwit. No loss."

            "Graham W: a runt, a coward, always hiding behind the bigger boys. Never worked. Useless."

            "Billy G: a major surprise he could conjure the brain power to tie his own shoelaces. A waste of DNA."

            And so on.

            Too late I realise what he's doing, apart from dehumanising his victims. He begins to weave the story that will soon - somehow - find its way into the pages of the tabloids. He's not deranged at all, I'm the bad guy. His murder spree was a rational, justified response to the appalling, incessant verbal and physical abuse he suffered for two years, initiated, organised and perpetuated by Geoffrey P, the biggest bully of the lot. He'd called Geoffrey P a "Dickhead" during some petty squabble at the end of the third year. When the new school year started, a dozen of the school's most cretinous male pupils greeted him with a loud, unrelenting chant: Dickhead, Dickhead, Dickhead. Every school day for two years they brayed at him in this manner. Soon they were threatening violence and just as soon they were meeting it out, pushing him over, punching, kicking, spitting, shoving, terrifying him on a daily basis. All of it supposedly orchestrated by me, Geoffrey P.

            The tabloids still think he's a monster, round-the-twist, unhinged, but he's a monster I've created, and they're asking questions about police recruitment policy like, could anyone so utterly unsuitable for the role of a police officer be recruited today.

 

A week goes by and I give up listening to him. Besides, I haven't the time. I have work to do. A young DC confides in me. "Sarge," he says, under his breath, "you're in some fucking trouble." I brush off the remark. But then the Inspector calls me in and says the Super wants to see me, which can only mean I've gone from being an embarrassment to a problem. I have my defence ready: Christ - we were kids. It was thirty years ago, long before I became a copper.

            I'm overreacting, of course. He's not interested in tearing a strip off me about some childhood misdemeanour; I hadn't actually committed a crime. The Super is calm, reluctant though to look me in the eye. He speaks quietly. But the message is clear: take your pension now and clear off.

            I make the necessary calls and fill in the forms and then I head home.

            I have to face the worst of it: my wife's reaction. I tell her I'm retiring but she's not interested. We've not talked much about my part in the capture of the serial killer, let alone my part in creating him. Like everyone else she gets her info from the papers. By now I'm off the front pages, but that's little solace. There are pages and pages inside - features - with no contribution from me beyond a blanket No comment.

            "How do they get hold of this stuff?" my wife moans, thrusting the pages of an unflattering article about my less than illustrious passage through cadet school. I'd scraped through. The Met, desperate for new flatfoots, took me on.

            This is all new to her. I've never spoken much about my past, never confided in her. I realise that if she'd been more curious I would have lied, either directly or by omission. She's wondering who I am. It's not so much I was a bully per se, but that I bore a grudge and got others to prosecute my revenge. Creepy, she remarks.

            I make tea and wonder if the kids will make an appearance one day soon. I've had telephone calls, the anguish and despair in their voices plain beyond the groped for words of support. I drink the tea with my wife and ponder her tear stained cheeks.

            I go upstairs, now the children have left, to one of our two spare bedrooms and find the bottle of pills. I don't expect the wife will check on me 'till morning. We often sleep apart these days, our marriage stale long before this business with my self-appointed nemesis, which is nothing more than a final sour footnote when all is said and done.

            I never expected to die this way. I never expected to write this excuse. I never expected to be next. You're Next. That's right: I am. 

I entered this into the Grindstone Library Short Story Competition 2021, the winners of which have recently been announced. I didn't win! Didn't make the long list. Anyway, a grimmer piece than usual inspired by some dark thoughts from my youth. I hope that confession doesn't get me locked up.

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Home Olympics

 

We'd done the World Cup. England had won of course, cos they had Eddie Beaton. Brazil had gotten to the final too. Eddie Beaton played for them also, up 'till then, so he'd had to choose who to play for in the final. Eddie chose England, and he was so much better than the rest of us, England were bound to win. Which they did, 20 - 11. I played for Brazil, as I had for Italy in the semis against England. Eddie picked who represented who, cos he was the best.

            It was the same story when we played for the Ashes. Eddie was the best cricketer. So he got to choose who played for England and who played for Australia. A shortage of players meant I had to bat at 1, 5 and 9 in each innings throughout the series, 5 Tests, just like in real life. Only thing was our matches didn't last 5 hours, let alone 5 days like the real ones. Eddie opened the batting and the bowling for England and rarely needed anyone else to bat or bowl, the rest of the England team largely confined to fielding duties, which were none too arduous because Australia were rubbish at batting and either gifted dolly catches or missed Eddie's straight one completely with the tennis ball striking the lamppost, which counted as bowled. Nor did he need a second innings. England whitewashed Australia, 5 - 0, winning by an innings in every game.

            No one much minded Eddie's dominance. He always bought all the pop and crisps so we had nothing to complain about really.

            The Olympics was going to be a challenge though, even for Eddie. We could do the sprints, which was all very well and good but didn't take up much time. As it happened Mad Andy was the champion sprinter (Eddie had to settle for silver) winning several golds despite being hampered by the plaster cast on the wrist he'd injured diving to save a penalty in the World Cup Final. Why he insisted on diving on the concrete none of us knew. Occasionally, as in the final he'd land full stretch, his arm smashing against the pavement kerb. Hence: broken wrist. Hence: Mad Andy.

            We didn't have any equipment, which ruled out most of the athletics field events, but we could manage the long jump, even if leaping down the concrete road tended to end in severely grazed knees and sprained ankles. Mad Andy was keen, naturally, but the plaster cast fatally undermined his performance and Geordie Hepworth prevailed, Eddie settling for silver again. But we were rapidly running out of events we could imitate in the street. Someone suggested the hop, skip and jump, but none of us, not even Eddie, had any idea how to do it properly, and it was too much like the long jump anyway.

            Bike races we could do, we decided, though Nobby Clarke complained not everyone had bikes so it wasn't fair. Geordie pointed out that it was just like the real Olympics where some countries couldn't compete, like Jamaica and skiing, cos Jamaica didn't have snow and ski slopes like Norway. So those of us with bikes, like Norway and Sweden and Austria and Switzerland, would compete, and it was hard lines for Nobby and some of the others who would have to put up with it like Jamaica and the Central African Republic and Australia, which was also hot all year round. I did well in the biking, mainly because I had the best bike. I wanted it to go on forever, and I kept inventing new rides, which consisted primarily of inventing new finishing lines like the corner shop, the old people's home and the local cemetery, and new starting points, like top of the street, outside Eddie's house, outside the old people's home, and combinations thereof. The old people's home to the cemetery and back was the longest race and a classic of endurance, marred only by Eddie's bike snapping in two on the return leg. Nevertheless, we managed to spin out the whole biking thing for a whole day. I had my moment in the sun.

            Earlier that summer Eddie and I had built a kart each. Eddie's was really smart, a big old wooden wheelbarrow we fitted with large bicycle wheels. Mine was less impressive, planks arranged in a double cross with two shorter cross bits, one at the rear to sit on, and one at the front, fitted with old pram wheels. It was also fitted with a long piece of string attached to the front cross which was deliberately left slack so theoretically the driver could steer, whereas Eddie's sturdier model could only go in a straight line. Bike-less and cart-less Nobby suggested we incorporate kart races into the Olympics, providing we shared them, since there were ten of us and only two carts and we didn't want the kart races to be even more exclusive than the bike rides.

            Initially opposed, Eddie and I eventually relented and we set up a schedule of races we never completed. In the third race, Mad Andy wiped out my machine and nearly himself, failing to stop at the finishing line at the bottom of the street, flying across the road and smashing into the wall of the old people's home. Ian "Ducky" Duckworth claimed the gold medal based on surviving intact in a race with Mad Andy and ensuring Eddie's wheelbarrow kart remained in one piece. No one wanted to argue, except Nobby who hadn't had a chance to race and was squealing again about how unfair it all was. Ignoring him, we moved on.

            In desperation we included street tennis in our games. Real, proper, tennis in those days was not an Olympic sport, so we had qualms, until Ducky pointed out that bike rides to the shops, or street kart races, weren't part of the official Olympics roster either. We were trailblazers, innovators. Eddie's face brightened. Back to something he excelled at, and he duly won another gold medal. Someone just had to think of something where he was not guaranteed to win.

            We sat and thought. We could run a swimming competition, swimming was an Olympic sport, if we took a bus into town. The swimming baths were massive. But Nobby couldn't swim, Ducky had a verruca, Eddie hated swimming and Paul (who was only seven) said his mum wouldn't let him go on his own. Besides, none of us had any pocket money left for the bus fares, never mind paying to get into the pool. It was a shame because Mad Andy was as keen as mustard, being a really good swimmer, and I was dying to see him in the pool with the plaster on his arm. It would have been fantastic. But given all the other insurmountable obstacles we gave it a miss.

            Someone suggested a marathon, an Olympics had to have a marathon. We could run into town (about 5 miles) and back. Yeah, right, we all said and moved on without further discussion. We were sick of running.

            It was Nobby who came up with jumping off the washhouse roof, another Olympic innovation which sadly doesn't seem to have been taken up by the IOC. Every house on our estate had a washhouse tacked onto the side. In most houses you could get onto the roof through a window at the top of the stairs inside the house. Most washhouses overlooked a stretch of garden, and in Eddie's case, his house being on a corner, a rather large patch.

            "I'll see if my mum's in," he said grumpily. He wasn't keen on the jumping from a height lark, but he didn't want to lose face by ruling himself out. Much better if his mum was around to rule it out. She wasn't, and he couldn't pretend otherwise.

            Little Paul said he was frightened and was going home, and a few of the others, including Geordie Hepworth, surprisingly given his dominance in the long jump, suddenly remembered they were wanted back home to run errands. The rest of us went inside Eddie's and trooped up the stairs. The window was stiff and Eddie was ready for calling the whole thing off when it suddenly gave way. "Oh," he said, aghast. "Go on," I urged, and he climbed through. We followed. There was me and Eddie, Nobby and Ducky, Mad Andy and Michael "Vic" Parsons. We called him Vic because parson was an old fashioned word for vicar, and to annoy him because he liked to be called Michael, not Mike or Mickey or Mick, thank you very much. So he had to live with being Vic, now.

            It felt a little crowded when we were all up there and contemplating hurling ourselves off. There didn't appear to be much of a run to be had before reaching the edge of the roof. I took a peek over to the scrub below; it wasn't a well-tended garden. There were some dubious looking mounds here and there which I didn't fancy landing on, and the flatter patches looked hard and unforgiving after several weeks of dry and hot sunny days. The grown-ups were complaining, praying for rain, bewailing the prospect of drought. I initiated a discussion on the rules but got nowhere. "Just bloody jump off," Eddie croaked at last. So I did, into the hard flat patch, rolling as I landed and grazing both knees, grit and blood mixing on my open palms as I pushed myself back to my feet. "Come on then," I called up to the others and a moment or two later Mad Andy came flying out heading for the mounds that had so worried me a minute or so earlier. He landed like a lump of dough on a baker's slab.

            He was wailing like a baby: "I've broke me ankle. I've broke me ankle."

            I limped over to him, seriously worried. If anyone knew about broken bones it was Mad Andy. I was helping him up when the others came dashing out of the back door of the house having abandoned plans to follow Andy and me - too bloody dangerous. I immediately claimed the gold medal for me and the silver for Andy, the bronze for Vic because though he hadn't jumped he would have, he insisted, and he hadn't won a thing yet. "Shall I ring 999?" Eddie wondered.

            "I'll be all right," said Andy. "It's just a sprain," he explained. (He would know.) He dusted himself down and gingerly tested his weight on the damaged leg. He winced but insisted he was okay, but he was going home anyway for his dinner. He hobbled off and as I turned to address the others Nobby said it was tea time for him too and sauntered off in his own wobbly way.

            That left Eddie, Ducky, Vic and me.

            "Is Subbuteo an Olympic event?" Eddie wondered. That was something else he was expert in. He had his Subbuteo permanently set up on his parents' dining room table.

            "Ought to be," Vic reasoned, who was also quite good at it.

            "It is now," Ducky grinned, who was almost as good as Eddie.

            "That's settled then," said Eddie.

            I nodded agreement, in with a shout for the bronze if Vic had an off day. I made a mental note to keep an eye out for IOC announcements of new sports being admitted to the Olympic fold. I had high hopes for Monopoly and Cluedo too.

  

An exercise in nostalgia inspired by the Olympics in this Olympic year in Japan (2020/21)

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The remit for this story was to compose a piece about a despicable character. My creation is based on a number of unsavoury types I've come across in a long and varied working life. The story line is based on fact, to the extent it was told to me about one particularly nasty chap of my acquaintance some time after ceasing to work for him. For the sake of no misunderstanding all names used are entirely fictional. 

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Expenses

 

The rapping on my door was frantic. I looked up at the frosted pane, and then to the side of it, where the clear glass windows revealed a view of the floor. For complete privacy I'd have to drop the blinds, and I was wondering if I might need to when Tina stepped away from the door and revealed her face twisted with sorrow. I ushered her in with an urgency to match her own.

            "Good grief, Tina. What is it?"

            "They're bringing him back - Barclay," she squealed. "To collect his personals. Lucy says he's raging. Blaming me. Oh God, Stuart, what am I going to do?"

            I got her to sit down, calm herself, and take a cup of coffee. She remained a trifle anxious, casting furtive looks into the walkway beyond, but after a few soothing sips, to my relief, she grew decidedly less distressed. I asked her to explain. She looked up sharply.

            "It was those expenses, Stuart, the Paris trip, the IAEA conference," she said, seething, though not in anger, but more as a mechanism for controlling her emotions. "Mr Jackman rumbled him."

            "I see," I said. "Well, I suppose it had to happen one day."

            I hadn't appreciated the specifics of what she was saying, being unpardonably inattentive while I figured out how to soothe her distress. Jackman had rumbled Barclay Oxon. Well, it could be any number of things from bullying underlings to faking his contribution.

            I looked at the stash of leaflets and other promotional bumph Barclay picked up on his cross America venture a couple of months before, the stack he'd dropped on my desk a while back, shortly after my promotion off the floor, with the instruction I write up his visitor's report. I'd been warned he'd soon be exploiting me with demands for malodorous duties beyond my remit, like doing the less glamorous bits of his job. They said he might be harder on me than most since he'd been unsuccessful in blocking my overdue promotion, which was only secured through the brave and vociferous advocacy of my immediate superior, the good and kindly Alan Waites. Barclay Oxon was neither good or kind. We all knew that.

            I'd shoved the pile into a corner of a shelf, used an old heavy ashtray as a paperweight, and waited for him to return and ask me for his report. If he did, fair enough, I'd make an excuse, apologise, and promise to get it done soonest. But I'd been banking on him and his executive bosses forgetting all about it, and I was sure they would now. To my shame, I felt not only relief but a slight sense of elation. Tina must have noticed something. Maybe I was smiling.

            "I know he's not a very nice person, but all the same, he must be feeling really bad," she said.

            The girl was truly a saint. She was the one all the guys drooled over, petite but curvaceous, a mass of natural blonde hair cascading in voluptuous waves over her slender shoulders. And the most goosed young lady in the office, where every crumbling middle-aged jerk thought he had a perfect right to touch her backside as she passed their desks. And then, if that wasn't enough, she'd been assigned as Barclay Oxon's PA when he arrived as the new head of R&D a few years ago. She'd confided in me even before I'd been promoted, when I was still located in the open plan. She'd catch me in the kitchenette and tell me about him placing his hand on her rump rather more firmly and for rather longer than the chancers out on the floor dared. He had trouble keeping his eyes off her chest and she was forever catching him ogling her. Her only defence was to dress more frumpily, less revealingly, to the dismay of the young men who had hopes of courting her, and herself, who as a young single woman quite reasonably wished to show off her physical desirability to those same young men. Even then Oxon had found ways to embarrass and humiliate her, like quizzing her intimately about her love life; which boys she was seeing or had seen in the past, and what they were like in bed. "I'm a well behaved Catholic girl," she'd retorted once to one of his more forthright interrogations. "I don't do that sort of thing." In comparison, getting her to fill in his expenses claims for him was small scale abuse.

            "What exactly is going on, Tina?" I asked her.

            She'd know. She'd know everything, because she hung out with all the other young female PAs employed in the executive. Girls talk.

            "I told you, the Paris trip," she reminded me.

            I frowned. I knew now what she meant. She'd come to me for advice a couple of weeks ago. Oxon had asked her, as usual, to complete his expenses claim form and, as usual, he had supplied a mountain of receipts. But Tina knew all his expenses had been covered by the IAEA since she'd been intimately involved with the invitation, bookings and arrangements: hotel and travel costs paid directly, generous cash allowances for meals and small out of pocket expenses for both him and his wife, with no requirement for verification. Where and how and why had Barclay Oxon gotten these receipts? And why was he making a claim on the company? Greed, I'd told her, simple as that. I advised her to play dumb, say nothing to Oxon, do as he asked and let it blow over. If he signed the claim, that was his business, his risk. No point in making a malicious git like him even more of an enemy than he already was.

            Still, greed and malice aside, it had struck me as an odd and deeply hypocritical scam for even him to perpetrate. I felt certain Tina must have misunderstood something and Oxon would put her right about it sooner or later. This was the man who routinely challenged and blocked all manner of trips to conferences, workshops and training courses for his subordinates on the basis of cost, or staff not being senior enough or important enough to justify their attendance. And when Alan sanctioned the odd "jolly" behind his back, he zealously challenged every minor expenses claim as if the financial stability of the company would be threatened by three juniors having a coffee in a motorway service station midway through a two-hundred-mile drive. Then again, this was also the man who was still claiming, more than two years later, with the approval of the board, for professional gardening services at the house he no longer resided in but still owned, while cashing in on a generous bridging loan to fund his new home. And he was also the man who had asked Tina to ring a taxicab firm to ask them to retrieve a bar of Toblerone he'd accidentally left behind in one of their vehicles.

            "Oh yes, sorry," I said, supressing the urge to gloat. "When …"

            "I put a call through to him from Mr Jackman, first thing," Tina explained. "He was only on the phone for a minute, and when he left he was white as a sheet."

            I'd seen him out of the corner of my eye march past my window just after nine but had thought nothing of it.

            "So I rang Lucy back," Tina continued. "She told me. She handed over Mr Oxon's expenses for countersigning, and a few minutes later Mr Jackman called her back in and asked her to pull the files on the Paris conference. He told her to hang around. So she stood there, she said, while he riffled through the folders, getting madder and madder, muttering, and Lucy said she could tell there was something up with Mr Oxon's expenses claim. Of course, I knew there was, Stuart. Then Mr Jackman tells Lucy to get Barclay Oxon on the blower, like now, pronto. Hunt … hunt the bastard down if she had to, he said. Well, she didn't have to."

            "I see," I said, though I didn't entirely. Before I could ask, Tina explained further.

            "Lucy rang back. Mr Jackman went ballistic with Mr Oxon. She could hear him through the door, shouting at him, calling him a thief, an idiot … worse. Said she'd never heard Mr Jackman swear like that before. Then he buzzes her and tells her to get hold of Commander Fox. He's the head of security."

            "I know that, Tina."

            "Then shortly after, two great big burly security guards turn up and Lucy hears them telling Mr Oxon they'll escort him to his office to retrieve his personals, under supervision, and then escort him off the premises. Then he explodes, that's Mr Oxon that is, Lucy says, and starts shouting it's all my fault, I filled in the forms, I must have done it wrong, and threatening to do God knows what to me …" Tina stifled an incipient sob, paused and pulled herself together. "So Lucy rang again, to warn me to get out of his way. Oh God, he'll be along any minute now."

            "Stay here," I said, rising. I dropped the blinds. "I'll nip outside, do a little recce. Just relax and have another coffee. I'll come get you when it's all over."

            Odd how the jungle drums are so quickly pressed into service. There was never any chance there'd be a sober observation of the unfolding drama, and then a calm, assured retrospective assessment. I could see it in the eyes of my guys, and the other teams' too, somewhere between a glint of bewilderment and a gleeful

gleam. Barclay - we always used his first name on the floor - was in trouble. Lucy had spoken to Sandra who'd spoken to Emily who'd spoken to Keith or John or Matthew, or some other boyfriend here in Barclay's domain. And then they'd seen the man himself, rushing off in his sharp Italian suit and shoes, his poncy brolly waving at his side, his strange elaborate comb-over bobbing up and down, his face grim, grey even, looking as if he was literally shitting himself as he shot out of sight.

            One of the lads approached me. "What's happening, Stu?"

            "Let's wait and see," I advised.

            My fellow Principals were emerging from their offices, resting their arms on the "pig-pen" dividers between us and our troops, leaning over, and exchanging muttered banter with their squads. I heard someone say, louder than he'd intended, no doubt, "I hope they sack the wanker."

            Alan came out of his office to join us. "You've heard the rumours," he whispered to me.

            "More than rumours, Alan," I said.

            "Yes, yes," he said. "I know. Look - where is Tina?"

            I nodded over my shoulder. "In my office."

            "I should … speak to her."

            Jumping to conclusions I snapped, "It's not her fault. She's done nothing wrong."

            Alan looked at me quizzically. "Did I say I thought she had? I was wondering how she was bearing up, if Barclay had said or done anything … reprehensible. Anything else, that is. You know what I mean," he concluded testily.

            "Sorry, Alan. Yes. She's fine. A little shook up, a little worried about facing Barclay."

            He laughed shortly, sourly. "There'll be no question of that," he said. "Mind if I pop in and see her."

            Someone at the window said he could see them coming, Oxon and the security detail, wending their way down the leafy path from the administration building on the hill where Jackman and the rest of the executives kept their offices.

            Another of my boys caught my ear. "John always said something like this would happen."

            "John?"

            "John Priestley."

            "Oh, John," I said, remembering. I hadn't known him well; worked in a different section. An Irish lad. Resigned about a year before, having got himself a promising position with a pharmaceutical company. "What did John say?" I asked, intrigued.

            "Didn't you hear what went down when John resigned?"

            "No," I shrugged.

            "Remember Barclay had that office up on the hill, second floor. Pretty pissed they made him move out and hole up here with his staff." I smiled at the memory. It had always seemed that every time Barclay was annoyed or thwarted it was a cause for quiet celebration. "But back when John was leaving he was still holding onto his office next to the big boys. He went over to hand in his resignation. Tina had to tell him, since he didn't have an appointment, he'd have to wait. Twenty minutes he kept John hanging, even though John had given a message he'd be less than a minute, that's all. Just long enough to say I'm leaving and here's my formal letter of resignation."

            "He could have given it to Alan," I remarked.

            "Yeah, but John had been here a while and he wanted to speak just once to the divisional head he was supposedly working for. They'd never met. Never had any form of communication, however slight."

            "I see," I said.

            "So Tina seems him in, eventually, and Barclay's behind his desk, standing, but stooped over something, a drawing maybe. John didn't get close enough to see exactly what. He looks up and says, 'Who the fuck are you?' Literally that, said John. 'Who the fuck are you?' And John says, 'I'm John Priestley and I've been working for you for the last two years. I thought you might like to accept my letter of resignation. And the cunt just stares at him and says, 'Leave it on the table over there' and turns his attention back to his drawing, or whatever the fuck it is that's so fucking interesting he can't even be bothered to summon up the minimum in good manners."

            "I hadn't heard that," I confessed.

            "You might have been on holiday at the time."

            "Maybe," I agreed gratefully. "How is John?"

            The lad laughed. "Oh, I never hear from him. He was a bit of a loner, actually. Fucking clever guy, though. He said Barclay was a fraud and a fool, a know-nothing charlatan and shyster, who sooner or later would be found out because he was also arrogant and stupid."

            I smiled wryly. "There are plenty more like him in this outfit who appear to be more than satisfactorily fire proofed against the consequences of their incompetence."

            My young colleague shrugged. "Maybe the forces of truth and justice just got lucky for once," he said. "Or John was particularly perspicacious. Anyway," he concluded, rising on his toes instinctively, "here comes the man of the moment."

            And so he was, hemmed in between two beefy security officers, as expected, leaving him no room to manoeuvre anywhere other than where they'd allow. His face paraded a mixture of emotions, anger and despair, defiance and contempt, and all points between on that particularly negative scale. In defeat, in disgrace, he was as charmless and egotistical as ever, still sneering at us, still considering us all beneath him. Yet, I found myself feeling a little sorry for him, as we stepped aside to allow him and them through, having to run the gauntlet of his outraged colleagues, though no doubt he thought of us as minions, nothing more. A few insults were hurled out, single word lines of abuse: thief, twat, wanker. He didn't so much as flinch on hearing them.

            He was only in his office a minute at most, and what he retrieved from there was not at all obvious, easily concealed in his suit and coat pockets. Some keys, perhaps. A Toblerone?

            As he made his final departure emotions were running higher, the jeering and heckling now widespread across the whole office floor, more raucous, more belligerent than before. That stab of sympathy disturbed my chest again, my comfort in that moment being his icy reaction to the hostility, a face now implacable, devoid of any regret or contrition. There was an almighty cheer as he disappeared from view.

            Alan brought Tina out of my office. I smiled. "He's gone. Never coming back," I assured her.

            Alan coughed lightly. "When you're done here, Stuart, could I have a word with you?"

            "Sure," I said as he edged backwards towards his office, which happened to be next to mine. Turning to Tina I said, "And what are we going to do with you?"

            She laughed. "I'm out of a job, I guess."

            "Nonsense," I told her. "You're part of the secretariat. We'll find you something."

            "Thanks, Stuart."

            "I didn't do anything."

            "Yes you did," she insisted. "You're one of the good guys."

            "Thanks," I said, bemused but grateful for her kind words.

            "He was a nasty piece of work. How do creeps like him do so well for themselves?"

            "He's lost his job. He's not doing so well now," I observed.

            "Oh, Stuart, that's what I like so much about you. Forgive me," she continued with a smile, "but you must be at least ten years older than me and you're so amazingly innocent."

            "How?"

            "Do you know what will happen to Barclay?" I shook my head, and then I suggested he might end up in prison. Tina laughed. "He won't even be prosecuted. Far too embarrassing for the company. They'll be working on his voluntary redundancy package right now, as we speak, finalising the details on his great big fat tax-free pay off and his great big fat pension."

            "Good God. Really?"

            "Really," she confirmed. "But he was, is, a despicable bastard and I'm glad he's gone."

Inn

 

The strains of the piano and violin rose up weakly from below. Sofia moaned softly in sympathy, almost in harmony, while Tom could hardly stop smiling. He knew he ought to embrace her, assure her that there was more to their coupling than the sheer physical exhilaration. But for the time being he was replete with joy, incapable of rolling off his back and reaching out to her prostrate body. He'd stir in a moment, he told himself. After all, she seemed pleased, relaxed and satiated herself.

            She was thinking about the music downstairs, its continuance surely an indicator that there were still a number of people at the bar. She desperately needed a pee and didn't want to bump into one of them coming up the stairs, or one already on the landing. The inn was built almost entirely from wooden logs and had a certain rustic charm which didn't include a surfeit of lavatories. In fact, there was a single facility, midway between the room she was sharing with Tom and the only other bedroom, for the use of both temporary residents and regular customers, those strange folk who lived somewhere nearby amongst the trees and bushes of the surrounding forest. They came to the Inn at the end of long days working outdoors to enjoy the open fire, to dull or sharpen their wits and appetite with cheap alcohol, depending on their constitution and desire, and to listen to the elderly gent and his lady play a mixture of folk and light classical music.

            Harmless though they no doubt were, they were still the rugged, earthy types a city girl like Sofia suspected and feared. Earlier, she'd endured their unsophisticated banter while she and Tom ate their supper at a small rickety table at the side of the roaring fire. Tom had been amused by their impertinent references to the two young lovers who were staying the night; the idle speculation they were on the run from somewhere and somebody and the coarse demands for confirmation; the uninhibited and vulgar comments about what they'd soon be getting up to, doubtlessly. Tom acted as if the jests were all good natured and calmly batted away the jibes, the gestures, the suggestive barbs. Sofia had put her head down and concentrated on the stew, which was delicious, and the old couple's musical offerings, which were pleasant and soothing.

            Later, she'd almost baulked at the prospect of making love. They'd come out this way to be somewhere unfamiliar, somewhere with a romantic tinge in the surroundings, to consolidate their reunion. But there was a sizeable gathering beneath them showing no signs of thinning any time soon, and she was aghast at the thought they would surely hear every single noise Tom and her made. Tom had said, so what? And in the context of what they were about that night, he'd had a point. They were getting back together. They were starting again. They were putting the torrid past behind them. So, as she undressed she did her best to shut-out the distant audience and concentrated instead on Tom.

            Fortunately, Tom didn't last long. Maybe he'd been telling the truth when he'd said there'd been no one at all in the six months they'd been apart. He certainly had appeared to be infused with the eagerness of a young man who'd been doing without for some time, who'd developed a hair trigger disposition in the meantime. Sofia was amused and pleased, even if she wasn't entirely satisfied. She wasn't bothered right then. She could try later, when the audience had hopefully dissipated and a recovered Tom would be more capable of sustaining his performance.

            Meanwhile she had to deal with the problem of having a pee in private. She sought Tom's advice.

            "Do you want me to go and check, and then stand guard?" he offered, sweetly. Then, not so sweetly, suggested, "You could always take a piss in the bucket." The bucket was a plastic basin stored under the bed, which the landlady had offhandedly mentioned, without hinting what she considered they should use it for, almost as if every decent establishment kept basins there as a matter of course. "You wouldn't have to get dressed, then."

            "And you could watch me take a pee?" she wondered. "Kinky, eh?"

            "I wouldn't look," he smiled. "Unless you wanted me to."

            She bounced off the bed and snatched up the wrap poking out of the top of her grip with the other half-retrieved items of clothing she'd hurriedly packed at the last minute. It had short sleeves and a tie, but was flimsy. Moreover, the hem hung a good six inches above her knees. She simply couldn't venture onto the landing wearing only that. Depressingly, she would have to put her day clothes back on if she wanted to present a modest front to any stray wandering about in the vicinity. The bucket was looking an increasingly attractive proposition.

            Tom was lying back, distractedly playing with himself, like a little boy. Men! Did they never grow up? He says he wouldn't peek, but he would, wouldn't he? He'd find her embarrassment amusing. And if he didn't look he'd certainly hear, and then he'd laugh and make a joke anyway. She thought of her friend Angelica, married five years and her husband had never seen her pee (or heard her break wind, for that matter), nor he, her. In their household it was unthinkable. On the other hand, her sister Tess contended that once couples had shared certain intimacies (of the sexual variety) it did seem like unalloyed coyness to fret about maintaining strict lavatorial discreetness between them, only Tess had been a lot more Anglo-Saxon in her vocabulary.

            So was she an Angelica, who would either dress and risk an encounter on the landing, or hold herself in until returning to the privacy of her own home, if that was at all possible, or a Tess, who would long ago have grabbed the bucket and relieved herself without a qualm. Somewhere in between, Sophia thought. Really, it all depended on how Tom reacted. If he was quiet and respectful she could be a Tess, she thought, but if there was the slightest indication otherwise she'd take the Angelica position.

            Now she was bursting. She had to quickly don her clothes and get going, or scoop out that bucket - the plastic pail - from under the bed. Which way to go?

 

The relief was instantaneous, magnificent. She had to settle for shaking herself dry, but she didn't mind. Already her thoughts were turning to more carnal concerns, the unfinished business. Luckily, Tom was refreshed. Hopefully, after one premature firing, he'd be more in control this time.

            She required only the minimal of foreplay.

            "My, you're keen," he giggled as he moved his body across hers, nibbling her neck and shoulders as he went.

            "Hold on a little longer, this time," she panted.

            "I'll try," he said.

            Below them the old couple struck up a fresh tune, a jig of some sort, livelier and more raucous than their previous offerings. A couple of locals whooped and roared, but their noisy participation was beyond Sofia's hearing.

An Inn.jpg

The exercise here was to compose a short piece starting with the closing line of a novel from our bookshelves. The opening line of my effort is from Milan Kundera's The Unbearable Lightness of Being. We restricted ourselves to 1200 words (or more or less!) a stricture which put us somewhere between a short story and a piece of flash fiction. Some of the criticism I drew could be attributed to the length restriction, at least that's my excuse. My thanks and apologies to fellow Biggar Writer William J Granby for his solid observations, but in the end I decided to leave it as it was. So, not so much a story, but perhaps a noble vignette.

Find Him-Find Her

I approached her with all the grace I could muster, no doubt grinning desperately despite my efforts, afraid she'd perceive me as a journo on the make rather than a respectful admirer who could hardly believe his luck. She stood to greet me, offering a hand and a nervous smile, while the sole waiter swept in, bemused by the formality of our meeting, but determined to get our order before our self-imposed ceremony had been fully resolved. I sent him away with a brusque request to give us five minutes and sat down in tandem with my date.

            I looked slowly about me, a characterless, less than faultlessly hygienic café, a strange choice for a romantic hook-up, but perhaps an anodyne one for purely evaluation purposes. When I realised she meant to meet me in a tea room I'd expected a bespoke Elizabethan style place, or at least somewhere with some sort of panache, and though it was far from a spit and sawdust establishment it was nevertheless dull and uninspiring. There were a few other customers at the small round tables, the late spring sunshine pouring over them as they sat in disgruntled admiration of the premises - I wasn't the only one perturbed by the grubby cutlery and table cloths - and who, along with the staff, were clearly oblivious of my companion's identity.

            Then again, it had been ten years since she'd been in the news, and even back then she'd not exactly been an A-list celebrity. In fact, "celebrity" would have been a totally unfitting appellation for her, a prominent activist a more appropriate designation, now no longer prominent because she was no longer active, at least as far as I knew.

            "Mimi," she smiled, when I opened my mouth but failed to articulate her name. "Call me, Mimi."

            "Mimi. Yes. Mimi," I replied witlessly. "Andy."

            "Nice to meet you, Andy."

            Now the struggle really began: how to avoid quizzing her without revealing my knowledge of her past. I was anxious to prevent her thinking my motives for seeing her were for the satisfaction of prurient curiosity, that her former fame was her chief attraction. I began to wish I'd prepared more thoroughly, that I'd taken the advice given by Find Him-Find Her more seriously: prepare to quiz and be quizzed, but always with patience, honesty and humility; be tactful, kind and respectful.

            "Tell me a little about yourself," I said eventually, playing for time.

            The waiter swooped, staying her answer. The muttered complaints had gotten through to whoever was in charge, and orders had been issued to remove all tablecloths and cutlery from the tables at once. Helping the waiter was a teenage girl, hitherto behind the counter, obscured by plastic bins filled with cakes and buns, but now commanding centre stage as she noisily removed her share of the offending accoutrements while frantically apologising to all and sundry for the inconvenience. "Terribly sorry, terribly sorry," she prattled repeatedly, in her loud and distinctively distraught way, before trailing off with, "New staff. New staff. Should never have …"

            "What were you saying?" Mimi asked, grinning, as a semblance of order re-established itself.

            "Tell me about yourself," I reminded her.

            In fact, I could have told her a lot about herself, if she was having trouble remembering. She graduated from Oxford with a First in English, History & Politics. Shortly afterwards she won an Olympic Gold Medal. Within a couple of years of that, after retiring from competitive sport, she'd had two critically well received mystery-suspense novels published, though they were not great commercial successes. Meanwhile she was much in the news for her torrid love life, which included a string of celebrity partners including a future government minister, an English Premiership footballer, and a middle-aged married journalist who she met while writing her then weekly column in one of the longest standing published broadsheets in the country. The MP married someone from the aristocracy, Lady Penelope Pilkington-Smyth, or some such, the footballer dumped her for the favours of a pop star, a member of a girl band who were insanely popular for half a decade, and the indiscreet journo's wife filed for divorce the same week he told Mimi he would never leave his wife for her.

            All true, at least according to the newspapers with which Mimi had temporarily thrown in her hand. The employer of the middle-aged rat had given Mimi a platform for her increasingly radical views on climate change, pollution and energy policy in particular, and green environmental issues in general. The newspaper itself was increasingly hostile to Mimi's and her fellow travellers' stance, but considered it good PR to allow her to voice her opinions from their platform, to show how fair minded, and tolerant they were, even of their ideological enemies. And just to prove it, when her affair with her married colleague came to light they promptly dispensed with her services, which was easy to do because she was freelance. The decision, of course, had nothing to do with the wronged woman being one of the newspapers' executives' daughters. History does not record, as far as I can ascertain, though I haven't looked that hard, the fate of Mimi's erstwhile lover, but I never spotted his by-line in the paper again after Mimi ceased to be published.

            Undeterred, being vocal enough, renowned enough and having some good connections, Mimi set about making documentaries for TV espousing the "green" view of the world. She wrote books again, but not fiction. This time it was non-fiction, accompaniments to her TV work. A long standing member of Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth, as well as Amnesty International, she set out on a political career, standing for the Green Party in a succession of elections, but never quite garnering enough votes to get a seat in Parliament or a place on the council.

            And then one day she simply fell silent. Unheralded, she slipped out of public view and public service. Even I, an ardent admirer, perhaps naively smitten with her image, lost sight of her until I happened upon her a few weeks ago in the data base of Find Him-Find Her.

            "I'm a thirty-eight-year-old single mother of Caribbean-Hispanic-Scottish descent," she told me. "I hope you're not annoyed I kept this off Find Him-Find Her's public record. I asked for maximum discretion and minimal disclosure, you see. Are you disappointed?"

            "No, not at all," I assured her: the truth, of course. "How many children do you have?"

            "Just the one. A boy."

            "How old is he?"

            "Ten."

            Born around the time she abandoned her blossoming career.

            "Is he a handful?" I wondered.

            "Oh yes," she laughed.

            The brassy teenage girl had returned, armed with a fresh table cloth and presumably fresh cutlery. "Excuse me," she said, and draped the pristine, white cloth over the table. We both instinctively sat back to make room for her while she swiftly laid down the cutlery, wrapped in bundles inside white paper napkins. A moment later she was setting a small vase containing some short stalked fake flowers between us, an adornment that hadn't been there before. I anticipated the return of the waiter.

            Her voice came to me muffled, as if from inside a nearby closet. "About you. Tell me about you."

            I was distracted, waiting for her to reveal all I knew, perversely reluctant to show my hand. I hedged. "I'm not sure we've heard enough about you yet."

            "Oh, I'm sure we have, for the moment," she re-joined. "Go on. Tell me something."

            I began with, "I'm single, never been married, never been close to being married …"

            However, my resolve to remain guarded - for her sake as much as mine, or so I told myself - soon crumbled. I moved swiftly from the banal to the crucial, confessing that I did in fact know her, or rather know of her, from her previous public profile, and though I was not there under any false pretences, but solely for the stated purpose, I nevertheless felt compelled to confess I came loaded with unavoidable preconceptions. I apologised. My intention had been to conceal from her my pre-existing knowledge from a, perhaps, misplaced respect for her, rather than as an act of unwarranted duplicity.

            She said nothing but, with the slightest wink of an eye, she urged me on. I'd been an admirer, a follower, a fan, I continued, hurriedly spewing out her CV in front of her, extolling her seemingly limitless virtues, just as hurriedly reining in my enthusiasm, and belatedly bemoaning the fact I'd been, at first, hurt by her disappearance from the public eye, and then shamelessly indifferent until that magical moment a couple of weeks ago when Find Him-Find Her had suggested we were a compatible couple. I felt the need to apologise again.

            "I'm sorry. I never wanted any of this to come between us … between us getting to know each other, properly."

            "That was another time, another place. A lifetime ago," she remarked.

            "But you were extraordinary … are extraordinary."

            "Really?" she wondered with an arched eyebrow. "But Andy, you hardly know me."

            I coughed to clear my throat and my mind, resolving to shift the conversation onto safer ground, more recent events, though I couldn't resist a link to her former incarnation.

            "So, you gave it all up to raise a family," I said.

            "In a way," she replied.

            "Your son?"

            "He wasn't planned," she sniffed. "But it's true I have devoted my life to his welfare, first and foremost, from the moment he was born."

            "But worth it, of course."

            "It's been tough, at times," she continued. "Being on my own, solely responsible for Alfie's welfare. I've been lucky, too. I had plenty of savings and plenty of royalties coming in to give him a comfortable life when he was a baby. I could be with him a lot, all the time, in fact. So I coped, alone, with the sleepless nights, the tantrums, the inexplicable bouts of sickness, the accidents. But the rewards were endless: the happy smiles, the giggles, the cuddles, sharing his wonder at the world, helping him understand it. Now he's annoyingly independent but still terribly fragile without realising it. And the savings went a long time ago, and the royalties are nothing but a dribble these days."

            "You have a glittering CV. You can have any number of careers. I'm sure you'll get something soon."

            She looked at me most queerly, as if I'd been stupidly insulting, which in a way I had.

            "Oh, I'm working," she told me. "I have a job - two, in fact."

            "Really?" I said. "I hadn't heard."

            "Why would you?"

            She looked at me coolly, the fool that I was. Indeed, why should I?

            "I thought I might have heard something if you'd picked up the strands of your old career," I replied miserably.

            "No," she said. "I couldn't do that. I couldn't do that even if I didn't have Alfie."

            "Then what do you do?"

            "I work in a supermarket, stacking shelves, manning a till or customer services, dispensing cigarettes and other contraband. They're very flexible about working hours, which helps. And I manage a couple of shifts a week cleaning offices. It's all dependent on Alfie, what he's up to, and I've made friends with some other mothers, and we cover for each other, babysitting after school, that sort of thing, which helps too. Are you shocked?"

            I didn't have time to reply as the waiter, now boiling with impatience, intervened and demanded to know if we were staying for lunch. We both hesitated until Mimi mustered the gumption to declare she only wanted a pot of tea and a scone, if that was all right. I said I'd have coffee, nothing else. He grunted dismissively and trundled away muttering something inaudible, but doubtlessly rude, under his breath. The short break had given me time to marshal my thoughts.

            "Not shocked," I said, returning to our conversation. The pause had been a blessing; I nearly convinced myself of the veracity of my declaration. I was actually quite bewildered. "But I suppose I'm a little surprised you haven't taken up something more aligned with your considerable talents."

            "Do you consider my chosen employment somehow beneath me?" she asked pointedly.

            "No, not at all," I protested. "Just … a bit undemanding, I would have thought."

            "Undemanding?" she queried with that arched eyebrow again. "Perhaps you could give it a little thought before you make asinine pronouncements about things of which you have no experience. Undemanding? You try dragging a trolley loaded with goods from the stock room to the shop floor and loading up the shelves. Try that for two hours without a break and see if it's undemanding. Try swiping item after item through your till station, processing payments by card or cash, opening and shutting the till every few seconds, punching instructions on your keypad, trying to be ever so polite to every Tom, Dick and Harry no matter how rude they are to you. Try running a mop over a huge tiled floor, round and under desks and tables and chairs, and then hauling your bucket out to attend to the stairs, lugging it up and down, swishing and wiping away the grime from step after step, wondering if you'll get the kitchenettes cleaned before it's time to leave for home, knowing you'll have to be late if you haven't. Undemanding?"

            "I meant intellectually," I sniped peevishly.

            I was saved by the truculent waiter again, unceremoniously plonking our order between us, the tea pot, the hot water pot, the teacup, saucer and spoon, the scone on a plate with the tiny packets of butter and jam, my coffee in an unaccompanied mug, and a small jug of milk, each item removed from the tray rather carelessly and shuffled onto the table. Some milk and a drop of tea from the overfilled pot spilled onto the virgin cloth. "Oops," he said mechanically, a disingenuous apology, as he roughly dabbed the offending wet spots with a towel he'd whisked out of his pocket.

            "He's a riot," Mimi observed when he'd departed.

            "Perhaps it's working here that's made him lose his sense of humour," I suggested, squandering the grace the waiter had purchased for me. "Maybe it's not demanding … intellectually demanding enough."

            "Are you making fun of me?"

            "No, not …" I began to say.

            "Sounds awfully like you were making fun of me," she insisted. "I'm sorry I don't live up to your expectations."

            I noted the shift from being cordial if wary, to a more antagonistic mood, entirely my own clumsy creation. I should grovel, I realised, if not in a completely supine manner, at least in a way that demonstrates sincerely the respect she undoubtedly deserved and I had singularly failed to provide.

            "That was rude of me. I have no excuse other than I'm a fallible human being of the male variety. Can we start again?"

            She lowered her teacup and looked me up and down. "We can try," she said.

            "Alfie? Your son?" She nodded. "Obviously the most important person in your life, I guess, but you haven't mentioned his father. Would it be presumptuous to ask where he fitted into Alfie's life, your life, these days?"

            "My," she cooed with a thin smile. "We don't mess about."

            "We could spend an hour quizzing each other about our likes and dislikes," I continued more confidently. "Our favourite food, or film, or TV show, or our hobbies, or whatever, none of which would add up to a hill of beans if somewhere down the line we discover some skeleton in the closet that should have had an airing before we got serious with each other. If you prefer, I can let my skeletons out first and let you have a look at them."

            She ignored my offer. "You consider my son a skeleton in my closet?"

            "Of course not," I cried. "But your ex, his father, might be."

            She put aside her tea and scone and leaned across the table. "Do you want to be shocked? I don't know who Alfie's father is. You look puzzled. I didn't have a few boyfriends on the go at the same time, if that's what you were thinking."

            "Oh, a one-night stand and you got caught, unlucky," I said.

            "Not exactly," she whispered. "Alfie aside, yeah, I got very unlucky."

            I gulped. I'd lost my nerve again. "Don't tell me anymore if you don't want to. I shouldn't have pried."

            Mimi evidently hadn't. "Perhaps it's something you should know before we attempt to go any further," she replied, raising her voice a tiny bit. There was a noticeable pause, a gathering of her will. "I was raped by a complete stranger, someone I believe was hired to rape me." She sighed heavily, the terrible confession over with. "Alfie's the by-product of the assault."     

            "What?"

            It's all I could muster to say while she resumed her narrative and told her dreadful tale in excruciating detail, the masked man hiding in her flat, waiting, pouncing, dragging her to the floor, an immensely strong man who overpowered her with ease. Giving in to the inevitable to save her life, which she was convinced was right there and then in danger. Perhaps he'd be merciful; she hadn't seen his face or heard his voice, the former hidden behind the fast fixed mask, the other not used until he was on the verge of releasing her. When he spoke it chilled her to the bones.

            "He said, 'This is a warning, Miss Graham. You're going to retire. Now. At once. No more TV documentaries. No more books. No more newspaper columns, or speeches or campaigns or protests or electioneering. You're going to live a very quiet life, Miss Graham. But if you don't, I'll be back. And I'll rape you again, and then I'll kill you. Understand?'"

            I was struggling. What a weird and barbarous tale to tell. Could it possibly be true, or was she winding me up? I looked at her aghast. Some skeleton, or not.

            "Didn't you go to the police?" I finally wondered.

            "Did I want my story splashed all over the front pages and broadcast to a prurient nation?"

            I sat back, in shock. Now there were a million or more new questions forming on my lips, or quite a few in any case. Before I could ask one, she spoke again.

            "I've always loved this tea room. I'm always reminded that although looks can sometimes be deceiving, more often than not they scream the very essence of the truth."

Couples at table.jpg

Here we set ourselves the task of composing a piece about an extraordinary character in an ordinary place. I chose to invent someone extraordinary and put her in a cafe, meeting a date set up through a dating agency. I'm indebted to my fellow Biggar Writer, Jane Brydon, for some invaluable comments.

Woman winning race.jpg

Imagine That

 

Nothingness.

            Not a speck of material, nor a flicker of light, not a moment of time.

            Imagine the almost unimaginable emptiness.

            When there was nothing, nothing to touch, nothing to see, no time to pass, nothing was nothing too, and when didn't mean anything at all. Everything and nothing simultaneously, without meaning and yet with utterly complete meaning. There was no void to fill and there was nothing else but the void, waiting to be filled, somewhere and nowhere, waiting on everything and waiting on nothing.

            Imagine nothingness.

            Try.

            Bang!

            And then there was light.

            Then there was everything, everything that ever was and ever will be. Every galaxy, star and planet. Every dust cloud, meteorite and comet. Every black hole, wormhole and atom. Every quark and proton and neutron. Every electron. Every chemical and chemical element, every chemical reaction and isotope. Every life born, lived and died. Every homely meal, sweet smile and act of kindness. Every starving child. Every look of pain and fear and act of cruelty. Everything meaningful and everything meaningless.

            Nothing but the journey.

            Hurtling out of the fiery cauldron that follows there's time to measure now. Stars form. They cluster in galaxies, spew out debris swirling into dust clouds that coalesce, forming planets and moons and asteroids and comets and meteors. Fresh stars. Unplanned. Unguided. It simply is; they simply are. The physics invents the chemistry that begets the biology, blind and obedient only to the relentless march of time born of chaos, like the creatures slithering out of the primordial soup, hell bent on going everywhere and nowhere, today and tomorrow and for all time.

            Competition and passivity, hand in hand, seeking truth, denying truth, taking blame, assigning blame. Killing and being killed. Loving and hating. Gorging and starving. Having and giving. Winning and losing. Trust and mistrust. Lust and aversion. Help or hinder. Choice?

            Plan a journey, plot a course, choose a way.

            Reach, not only for the stars.

            Reach out, lend a hand, donate hope. Embrace love. Reject hate. Treasure green fields, flowers of gold and orange, yellow, red and blue, pink and purple. Follow wisdom. Be kind. Celebrate the joy in every happy child's face. Condemn cruelty at every turn. Laugh. Scowl at injustice. Be there. Close at hand. Ready. Bathe in the luxury of good will. Step away from the clammy grasp of bitterness and resentment.

            Remember: out of nothingness, into nothingness.

            Where everything came from; where everything is headed.

            Enjoy the journey; there's nothing else.

            Make every meal a feast: share. Conquer hunger. Face sorrows and woes: share. Conquer grief. Make friends. Share walks. Dance. Dream. Befriend the lonely. Lift up the weak. Teach the wicked. Make fools of no one. Be more. Shun less.

 

In the corner of a garden an unidentified plant struggles into spring, having survived the harshest of frosts this winter passed. Now the plant is warming up, stirring, sunrays ever more plentiful with each passing day, providing nourishment, like the rain falling and soaking the earth around the plant. Soon it will be strong. Soon its petals open to the bees. Now available for admiration. One day returned to dust. From nothing, into nothing.

 

In a far flung corner of a distant galaxy a giant star explodes into supernova and donates a new neutron star to the universe. In another corner an even more massive star collapses into a black hole. These star systems gave up on flowers and gardens long ago, insensible as they are to the shifting patterns perceived on living platforms, commendable complexity subsumed into singular simplicity. From nothing, into nothing.

 

A patch of scorched earth spreads like a cancer, testament to greed and endless stupidity. Where there was once water there is none; where there was once food, the earth is barren. Civility, honesty, friendship, kindness, goodwill, trust; gone with the food and water. From nothing, into nothing.

 

Tears rise and flood, exuberant joy and dismal despair, and all points in between. Happy laughs rise and echo, tumbling between raucous jeers. Kisses. Punches. Hugs and cuddles. Playful slaps. Hateful slaps. Lovers' tiffs. Life and death. Dust to dust. From nothing, into nothing.

 

The journey, from the moment of joining, should never be taken alone. There's no point: all from the same place, all headed the same way. Don't give up. Don't plough a lonely furrow. Be and be with. A shared road is a happy road, no matter the destination. Love as if you'll never get there. Take a hand firmly in yours and stride purposefully together no matter how rough the road. Take the tumbles together. Glide on the currents of goodwill and surf high above the grim winds of charmless animosity. Enjoy the journey. All are one at the final resting place. Remember: from nothing, into nothing.

            Imagine that.

The challenge that gave rise to this piece was to compose something that had only one or no character(s). I thought I was writing a short story in a sort of stream of consciousness vein. My fellow Biggarians say it is a prose poem. Mayabe. Anyway, it's quite unlike anything else I've produced.

big-bang-conceptual-artwork.jpg

Imagine That

 

Nothingness.

            Not a speck of material, nor a flicker of light, not a moment of time.

            Imagine the almost unimaginable emptiness.

            When there was nothing, nothing to touch, nothing to see, no time to pass, nothing was nothing too, and when didn't mean anything at all. Everything and nothing simultaneously, without meaning and yet with utterly complete meaning. There was no void to fill and there was nothing else but the void, waiting to be filled, somewhere and nowhere, waiting on everything and waiting on nothing.

            Imagine nothingness.

            Try.

            Bang!

            And then there was light.

            Then there was everything, everything that ever was and ever will be. Every galaxy, star and planet. Every dust cloud, meteorite and comet. Every black hole, wormhole and atom. Every quark and proton and neutron. Every electron. Every chemical and chemical element, every chemical reaction and isotope. Every life born, lived and died. Every homely meal, sweet smile and act of kindness. Every starving child. Every look of pain and fear and act of cruelty. Everything meaningful and everything meaningless.

            Nothing but the journey.

            Hurtling out of the fiery cauldron that follows there's time to measure now. Stars form. They cluster in galaxies, spew out debris swirling into dust clouds that coalesce, forming planets and moons and asteroids and comets and meteors. Fresh stars. Unplanned. Unguided. It simply is; they simply are. The physics invents the chemistry that begets the biology, blind and obedient only to the relentless march of time born of chaos, like the creatures slithering out of the primordial soup, hell bent on going everywhere and nowhere, today and tomorrow and for all time.

            Competition and passivity, hand in hand, seeking truth, denying truth, taking blame, assigning blame. Killing and being killed. Loving and hating. Gorging and starving. Having and giving. Winning and losing. Trust and mistrust. Lust and aversion. Help or hinder. Choice?

            Plan a journey, plot a course, choose a way.

            Reach, not only for the stars.

            Reach out, lend a hand, donate hope. Embrace love. Reject hate. Treasure green fields, flowers of gold and orange, yellow, red and blue, pink and purple. Follow wisdom. Be kind. Celebrate the joy in every happy child's face. Condemn cruelty at every turn. Laugh. Scowl at injustice. Be there. Close at hand. Ready. Bathe in the luxury of good will. Step away from the clammy grasp of bitterness and resentment.

            Remember: out of nothingness, into nothingness.

            Where everything came from; where everything is headed.

            Enjoy the journey; there's nothing else.

            Make every meal a feast: share. Conquer hunger. Face sorrows and woes: share. Conquer grief. Make friends. Share walks. Dance. Dream. Befriend the lonely. Lift up the weak. Teach the wicked. Make fools of no one. Be more. Shun less.

 

In the corner of a garden an unidentified plant struggles into spring, having survived the harshest of frosts this winter passed. Now the plant is warming up, stirring, sunrays ever more plentiful with each passing day, providing nourishment, like the rain falling and soaking the earth around the plant. Soon it will be strong. Soon its petals open to the bees. Now available for admiration. One day returned to dust. From nothing, into nothing.

 

In a far flung corner of a distant galaxy a giant star explodes into supernova and donates a new neutron star to the universe. In another corner an even more massive star collapses into a black hole. These star systems gave up on flowers and gardens long ago, insensible as they are to the shifting patterns perceived on living platforms, commendable complexity subsumed into singular simplicity. From nothing, into nothing.

 

A patch of scorched earth spreads like a cancer, testament to greed and endless stupidity. Where there was once water there is none; where there was once food, the earth is barren. Civility, honesty, friendship, kindness, goodwill, trust; gone with the food and water. From nothing, into nothing.

 

Tears rise and flood, exuberant joy and dismal despair, and all points in between. Happy laughs rise and echo, tumbling between raucous jeers. Kisses. Punches. Hugs and cuddles. Playful slaps. Hateful slaps. Lovers' tiffs. Life and death. Dust to dust. From nothing, into nothing.

 

The journey, from the moment of joining, should never be taken alone. There's no point: all from the same place, all headed the same way. Don't give up. Don't plough a lonely furrow. Be and be with. A shared road is a happy road, no matter the destination. Love as if you'll never get there. Take a hand firmly in yours and stride purposefully together no matter how rough the road. Take the tumbles together. Glide on the currents of goodwill and surf high above the grim winds of charmless animosity. Enjoy the journey. All are one at the final resting place. Remember: from nothing, into nothing.

            Imagine that.

The challenge that gave rise to this piece was to compose something that had only one or no character(s). I thought I was writing a short story in a sort of stream of consciousness vein. My fellow Biggarians say it is a prose poem. Mayabe. Anyway, it's quite unlike anything else I've produced.

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The Triple Crown

 

The boy checked his watch at the mid-way point. Winding up every muscle and stretching every sinew, Harry lengthened his stride, haplessly gulping air into his lungs from the effort, disturbing the easy breathe-in/breathe-out rhythm. He prayed the run wouldn't be derailed. He had to break the seven-minute barrier, his reward for the hard winter slog both on and off the road. His exam results were already in; he'd done better than expected. Mum and Dad were pleased and he could look forward to the sixth form with some confidence. But that one was for them. This, this race against the clock, was for him.

            There wasn't much about school he liked. Most of the curriculum bored him. Even when the subject was something that ought to have been fun, like Music, it wasn't. He didn't want to know about keys and scales and arpeggios, and listen to Bach and Mozart. He wanted to know about his music, the music that poured out of his iPod, the sound of his generation, not the fusty relics of some bygone age. The teachers spoiled it. Like they spoiled sport. He was a runner: fast. But they wanted him in the football and rugby teams, because that brought them competition from other schools, competition he could help them win. But he didn't want to risk his neck, his arms or legs, or any other part of him that accidentally debilitated would hold back his running. So he said no to the football and the rugby, and the Sports Master promptly banned him from training in the school grounds after school. He would have to run in the streets, round the estate, on the unforgiving concrete pavements. So he did.

            He devised his own training regime, a fitness and health programme with dietary guidelines for his mother, a complete schedule of what to eat and when to eat it. Dad was impressed, Mum mortified. But aside from the initial look of shocked horror on her face she never registered a complaint, and faithfully followed her son's instructions, more or less. In return he rarely offered a word of censure when she occasionally strayed that teeny-weeny bit from his nutritional demands. Only once did he make a real fuss, when she presented him with a low fat yoghurt instead of full fat, alarmed because he knew she'd have a crateful of them. He barked his displeasure and barely spoke to her for the rest of the day. The next day she gave him a full fat yoghurt and he never saw a low fat pot again.

            He glanced at his watch once more. His chest was burning and his throat was scorched. Perspiration ran in rivulets from the top of his head to the base of his spine. The wind, of the late-summer/early-autumn variety, kept the front of him relatively dry, a deliciously soothing breeze, mercifully cooler than it had been for weeks. Still, he felt he was overheating. Perhaps he was dehydrated. Despite his research, he wasn't entirely sure what he was doing most of the time. Rather like his academic studies, really. But hadn't he succeeded there when no one expected him to? And he would succeed here too; he'd break the seven-minute barrier. He would. He had to. And that would make this summer a double success.

            The metaphorical finishing line was in sight, the lamppost half-way up the avenue where he lived. He burst through it, past it, over it, stopping his watch: 6:59:06.

            He bent over, hands on haunches, panting heavily, a feeling of triumph bursting painfully upon his face, a smirk of gigantic proportions he was ill equipped to deal with. It hurt; the broad grin, the twisted cheek muscles. For a moment, he thought he had lockjaw. Then the pain suddenly faded and he was at ease with his body again as he assumed a more modest smile. I did it, he told himself. Jeez, I fucking did it. Two out of two, the treasured double, and there was still a week of the summer hols to go. He opened the gate at the foot of the pathway to his family's home and padded softly to the door. Enjoining himself to keep calm he stepped into the hall and called for his mother.

            She was a stout woman of modest height displaying the charming, darker hues of her Italian extraction, leaving little doubt that twenty years ago she'd been an absolute stunner. Dad teased her about how all that olive oil and pasta had caught up with her, gone to her hips, as he put it. She didn't mind. She had enough confidence for all of them.

            "You did it?" she smiled.

            Her boy smiled back. "Yes," he grinned.

            "Lunch? Chicken salad?"

            He smiled again. "Right," he confirmed.

            They ate in the kitchen together, at the ancient, rickety, Formica topped foldaway table Harry's mother loved - incomprehensibly - so much.

            "You'll be needing a shower and a change of clothes as soon as you're done," she advised, before he'd finished his first mouthful.

            "What's the rush?" he wondered. He liked to take a couple of hours winding down before cleaning himself up, to lie on his bed, plug in his iPod and drift away to some place in the future where he was winning Olympic Gold. "We going somewhere?"

            "Not me," Mother replied. "But you might."

            "Where?"

            "It's not so much a question of where, but who with," Mother remarked cryptically.

            Harry complained he wasn't in the mood for mysteries, so perhaps she could just tell him straight. So she did.

            The previous morning those two girls who were so chummily joined at the hip turned up on the doorstep looking for Harry, not for the first time. She'd told them he was out running, like most mornings, and if they wanted to catch him it was best to come in the afternoon. They said they surely would, tomorrow, which was now today. Did Harry want his mother to keep them hanging on the doorstep while they waited for him - if they would - or would he prefer to get a move on and be ready to greet them himself?

            He bolted the rest of his lunch and hurtled upstairs, to his bedroom first, and then naked across the landing to the bathroom.

            It was Sandra Levy and Alison Page - had to be. They'd been in his drama class, one fun subject the teachers, miraculously, didn't mess up. And they were going to be in his 'A' level English class. Sandra was a bit of a tart, all flashing eyes and heaving (if rather flat) chest, thin moist lips desperately trying to be plumper in order to pout more effectively. Harry wasn't the only one who'd had an erotic fumble or two with her. All very more than nice, and it made his heart race, yet never the way it raced when he merely looked at Alison. Then he experienced a thrilling thrum that threatened to explode through his ribs. If he got within five metres of her the agony intensified: his limbs quivered, his mind went blank, and he lost the ability to speak. There was only one defence, a short-term palliative, which was to prattle incessantly about whatever play the drama group happened to be rehearsing, which had been a fat lot of use these last five weeks of the holidays. Still, he sensed a certain coyness in her manner, which he hoped was a tacit expression of interest to match his own, though it was difficult to be entirely sure about anything when the two girls were together.

            They were rarely physically separated, preferring to link arms at every conceivable opportunity. Even during Drama, at school, they were only apart when the demands of the class required. They even went to the loo together, disappearing through the toilet doors arm in arm, re-emerging still attached, for all anyone knew having, somehow, discharged their hygienic needs firmly bonded to each other. When this intimacy between them began Harry couldn't pinpoint, but it made the business of chasing Alison, or indeed Sandra, fraught with difficulty, with so little chance to grasp a private word with her, if he ever managed to get his voice box under control.

            In early spring when the sunsets were getting noticeably later, and the exams were still a distant threat, there'd been a few opportunities. There was a gang of about a dozen of them who hung out together, and as the year marched towards summer they frequently found themselves massing at one of other of their homes in the evening, one where the adults had decided to abandon the place for the evening, naturally, in the certain knowledge their children could safely look after themselves for a few hours. Which of course they did, in their own way, their late adolescent way.

            A certain amount of boy-girl pairing off ensued, and some of the newly, randomly formed couples would curl up together and get into some serious snogging, apparently oblivious of the audience around them. More adventurous couples sneaked off to some quiet, darkened corner of the hall or kitchen or dining room, or even upstairs to a bathroom or bedroom, and indulged in altogether more intimate explorations of each other's bodies. It was at these moments that Sandra and Alison would separate, Alison inclined to snog a boy or two, hesitant to be bolder, Sandra eager to explore her own sexuality as well as that of any willing boy, of which there were no shortage of volunteers.

            Under which circumstances Harry found himself indulging with a willing Sandra, while simultaneously mooning over Alison snogging a mate or two of his without showing any inclination to embrace him at any time in any way whatsoever. Except? Well, she never looked as if she was exactly swooning with delight with any of her choices of snogging partners, and she did, confusingly, throw Harry a cryptic look or two which he was entirely incapable of deciphering. Maybe she did want to snog him, but she'd have to be a damn sight less ambiguous before he'd risk making a fool of himself.

            Now though, bolstered by his twin achievements of academic and sporting success, Harry thought he might chance his arm.

            They arrived on his doorstep late afternoon, casually inviting him to a walk, depressingly clinging limpet-like to each other. As they ambled down the street Harry launched into a riff about the drama group perhaps staging a Shakespeare play.

            Sandra was aghast. "Don't be so bloody stupid, Harry," she cried. "The school play can't be Shakespeare. It's hard enough drumming up support for an Agatha Christie offering. Get real."

            "What do you think, Alison?" Harry croaked, jumping at the offered opening.

            "I think Sandra has a point," Alison replied with a smile. "Besides, Mrs Hodges has already set her heart on doing Hobson's Choice. At least that's what I heard."

            Hobson's Choice? He'd heard of it. Pretty sure he'd seen some old black and white film of that title. Was it a stage play originally? He didn't know. In the wake of his ignorance and the girls' blunt realism his mind began to flounder. Shakespeare? What the hell had he been thinking? His mouth ran dry.

            They walked on, the girls chattering about the roles in Hobson's Choice and who might be cast in a school production. To his chagrin, Harry didn't hear his name being bandied around, so he closed his ears and let his mind drift to where they were walking, apparently across the estate to the north end where he knew Sandra lived. Surely they would pick up some mutual friends on the way, but as it happened that didn't seem to be part of their plan, if indeed the girls had a plan. So confusing.

            "Mister Hope and Mister Stafford …" Alison was saying.

            "What about them?" Harry wondered.

            "They'll get the lead male roles - always do."

            "Too many of the parts are taken by staff," Sandra opined.

            "Yes, but that's because most of the pupils who are interested are crap," Alison observed. "Present company excluded," she added with a giggle. Then she flashed Harry one of those mysterious looks and he felt himself go faint. Christ! Would he ever be able to get out more than a few words at a time with her?

            Sandra shrugged. "If we do Hobson's Choice, Hobson and Willie will have to be played by staff, I suppose," she added mournfully.

            Harry smiled and suppressed a giggle. Everyone knew Sandra had a case on Mr Hope. She'd be dying to play opposite him in any production.

            Soon they were at Sandra's door and though invited in, Alison declined. So Harry quickly did too. "I'd better get home for tea," said Alison.

            "Me too," Harry cried, too impetuously for Alison's taste if the short-lived look of horror on her face was anything to go by. "I could walk you to the top of the hill, if you like," he hurriedly added.

            "Yes, thanks," Alison replied.

            Sandra disappeared inside and Harry and Alison moved on, cautiously, awkwardly, exchanging nervous smiles.

            The estate, Harry and Sandra's estate, rose quite sharply to a peak which overlooked the adjoining one where Alison lived. From there the hill fell sharply away, a long but steep grassy area where Harry remembered often playing as a small child. There was less hill and less greenery these days, what with all the new house building, but there was still a reasonable expanse for sitting down on and admiring the view, which was what they tacitly agreed to do. It was an hour at most till sunset, Harry judged, when he assumed Alison would leave him, if not earlier. He supposed he could always accompany her down the long avenue that led to the road where she lived, but he had no money for bus fares and it was a heck of a climb back, a full hour's walk home.

            "Penny for your thoughts," Alison chimed, her sweet tones laced with the slightest of tremors. She was such a mystery. Her chin rested on her uplifted knees, her arms encircled her shins, and a light breeze rustled her thick chestnut mane. Oh how he longed to hold her! "Come on," she continued, looking up and smiling. "I can practically hear your brain whirring."

            She leant back on her elbows and stretched her legs.

            "I was thinking that perhaps we should go out," he blurted. "You know, go out together, go out with me, if you want to."

            There, it was said. It was said and done and there was no taking it back and nowhere to hide. His heart hammered in his chest. He blushed. Right then he'd trade his good exam results and his sub-seven-minute mile for just another smile, never mind a Yes.

            She looked stunned, but in a happy way, he thought, hoping he wasn't clutching at straws.

            "I had no idea …" she began. "I didn't … Well, I wasn't sure."

            "What?" he prompted, emboldened. She'd blushed and turned her face away. He gulped, despite the dryness in his throat. "I've always been … I've always … fancied you," he confessed.

            She turned sharply back to him, her face still flushed, but projecting a beaming smile, her eyes watery with joy. "Will you walk me home?" she asked, hopping to her feet.

            He followed suit. "Of course," he said.

            She took his hand and he shook with delight. As they walked down the hill, every few seconds she squeezed his hand. He squeezed back and got to thinking how all good things came in threes. Or was that bad things? Didn't matter. Things came in threes. This was a good three, a great three. Now he knew he'd never have been happy with the double. And the best, Alison, had come last, completing his summer, completing his very own Triple Crown.

Another Biggar Writers' fun challenge, which was to write something with an optimistic bent. There is a faintly biographical tinge to this piece, centred on youthful days, which are always full of optimism.

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A Good War

 

He felt awkward in his civvies, but he was under orders to wear them when off duty in public. The people here had seen enough of war and fighting men in uniforms. He understood. But still, when he'd last trod these streets in those long gone innocent days in the 30s, he'd worn his uniform with pride at all times, even when he was stepping out with Eileen Cremona. Would she recognise him in the dull, misshaped suit made of rough cloth, a naval rating's special he had to fork out for direct from his pay packet, in instalments.

            He took a deep breath and composed himself outside the Victoria bar, which he'd had no bother locating. Stepping inside, in an otherwise empty bar, he saw a weather-beaten old man alone at a table with a beer and a tot of something stronger, the scene illuminated by a shaft of light lancing through the window shutters, leaving near darkness either side of the sole patron. Then Eileen appeared, behind the pumps, as he'd been assured she would.

            "Can I get you a beer, sailor?" she asked breezily, her hand on the pump handle ready to draw a drink on request.

            "That would be just grand," Billy replied, stepping forward, and then closer still, till the counter was the only thing separating them. "Hello, Eileen, it's marvellous to see you."

            "Billy Mill," Eileen grinned. "The slayer of the San Gwann Ghost."

            Billy laughed. "I've done my best to forget that little episode. Cost me 2 month's wage' and privileges."

            "And so it should have," Eileen laughed back. She put a beer down for him. "Now, tell me, where are the rest of the gang? Where's Frankie?"

            Billy's face clouded. "Dead, I'm afraid. Frankie, along with Big Jock, Johnny Mason, Jackie Welsh, Ernie Fulton …"

            "My, my," Eileen gasped, her hand going to her mouth.

            Billy shook his head. "Shoulda bin me too," he said. "We were docked in Gib the day the war broke out, and the message came we were to head back here, but since I was technically still a Boy, I was 20, they took me off the ship and put me on a boat home to Blighty, Chatham. I'm a Chatham rating, you see. They were sunk a few weeks before Christmas 39, all hands lost, off the coast of Greece. Jackie, Ernie, Johnny … Frankie. All of them. All my mates."

            Eileen put a comforting hand on Billy's. "Oh Billy, I'm so sorry, I had no idea," she said softly.

            Billy sniffed, recomposed himself. "I was lucky. I was lucky right through the war," he added, brightening. "I had a good war, if there can be such a thing. What I mean is, apart from losing those friends of mine in 39, I didn't personally suffer much, whereas so many suffered so much more. But then, living through it here, you'd know better than me about that."

            Eileen nodded. "Yes I do," she replied quietly. Then she smiled broadly, ready to tease with a wicked wink or 2, and a touch of irony. "I got through it by looking forward to seeing my handsome man, Billy Mill, again, one day," she grinned. "And now, here he is."

            "I missed you, Eileen," he said.

            "I missed you too," she replied.

            "But I was half-expecting to find you wed with a couple of kids."

            "A lot of people rushed into wedlock and having kids when the war was raging at its worst, wanting to sample family life before the war took one or both of them away. But I didn't want to. I never felt like that. I didn't want to bring kids into a world gone crazy."

            "And now?" Billy wondered.

            She shrugged. "Maybe," she said.

            They laughed together, sensing they were both reliving the same memories, those long walks across the fields and along the country lanes, stopping every so often for a kiss and a quivering embrace, never daring to go further, Billy occasionally pressing the need, Eileen acknowledging but always denying, confessing her terror of being caught out of wedlock, Billy always respecting her fears. She poured him a fresh beer.

            "Now tell me more about this good war of yours, Billy," she demanded.

            He shrugged. "What would you like to know?"

            "Where did you spend the war? Not here. Not in the Med. No?"

            "No," Billy agreed. "I was at home for a while. Then I was out of it for a while. I ended up in Freetown for the best part of a year. When I got back from there I was in the Atlantic, and the North Sea."

            "What did you do?"

            Billy smiled. "Most of the time I was hunting submarines and trying to sink them. German submarines," he added with a laugh. "We sank a whale once, but I'm not sure if it was German."

            "That's terrible," Eileen cried.

            "Yes, it was," Billy agreed. "The Admiralty were furious."

            "Why?"

            "Waste of munitions," Billy grinned. "Anyway, next day we were heading home and we were nearly sunk. A torpedo they said, but me, I fancy it was the whales taking revenge."

            "You nearly sunk?"

            "The hit wasn't fatal, and we were close to home, so we limped into port with a little help."

            "Were you hurt?"

            "I was caught below for a while," Billy explained. "I was trapped behind a buckled stairway. I could feel it pressing against me, all torn up and twisted, but I couldn't see a thing. The lights had gone. Total black out. Pitch black. I could feel the water slowly rising up my legs, to my waist. It was high on my chest when I managed to pull free and clamber up."

            "That must have been terrifying," Eileen ventured.

            Billy nodded sharply. Then his sunny grin burst back on his face. "Well, that's my big war story. I almost drowned in a ship that almost sunk. Told you, good war, really."

            "You make it sound like it was so much fun," Eileen complained.

            Billy stared back at her blankly. Eventually he said, "No, it was hardly that. I'm not sure what it was, except it was war. Fun is what we had together before the war. All those lovely walks and … Do you still love ice-cream?"

            Eileen giggled. "I'm afraid so," she confessed. "Now, listen, Billy Mill. Is that your demob suit you're wearing?"

            "No," Billy replied. "I'm in till 48. I'm hoping to get my Chief's rating soon. And then I'll have to make up my mind if I'm going to sign on for pension. That's another 15 years. But I don't think I will. I have a hankering to take a wife and start a family, but not while I'm still in the navy."

            "So you'll leave in 48?"

            "Probably."

            "That's 2 years away."

            "Aye," Billy sighed. "I'm just passing through. On my way to Ceylon, Trincomalee."

            "I see," said Eileen.

            "But I had to see you."

            Eileen smiled. "I'm glad you did. When do you have to return to your ship?"

            "We sail tomorrow morning."

            Her eyes flashed and she cried, "Wait a moment."

            She returned within the minute pulling a light wrap around her shoulders as she lifted the counter hatch and joined Billy. "What are you doing?" he asked anxiously, as she pushed him out into the street.

            "I'm taking the rest of the day off," she explained. "We have this afternoon and this evening. Don't tell me you have something else to do. Spend the day with me, Billy. Buy me an ice-cream, to start with. Come on."

            Billy was happy to oblige. They walked through bomb damaged streets, once familiar, but now strange to Billy in their desolation. They picked up ice-creams from an Italian café and headed across a field Billy was certain he knew, down a dirt track and a semi-paved lane. Now he did remember, for sure. They were heading to her place, her family home where he'd so often escorted her in the days before the war took him away, past the wall where on their first walk he'd shot that poor horse, the infamous San Gwann Ghost. He began to prepare himself to meet her family again: her mother and father and brother, who had always treated him cordially, even if it was clear they were always concerned about Eileen's welfare and reputation. And quite right too, he smiled to himself.

            He felt Eileen tugging his arm; he must have been day-dreaming. He looked where she was tilting her head, another flattened space where a shop or dwelling had once stood. Then he realised where they were, and what the building that was no longer there had been: the Cremona family home.

            "Ah," he sighed.

            But he hadn't grasped the whole truth. "I was lucky too," said Eileen. "I was out on an errand when the bomb hit. I didn't have a good war, Billy."

            He was about to say sorry, but stopped himself. It would have been trite, almost ill-mannered.

            She led him on, veering sharply across another field and taking him onto a track that led back towards Sliema. The sun was high and at its pitiless worst and Billy was beginning to think they needed to get indoors. They were approaching a section of pre-fabs and he hoped one would be a café or a bar, somewhere to shelter. But no such luck. They were clearly ad-hoc temporary dwellings, erected for the benefit of those who'd lost their homes to the German bombing. And, of course, one of them was Eileen's.

            "Welcome to my humble abode," she said expansively as she drew him inside.

            The floorboards were bare and there was next to no furniture. But there were a few cupboards, a small table and a stove of sorts which dominated the central portion of the cabin. Beyond the stove, at the far end, behind the corrugated, colourless but cloudy plastic partition, was the bathroom, Eileen told him. And here, to their right, was her bedroom, where she suggested they should go next.

            He took off his jacket and found himself leaping onto her bed, not quite a regular double, a bit more than a normal single. He sat up, curling his arms around his uplifted knees, suddenly conscious of his shoes on her bedding. He gulped; embarrassed. What could she be thinking?

            She pulled a blind across the narrow window and suddenly the room was very dark. He could barely make out the shape of her, but he felt her presence when she eased herself down onto the edge of the bed. "Take your shoes off," she said, sitting straight-backed. "Stretch out. Relax. It's not too hot in here?"

            He chuckled. "No, it's fine. A lot better than out there."

            As commanded, he stretched out and rolled onto his side and viewed her slender back through the gloom. He was operating largely on memory, filling in the gaps his eyes couldn't directly perceive. Back in 38 she'd been thin but shapely, as becoming of her tender years. Today she was thinner, more ragged looking, unfitting for someone who should be blooming in the prime of life. It was the war, of course, still its malign effects apparent a year on from its end. Many Maltese had either been bombed to death, or starved to death, or starved to the point of. Eileen had lost her family to bombs and her figure to unavoidable hunger. With luck she'd recover, in time, but in no sense at all could she be said to have had a "good war". She was right about that, as right as she'd proved to be about so many things, except the San Gwann Ghost.

            He reached out through the dark-grey void and let his fingertips land gently just below her neck, where he could feel the top of her spine proud beneath her far too lean skin. He'd take her for a meal, he thought, a good meal. He half expected her to flinch, but instead she squirmed slowly, inviting him to press his hand more firmly upon her, moaning lowly as she went. He watched her head rock slightly, turn a touch, as if pondering whether to take her whole body with her and twist to face him. She moaned again, louder. He was quite alarmed.

            "Eileen?" he wondered anxiously.

            "Shush," she breathed.

            Then she stood, turned toward him, and began to undress.

This came from a Biggar Writers' fun challenge, which was to write a sequel to something we'd previously written. A good old follow-up charting the progress or fate of characters or ideas we'd already floated, not necessarily within the group. I chose to write a sequel to The San Gwann Ghost, a tale based on a true life incident in 1930s Malta. You can read it below. Two of the main characters meet in 1948 and tentatively rekindle a romance that had been cut short because of the war.

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We set ourselves the task of writing a non-contemporaneous

piece. For inspiration, I chose to plunder the stories my father told me of his childhood and the sort of conditions people lived in back in the 1920s in Sunderland. I'm not claiming any particular historical accuracy but I hope the story catches the flavour of the times, especially for working class folk. 

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As Good As New

 

When his parents began squabbling again the boy left the house, out the back way, and sat on the step in the lane. He was approaching 11 and the next school year he'd be off to the grammar school, so his teachers predicted. He was going to pass the entrance exams easily. But he knew the argument his mam and dad were having: how would they be able to afford his school uniform. One wasn't needed at the local secondary, so it was there he'd be headed - likely - unless Dad got a job - unlikely. He heard his friend Tom approaching, the loose sole of his right shoe flapping noisily on the cobbles.

            "Aw right, Eric," said Tom, smiling. "Ye comin' down beach?"

            Eric hesitated. It had gone noon and it was an hour's walk. They didn't have money for the ferry so they'd be forced to cross the river on foot over the new bridge. It would be dark before they got home. "Yeah," he agreed eventually, looking behind, contemplating telling his mam and dad where he was off to. Deciding it didn't matter, he smiled at Tom, got into step with him, and together they trundled down the cobbles.

            At the end of the lane a sharp left took them onto High Street, and the long uphill haul out of the port and up to the edge of town. If they'd had money they could have hitched a tram, but kids like them had out-of-work dads, and out-of-work dads didn't have spare change for their children to squander. Crossing the shiny new bridge, recently opened by the Duke of York, the boys looked upriver and down, admiring the shipyards, quailing under the thunderous clanging of steel and the hammering of rivets, choking on the thick, black smoke that seemed to engulf the whole of the river corridor, right out to sea. There was work there, Eric noted, though he was too young and too ignorant to know exactly what. What he did know was that the shipyards didn't employ carpenters, cobblers or toy makers, which were the 3 occupations his father had to offer.

            They tarried mid-river, tacitly agreeing they'd stop a while and catch their breath. Maybe they'd chew the cud later, but for the moment they kept their thoughts to themselves. Eric looked towards the sea, straining through the smoke to catch sight of the lighthouse at the end of the south pier, less than a mile from his home. Leaning on the bridge railing, he rocked back and forth listening to his feet squelching in the pools of water left over from the heavy rain that morning. It was very cold, and it would be some time before it cleared. He let his eyes fall to his stout shoes, a comfort. There were advantages to Dad being a cobbler, even if it was a mystery where he got the leather off-cuts to make and mend their footwear.

            Eric glanced at Tom's feet, shoddily clad with flapping soles. Poor Tom; his dad couldn't cobble. Still, he was better off than most. Yesterday they'd all stood in the school yard, as they did every school day morning, an inch of snow carpet under their feet, while they raised the flag and sang God Save The King. Next to Eric, he remembered, trying his hardest to stand straight and still, was Walter Mills, a preternaturally short, withered boy, his feet bare, shoeless, sunk in the icy slush, turning blue, while Walter shook and shivered and whisper-sung praise to his monarch. And he wasn't the only one. A few, like Tom, had some protection, however paltry, and fewer still had proper footwear like Eric. Dad had to be able to cobble, or was rich, and rich folk didn't send their children to a school like theirs.

            "Come on," Tom suddenly cried. "Let's get going. There's a match today and we don't want to get caught in the crowds."

            "Who we playing?" Eric wondered.

            "Pompey," Tom replied.

            "Oh aye, I remember. Portsmouth," Eric confirmed. "No need to worry about crowds," he continued. "Kick-off's not 'till seven thirty."

            "On a Saturday?" Tom wondered.

            "Well, aye," Eric explained. "Portsmouth's a long way away."

            They ambled on, off the bridge and down the avenue that led all the way to the seafront, the beaches on the north side of town, passing the stadium where the crowds would surely gather in a few hours' time. They were in an exuberant mood, innocently oblivious of the rampant signs of blight they passed, the abandoned shop fronts with their piles of junk on the disintegrating pavements, the mountains of litter scudding every which way, up dirt tracts off the avenue, down the rolling, crumbling cobbles down to the park you had to cross to reach the promenade. They might hear their parents, despondent, almost beyond hope, and they might shiver on cold days in inadequate clothing, and many a day they'd cry with hunger, but they were young, and easily distracted from the woes that beleaguered adults. A tin can became their football for the last hundred yards before the park and they yelped and squealed with delight, imagining themselves playing for the lads, wishing they could see them play Pompey tonight, wishing they could play them right there and then. Tom, despite his wretched footwear, had already scored a hat-trick before they abandoned the can and hurried into the park.

            They raced across the well-tended lawn and the bandstand and reached the exit onto the promenade panting breathlessly. As ever there was an icy arctic wind racing in over the sea and its blast hit them like the crack of a whip. Their ears and the tips of their noses began to redden and sing. Instinctively they headed for the sand, where the closer to the water you were the less severe the cold. Crossing some shale and seaweed they made for the water's edge where the sand was thin and springy, like sponge. They took some pebbles and spent a few minutes skipping them off the surprisingly gentle waves rippling towards them. The wind remained a beast, but the sea rolled in like a friend armed with sustenance and other good news.

            "Brian Marsden lives up there," Tom said, a train of thought bursting out of him as he launched the last of his pebbles.

            "Where?" said Eric, sceptical the lad could live anywhere round here. Only posh folk had seafront properties.

            "Up there," Tom told him, pointing up at the cliffs.

            "Oh," Eric replied, comprehending. There were half a dozen families still inhabiting the caves, but Eric hadn't known that Brian Marsden's was one of them.

            "Said the parish was trying to get them a house round our way," Tom continued. "Said his father was for going down pit and getting one of them pit-houses but the pit owner wouldn't take him on cos of his back."

            "He's a good lad, Brian," said Eric, remembering he was one of the shoeless brigade. "His dad fishes with mine, sometimes. Maybe today. Probably tomorrow."

            Eric was hungry. He was contemplating a good weekend, though. Mam had a fresh batch of flour in and had been kneading dough all morning. Dad's allotment had provided well this summer and autumn and there was still a fair store of vegetables to see them through. If Dad could catch a few fish …

            "Won't catch much this time of year," Tom said, bluntly putting into words both their thoughts.

            "Dad always catches something," Eric said proudly, despite his feelings. He worked hard at it, after all. When he brought fish home he often headed off to bed to recover from his efforts.

            They played a while longer on the beach, investigating various puddles and rock pools, prodding jelly fish and squashing baby crabs. But the wind was ever more biting and they were soon for getting out of its freezing grip. They headed home, taking the riverside walk past the old church, incongruously overlooked by the adjacent shipyards' giant cranes. Across the river they could see the streets where their homes were, and they watched the ferries running back and forth, miserable in the knowledge they'd have to go the long way round, back across the new bridge. A tram from outside the railway station ran past them onto the bridge, veering left and heading down their way. They discussed hopping on the next one and jumping off before the conductor got to them, but by the time they'd resolved to do it they were on the last leg down the high street and the idea had become virtually redundant, silly even.

            A heavenly smell met their nostrils when they got to Eric's door, baking bread and a broth of sorts, Eric guessed. Tom eagerly followed Eric in.

            "Don't you have a home of your own to go to, young man?" Eric's mam addressed Tom.

            The boy blushed and shuffled sheepishly. "Yes, Mrs Banks," he muttered, turning to go.

            "Then you'd better be off," Mrs Banks continued sternly, "right after you've had summat to eat. There's new cake and buns and soup. You do like vegetable soup, don't you, young man?"

            The boy nodded furiously and stepped up to the table with Eric. Just then Mr Banks came in and he silently surveyed the scene as he moved about the room. The boys began eating and Mr Banks suddenly said, "Reckon we could do with some more coal on the fire."

            "Aye, reckon we could," said Mrs Banks. "I got some sugar and I've made a sponge mix."

            Mr Banks got out the coal pail and began loading up the fire to fresh heights of fury. Mrs Banks opened the door to the oven and put a hand inside, saying as she retrieved it, the oven would soon be hot enough to bake a sponge. She stepped back into the galley at the back of the room to inspect her cake mix. Meanwhile Mr Banks put away the coal pail and sat himself next to the boys who were hungrily demolishing the soup and bread.

            "Let me see your foot, young … Tom, Tom Patchet, isn't it?" Mr Banks enquired.

            "Yes … sir … Mr Banks," the boy replied hesitantly.

            "The other one," Mr Banks commanded, letting go of Tom's hesitantly offered left foot. "Hmm," he said, pausing to rub his chin. "Take your shoes off and I'll take a little look at them. See if I can get those soles fixed. You can warm yourself in front of the fire. Be careful, we don't want you getting chilblains."

            Mrs Banks put her cake mix in the oven and cleared the table, a stout, heavy oak item she'd picked up, miraculously, for a pittance many years before. Just as she was pulling the table cloth free, Mr Banks set his lath down. He returned shortly with his awl and knives, cuts of leather, heavy twine and lighter threads. The boys moved to the beat up old couch at the non-oven side of the fire, sat and stretched their legs in front of the warming flames.

 

The boys soon dozed off, slumbering soundly in the comforting pool of warm air circulating around them as Ted Banks worked furiously, swiftly. By the time he'd finished there was hardly a piece of the young Tom's original shoes left. His wife set a tin mug of tea beside him and smiled, her features ghostly in the flickering flame of the old oil lamp.

            "You could sell them, Ted," Mrs Banks remarked.

            "They don't belong to me, Mavis," Mr Banks told her. "They're young Tom Patchet's."

            "Mr Patchet could give you a couple of bob, no?"

            Ted Banks grinned. "Freddie Patchet hasn't got two brass farthings to rub together, Mavis. If he had, he might have asked me to knock-up some shoes for his lad, but he didn't, cos he hasn't. You have a short memory, Mrs Banks."

            "I do?"

            Ted Banks grinned again. "Where'd you think I got that rabbit last week, the one you complained was full of shot and caused you all that work preparing it? I don't have a gun. But Freddie Patchet has."

            Mrs Banks was standing next to her seated husband. She was a short woman, but she still looked down on him. She put a hand on Ted's thick mop of grey hair and rubbed his head gently. "Ach, I'm sorry, Ted. You're right. We gotta look out for each other these days, I know. But I worry. I'm frightened, Ted. For you, for me, and for Eric and the little ones. We don't know where the next penny's coming from."

            The husband stood and circled his arms around his wife, pulled her close. "Hush, woman," he sighed. "There'll be work aplenty one day."

            The wife eased her way out of her husband's gentle grip, sniffed, wiped away a tear and patted down her dress. The little ones, Eric's 3 younger sisters, were due back from their Aunt's any minute now. They'd need some supper and then putting to bed. She picked up Tom's refurbished shoes and looked them over.

            "You've done a fine job, Ted," she said.

            "Get the lad a pair of Eric's socks," he suggested. "No point him putting bare feet into them. Cause him callouses. And stop fretting, Mavis. I'm going fishing with Harry Marsden tomorrow morning."

            She nodded agreement. "You haven't caught much in a while."

            Ted Banks shrugged. "It's winter. It's hard."

            Mrs Banks's eyes strayed back to Tom's shoes. "Oh Ted," she said, her voice swelling with pride, "they're as good as new."

 

The challenge here was to write something which mentioned all the colours of the rainbow without actually mentioning a rainbow, or a prism for that matter. I found the task quite daunting, actually, but I eventually came up with this little thing.

two-angels-in-tomb.jpg

The Colour of Souls

 

The two angels alighted on the roof of St Paul's Cathedral in January 2020. It was a bitterly cold night all over England, not that they were sensible to weather conditions yet. Everything was just peachy then as far as they were concerned, except the task that lay ahead of them. They chose to remain invisible while they went over their plan.

            "Why here? Why at this time?" Gabriel groaned. "He has all of creation to play with, all of time and space, and he asks us to start here."

            "Why not?" Michael wondered. He honestly couldn't see it made a blind bit of difference. He had other grumbles. "It's the colour scheme that's bothering me. And why he wants one. The whole of eternity in his hands and he comes up with this. Black and White was all he needed."

            "That's what he thought," said Gabriel. "Black souls downstairs. White souls to ascend. Simple enough."

            "Exactly," Michael sighed.

            "But some souls were complaining they were being discriminated against, and why should the Black souls be sent downstairs. Why not the White souls?"

            "I would have thought that was pretty obvious," Michael observed. "If you've been a rotten so-and-so and you're irredeemably unworthy then downstairs is the only place for you - unless you're appealing. Then you can stay put."

            "I think you're missing the point," said Gabriel.

            "Being?"

            "Being: if you're a rotten so-and-so, why not label your soul White and then send White souls down."

            Michael sighed again. "I'm just a poor angel. I'm sure I don't know. But does it really make any difference? It's just an arbitrary convention."

            Gabriel explained. "Well some souls, who had black or brown or dark skins of some hue or other, when they had bodies attached, object to using black as a label for a rotten soul. They say it was bad enough when they were alive having to put up with all the discrimination just because of their skin colour, and now they were in Purgatory, surely the Old Man could be a little more sensitive."

            "Yeah, yeah," said Michael, tired of the idea and wanting to get on. "So come again with the colour scheme."

            Gabriel seethed. The colour scheme was hardly the point. The point was they were being asked to apply it, pre-death, and not just in the final moments of some human's bodily demise, but some time before, to get a more rounded, more objective picture of any person's qualities, or lack of them. Get them in the prime of life, the guidelines said, a judgement conveniently left to the angels. Get it wrong? Imagine the implications. What if Adolf Hitler's soul should be reclassified from Black to, say, Pink? Does that mean he'd be downgraded from a murderous despot to a troubled neurotic and either left in Purgatory or allowed to ascend? Beelzebub would be furious losing such a prized soul. What could the Old Man be thinking?

            "God only knows," cracked Michael. It was their special, private joke. They laughed heartily, until Michael got his breath and added, "Besides, there is no Pink class."

            "I know, I know," said Gabriel. "And we're not here to do Hitler anyway. He can wait. Now, here's the summary again. Pay attention. Yes, I know it hardly matters because we've got all eternity to figure it out, but one way or another the Old Man wants Purgatory cleared. There's barely one soul destined to go one way or the other, and that can't go on."

            "Why not?" Michael wondered. "Works for us."

            Gabriel glared. "Listen: Red: Saintly - Unstintingly in the service of others. Primary concern is the welfare and happiness of others. Faultlessly kind, generous …"

            Michael coughed. "I think we can safely say we're not going to come across any Reds on this trip. Move on."

            "Orange: Good - Generally happy to help, happy to please, means no harm …"

            "Boring!" Michael cried. "Luckily, I doubt if we have any of them on our current list either."

            Gabriel continued. "Yellow: Promising - Aspires to be good but is often distracted or tempted by …"

            Michael groaned. "Oh, we're getting really wishy-washy now. How …"

            "We have to read the small print. All the clauses. We have to be rational about it," Gabriel declared. "Then we have to make a judgement."

            "Really?" Michael commented, ever the sceptic.

            "Green," Gabriel snorted. "Disappointing. Generally only concerned with personal welfare and prosperity and that of close relatives and friends … blah, blah, blah … Oh look, here's a good bit. Positive, mitigating factors against dropping down to a Blue rating may include a ready acceptance of past mistakes and genuine contrition for all sins, crimes and misdemeanours. See how important it is to …"

            Michael broke in. "You see, you see. Right there. You said it yourself. When you were talking about Hitler. We could go back to 1924 and I bet we'd find him genuinely contrite about the failed Putsch in Munich. So we'd put him down as Green, probably, wouldn't we? Couldn't put him any higher, of course. Fast forward to 1945 - different story, Gabriel. We can only make the judgement on the complete life - for any human, never mind Hitler."

            "I think the idea is," Gabriel explained, "that we get a better look at the person, body and soul working together, at their best, or worst, or peak. Maybe we can unearth something like - well I guess it's a bit of a long shot with Adolf but - something that explains the whole life in a more … positive light. Even Adolf's. We're not being asked to totally ignore the whole life …"

            "Just put a gloss on it so it doesn't look so bad, even Hitler's," Michael suggested. "The Old Man sure wants to hold onto as many souls as possible, maybe all of them, even Adolf's."

            "Well he shouldn't have made that bargain with Beelzebub," Gabriel snorted.

            "Next!" Michael cried.

            "Blue," Gabriel intoned. "Nasty - "

            "Hitler's got to be at least Blue," Michael grumbled.

            "- Shows scant regard for others. Driven by envy, irrational fears, prejudices …"

            "Hold on, hold on," Michael cried. "I think I know Nasty when I see it."

            "Really?" Gabriel wondered. "Then how about this: Indigo: Bad - …"

            "Well Nasty is Bad, isn't it?" Michael retorted.

            "But it's not got quite the same meaning when we're trying to classify the souls," sighed Gabriel.

            Michael spoke hotly. "Then why didn't the Old Man just create all Red souls and have done with it? Would have saved us a lot of heartache. Would have saved us having to come down to this awful planet … And that's another thing; hardly a flawless design, is it?"

            "Hush, hush," cooed Gabriel. "Ours is not to reason why. Besides, where would the fun be in all humans being Red? There's eternity to fill and we all need, even the Old Man, a few laughs to get us through. Now, where were we? Oh yes. Indigo: Bad - Wilfully unconcerned about the welfare of the less fortunate and actively pursues actions that are known to be harmful to others. Hmm?"

            "What's up?" Michael asked.

            "Lots of stuff here about distinguishing between Nasty and Bad, that's Blue and Indigo. It's not as straightforward …"

            "Come on, let's get on, Gabriel. Let's make them Blue if we've got any doubt. Keep the Old Man happy and Beelzebub raging."

            "Michael - we work for him too, you know," Gabriel reminded him. "It's a co-operative venture."

            "Yeah," Michael responded, in slow tones. "Doesn't mean we have to be impartial. Besides, old Bee is only going to get the Violet ones - Evil souls - what with the Old Man being the forgiving sort. You see, I do remember some things, Gabriel."

            "As I see," Gabriel agreed. "Right. Violet: Evil - Pathologically unconcerned with the welfare or happiness of others. Incapable of empathy … blah, blah … Pronouncedly narcissistic … constant lying … blah, blah, blah. Got the picture?"

            "Sure do," said Michael. "Easy one that: should be plenty of Violets on our current list."

            "Okay, let's materialise," Gabriel suggested.

            This was the bit Michael found most irksome, so unwarranted in his view. Why couldn't they just take a ride inside the bodies and minds of their subjects? Easily done; they were heavenly spirits after all. And there couldn't be a better way of getting to know these humans, no possibility of being deceived by them. But no. The Old Man wanted his angels to materialise, become mortal for a while and get to know their subjects, human to human, as it were. Only that way, the Old Man had contended, could they make a proper judgement on the colour of their souls. Well that was all very nice and splendid in its way, but materialising meant they'd feel and endure all that humans had to put up with in the Old Man's far from flawless design. Like the frightfully cold and wet weather of the moment.

            "Best get to street level first," Michael suggested. "I don't fancy slipping off this roof in a human body. And don't materialise that scroll of yours with all your notes on. If that falls into the wrong hands …"

            As planned they materialised outside the iconic railings, clad in full winter gear. They exchanged a smile. The weather might be rotten but the materialisation had gone a treat. "Check your pockets," said Gabriel, suspicious things couldn't possibly be going so well.

            Michael reached inside his overcoat, as did Gabriel. "Appears to be the papers we need," he remarked. "Your boys have done a good job. I'm guessing this oaf will be easily deceived."

            "Don't be disrespectful," Gabriel urged. "We're to have an open mind."

            "I'm sorry," Michael sighed. "It's just his soul spends its time in Purgatory fizzing around dementedly trying to find Churchill's, as if Churchill's has any interest in his."

            "Where is Churchill's soul?"

            "In Purgatory too, closeted with Robert Kennedy's and Richard Burton's reciting Shakespeare, keeping out of the way …"

            "What does Shakespeare's soul have to say about that?" Gabriel wondered.

            "How should I know?" Michael exclaimed.

            "Hey, keep it down," Gabriel advised. "You've got a human voice now."

            "Well, look, this one's Black," Michael snapped. "Do we really have to bother?" Open and shut case. No doubt about it."

            "Are there any other clichés you'd like to share?" Gabriel wondered. "And please remember, his Black rating is only provisional. We have to …"

            "Violet, then," Michael cried. "Give this one to Bee."

            "We might find evidence to justify elevating him to Indigo, or even Blue."

            "Gabriel, you can be so Green," Michael joked.

            Gabriel smiled. "I doubt if we can get this one that far, no matter how hard we try. Look lively, there's someone heading our way."

            It was a policeman, looking miserable in his soaked through wet weather coverings bearing the special insignia for Downing Street duty, virtually invisible in the dark and rainy winter evening. He called through the railings. "You have no business here, gentlemen, please move on."

            "On the contrary, officer," Gabriel called back. "We have an appointment with the Prime Minister, Mr Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson."

            "I know who the Prime Minister is," the policeman retorted, spluttering through the heavy rain drops falling from the brim of his near useless cap. "Sunday night?"

            "We have papers," Gabriel informed him, as both he and Michael pulled them from inside their overcoats and offered them for inspection, careful to keep their giant brollies shielding them. "Only time he could make it," Gabriel explained as the officer reached through the railings for the papers. "Careful, don't get them wet," Gabriel urged.

            "You'd better come round the side," the officer suggested, walking away.

            The angels followed the direction taken, on their side of the railings.

            "If you've really come to see the Prime Minister," the policeman jovially called out over his shoulder. "I should warn you - he's in a bit of a black mood tonight."

            Michael nudged Gabriel. "See. Told you. Black."

The challenge that inspired this piece was to produce something using a celebrity or famous historical figure or famous fictional character as the focus. I'm a bit of a Beatles' fan, so probably not a surprise I wrote something like this.

lennon old.jpg

Probably Not

 

Outside the door of his suite a big black guy scans me, then pats me down for good measure, his dreadlocks joggling as he goes. Another guy, practically his twin, stands to one side, alert, like a hunting dog. I'm allowed through, and as I glance back to the heavy doors closing behind me I make a quick survey of the room. Aside from me and my subject there's only one other person in the room, a short skinny fellow in a pale blue suit, lounging on the seats in the huge bay window, stretched out, exposing hideous multi-coloured socks, speaking softly into a mobile. I don't know who he is and evidently he has no interest in me. He says nothing and barely acknowledges my entry.

            My subject, my host, notices. "Don't mind 'im," he says. "He's a fooking twat. A useful twat. But a twat all the same."

            My host: John Winston Ono Lennon. Back in London, back in England, for the first time in 47 years, a few days short of his 80th birthday. The voice is familiar, I've listened to all his radio and TV interviews, of course. And it is him, surely, by the look of him, though I'm on less certain ground. He's been rarely seen, let alone photographed in the last 40 years, since that terrifying but miraculous day in early December 1980.

            He gets to his feet, stiffly, to welcome me, ushers me into the seat opposite and I look him over to confirm my suspicions. His hair is much thinned, white wisps. He too is wearing a suit, a beige number that hangs a little too loosely on him, either as a mistaken fashion statement or he's lost a bit of weight recently. I don't like to ask. Like I don't like to ask about the wrinkles and Yoko's absence, though the latter matter will surely have to be raised for the sake of journalistic integrity. There have been rumours, as there always are, that the Lennons' private life is in tatters - again. I try to see beyond the wrinkles and conjure up an image sufficiently in harmony with my memories of the thousands of photographs I've sifted through over the years to convince me I am truly in the presence of the great man himself.

            He smiles, as if reading my thoughts, sensing my doubts, as ludicrous as they are.

            "Why me?" I croak. I'm the envy of the pack, selected personally by Mr Lennon for this one-off exclusive interview.

            "I read your stuff," he replies. "And I like it. So, why not?"

            He talks in short, slow bursts, and I realise he is an old man. Paul and Ringo appear incredibly sprightly for their age, but John is embracing his senescence in a more traditional fashion. I imagine him saying that Paul couldn't even do growing old properly, though why I think John would think such a thing I have no idea. I'm caught in the destabilising vortex of celebrity legend and rumour, the clash of possible realities with plausible expectations. I know I have to shove all that aside and get on with the business. I grin, and decide to be polite and probing simultaneously; I ask about Yoko: How is she? Where is she?

            She didn't feel up to travelling (she's nearly 90, for God's sake) and she's at home, and she's doing just fine. I wonder where "home" is these days but John brushes aside the enquiry. Instead, he grins back and cuts to the core of what I'm really asking about.

            "Still. Even now. You're all getting it fooking wrong. Wrong about her. About Yoko. About Yoko and me."

            He pauses, and then edges forward, leaning across and reaching for a glass on the table between, which I've just noticed for the first time. The drink, whatever it is, is almost colourless, just a hint of a gentle green swirling with the ice as John shakes the glass before taking a sip. He points to the bucket containing ice and the variety of bottled drinks beside it, the fresh empty glass in front of me, and tells me to help myself. I'm not thirsty. "Yoko?" I prompt.

            "She's fine. We're fine," he continues. "Our love is still special," he adds, and I hear the echo of a long ago interview they gave around the time of the release of Double Fantasy, around the time Mark David Chapman tried to gun him down. "She's busy. She keeps me busy."

            I wonder about the paucity of product in the last 40 years, at least publicly released product, I qualify, when I see John scowl. He repeats himself. "I've been busy."

            I mention his erstwhile bandmates, Paul and Ringo, Paul's vast solo album output, the many years of touring, his recent branching out into pictures, painting that is, and Ringo's more modest album releases, but his almost never ending touring for many years. I point to Dylan too, another painter, another seemingly addicted to an endless round of live performances. I daren't say so, but I can see John gets it: What has he been doing?

            "I was into painting long before Paul or Dylan," he drawls. He pauses, seems to gather himself, filch some energy from somewhere. "Dylan's stuff is all derivative shit. One minute he thinks he's fooking Warhol, the next he's Manet with a splash of fooking Picasso and Dali thrown in. I haven't seen much of Paul's, but what I have suggests he wouldn't get far without his name attached."

            Cruel?

            "Stu (Stuart Sutcliffe, Lennon's close friend and early member of The Beatles) was my Master. I know what I'm talking about. Want to see good paintings by an ex-Beatle, have a fooking look at Stu's work. I've got a couple of warehouses full of my own shit, most of it superior to Dylan's or Paul's, but I'm not pimping it. I wouldn't insult the memory of my Master by putting out sub-standard product just to make a few fooking bucks."

            He looks exhausted after this mini-rant, pale and drawn. I hold off following through and let him recover. He calls out a name I don't catch, but it's the sartorially challenged runt in the bay John's after. "Get us some tea," he orders, shooting me a look. "I need a cuppa. You need a cuppa?"

            I nod and thank him. Then I remark that the two-hour album (available on a double CD only) he's releasing this week must be chock full of excellent new songs, since he didn't do selling inferior product. (I've had a preview copy for weeks.) He pulls a face like he's reprimanding me for being a cheeky so-and-so, but thankfully he doesn't call me a twat. Smiling, he says, "Would-a-bin a triple - even quadruple - LP back in the day. It's a mix, man. Rock and Roll. And me and Yoko. Some covers. Classics I've always wanted to record. Reworks, some of my old stuff. Yoko's the quality control. She says it's good, fooking good."

            I confess I've heard it through a number of times and compliment him on the quality, especially of his vocals. Regrettably, Yoko's contribution is in fact … minor. And there are too many covers and not enough original songs, in my opinion. Does he not think he's in danger of short-changing his fans, that they'll be disappointed with the lack of new material? He's anxious to clarify Yoko's part.

            "Quality control. And production," he cries in her defence. "She's a fooking good producer, you know. It was so long since I'd been in the studio, she had to help me out, big time. And the vocals? That was all her doing. She got me arranging so it suited my voice, my voice as it is now."

            He struggles to speak, and I silently wonder how he could have managed to sing well enough for the album, which he does, despite the wondrous help of the modern recording studio. Dylan struggles too; you can hear the straining of his aging vocal chords on every recording of his over the last twenty years. Ditto Paul. But John? It's not so evident on this new recording, as if somehow he managed to work a miracle or two in the studio, though I guess he'd insist it was all Yoko's doing. Maybe his present trouble talking is down to some illness, a cold or something, but I don't like to ask. Instead, I hurry on to the rumours about him and Paul planning some collaboration. He makes a mighty effort to be accommodating.

            "I'm seeing him tomorrow, probably," John continues. "We're busy making the arrangements. He's me mate. I want to see me old mate. But I don't want to see him surrounded by you fookers. So we gotta do some cloak and dagger stuff. We don't want a circus, like it's two heads of state or something, some fooking summit meeting, for fook's sake."

            So?

            "It's just a couple of old mates meeting up, that's all. I've brought nothing with me, music wise, or whatever, to discuss with him. If he's got some project he wants some input from me on, then fine, I'll have a look at it, cos he's me mate, and we used to do stuff together. But there's no big grand plan, man. Two old men, two old mates having a chin-wag and a cuppa together, nothing much else."

            I say I guess if Paul finds out what John thinks of his painting, there won't be much chance of him wanting to work with him anyway. I say it lightly, in a jocular fashion, but John glares at me. Then he says, very deliberately, "Paul knows fine well what I think of his fooking paintings."

            I'm rescued by the arrival of the tea tray, which John's aide plonks between us, after which he fires up his mobile and quickly retreats to the bay window again. John pours for us both, leaving me to choose to add sugar or milk or lemon, and grabs a dainty sandwich from the pile accompanying the tea. I sense he's said all he wants to say about Paul McCartney. Dare I ask about Julian and Sean? I couch my enquiries in compliments about his two sons' music careers.

            "They're very different," says John, though whether he's referring to their musical output or their personalities I can't decide: both! "And I'm proud of them. They're good mates, I'm glad of that. They hang out, though they're not kids anymore, of course. (Julian's in his mid-50s, Sean, mid-40s.) They hang out, like me and Paul hang out. What else we're gonna do at our time of life?"

            I put to him that many commentators have been predicting a resurgence of John Lennon the political peace activist. In a way, the world is just as fucked up as it was back in the 70s, if not more so. And war isn't over, and we didn't want it, apparently.

            "I had my say," says John. "And I'm not into shouting it from the fooking rooftops again. I can't. I had my time. It's like The Beatles - no going back. There never was any going back. We all knew that, deep down. And anyway, now I'd sound like some lame old man. Maybe I'll write a book or something. Maybe they'll take notice of that. Maybe people will get round to wanting peace, really wanting it, you know. Want it so much the war mongering fookers can't get away with it."

            "Are you … content, then? Finally, content?" I ask.

            His eyes light up. "Man, no. Fooking hell, Man, I'm an artist. We don't do content."

            "Happy? Not happy?" I wonder.

            "Happy, yes. Happy with Yoko, with Sean and Julian, and Paul and Ringo. Happy with the new album. Fook! But not content, Man. Contentment puts you in the grave, Man. I'm not ready for the grave, just yet. Contentment makes you lazy and soon you'll have nothing left to offer. I couldn't live like that. Always keep moving. Always forwards."

            He's on the edge of his seat again, hands on his knees, bent slightly forward, almost slumped, his eyes pointing down at his feet. I hear him muttering under his breath but frustratingly cannot hear a clear word or three. Then he looks up suddenly, defiantly, and raises the subject everyone wants to hear about but are too afraid to broach, even me.

            "Chapman's up for an assessment again," he says. "Did you know that?"

            I nod. Chapman's classified as criminally insane; they'll never let him out of that asylum. The assessments are purely routine, PR in a way.

            "He's a legend," John sighs. "Maybe if he'd got me I'd be a legend too. Maybe if that cop hadn't been around …"

            It wasn't a cop, it was a Dakota Building security guard who'd been alert enough, suspicious enough, to keep an eye out for the guy who'd been hanging around all day, the guy who there was something not quite right about. The guard jumped Chapman as he got off a shot which winged Lennon. Half-a-second later and John would probably have been killed. Instead, Lennon was treated for a minor wound to his shoulder, released, and retreated from the world for 40 years, perhaps looking for a treatment for his shattered mind. The body healed, but the mind …

            "Maybe the people would have listened to me then," John says. "If the fooker had managed to kill me."

            I don't want to say it: Probably not.

 

This piece was intended to be a monologue, one of those "talking head" things. At Biggar Writers the view was, though it was a nice short story, it didn't really have the feel of a monologue about it. Maybe not. An honourable failure on that front. But still a decent short story, I'm told. You decide. 

Greed.jpg

The Family Will

We - the remnants of our unfortunate family - gathered uneasily in the not-so-plush offices of my Gran's solicitor, that fateful day by the end of which we would be a family in name only. I'd like to say I had a foreboding, as if the threadbare armrests and the faded patterned upholstery of the unspeakably shaky armchair I was allotted had tacitly spoken and warned me of the misery afoot. But I didn't. Like the treacle-brown wooden wall panelling and the well-worn hideous mustard and blue rug on the floor, I took the derelict furniture as nothing more than an indicator that the place needed a complete refurbishment. It is only with hindsight I realise that no wholesome or measured response to Gran's strange will could be conjured in that laughably shabby environment. So I blame the solicitor - an improbably named Mr Fotheringay - for the disaster that followed, for herding us into his dilapidated chambers to disclose and explain such a delicate family matter. He should have known the ructions Gran's will would cause. He should have seen us one by one, privately, preferably somewhere other than his crumbling office, like our own homes, for instance. But he didn't. He wanted to make a lavish drama out of it, turn the presentation of Gran's will into a show, unintentionally, but inevitably, igniting a crisis, the coming of which, as I hope I've made plain, I had no idea was about to break.

            I sat next to Aunt Freda, her lips continuously twisting between fraught rigidity and dejected slackness, as sour faced as I'd ever seen her. She was anxious, as well she might, for her and Gran hadn't seen eye to eye for years and Aunt Freda might well have been anticipating Gran's revenge - as she would see it - from beyond the grave. Freda is the only surviving child of Gran's, the only representative of her generation in our family - unless you count her current beau, Findlay, which no one does - and conventionally would surely be the primary beneficiary of her mother's last will and testament. But in Gran's view she hadn't been much of a daughter, and Gran was one of those people who never consider themselves bound by convention. Findlay, a lean, tall man, the latest in a long line of such like, thin enough to look positively undernourished in comparison to my plump Aunt Freda, at whose side he stood, disdaining to take a chair, staring vacantly into space as if the proceedings had little or nothing to do with him, which they didn't. He was a man who lived in hope - hope of a decent meal, hope of a meal ticket, in hope of sharing the spoils - but very little of it. He pressed his fingers into Aunt Freda's shoulder every now and again, letting her know he was still with her, for her, as the disaster (from their point of view) unfolded. He was, all in all, the least impressive man Freda had entertained since Uncle Tony had succumbed to a particularly virulent strain of malaria, picked up on an adventurous West African holiday, to The Gambia, to be precise.

            Uncle Tony was as hopelessly stupid as his wife, Aunt Freda, was relentlessly self-absorbed. So when he ill-advisedly decided he wouldn't bother taking his anti-malaria tablets, on the basis they made him feel a bit sick and he'd never remember to take them anyway - he'd confided in the doctors before slipping into the coma from which he never emerged - there was no one around monitoring, let alone gainsaying his feckless idiocy, not even Freda. She packed the medication, but took scant notice if her husband was taking his, which might be construed as being simply adult about the matter, until you realise she must have known he was a simpleton and she ought to look out for him - if she cared. Evidently she didn't, at least not enough. She wailed of course when he died, but her mourning period was dismally brief which led to her teenage children threatening to disown her, I heard, through Gran, before she finally took to completely ignoring her only daughter all together. Instead it was her dead sons who lingered in her affections in her final years, my uncle Eric and my father Reg, born either side of Freda.

            Uncle Eric and Aunt Joan were taken on their first holiday without their children since they'd had children. Maybe that made them careless. In those days the Caribbean was considered a dodgy place to visit, with crimes against the person and hurricanes major risks. They sensibly booked outside the hurricane season, had all their jabs, and as far as we know kept good their resolve to remain throughout their time there within the boundaries of the hotel complex. It wasn't widely reported but twenty others took seriously ill with food poisoning, including six fellow Brits, and four other unlucky souls died along with Uncle Eric and Aunt Joan, two of them a retired couple from Birkenhead who'd spent a lifetime together selling newspapers, cigarettes and sweets from their little shop on a council housing estate. No such cosy homilies accompanied the notice of Uncle Eric and Aunt Joan's demise, inadvertently confirming their lives were duller and less noteworthy than those of provincial newsagents. Only Gran and their children missed them, though in the case of John and Sheila it was only in the sense that their parents didn't appear to be around anymore, which was at times inconvenient. Like now, when Gran had died.

            And like their Aunt Freda they had notions of sharing in the spoils. If their father had had the good sense to stay alive he would no doubt be inheriting the lion's share of Gran's estate, from which John and Sheila assumed they'd benefit (indirectly) too. His absence was a blow, but they were pinning their hopes on Gran transferring her unaccountably huge affection for her dull-witted eldest, Eric - who incidentally, made Uncle Tony look like an Einsteinian intellectual giant - to them. But, like Aunt Freda, they possessed enough self-awareness to realise their chances of inheriting had taken a nose-dive of epic proportions the day that slovenly Caribbean chef had failed to safely prepare that fatal fish dish, especially since they'd expended so little effort ingratiating themselves with Gran. They rarely visited, and Gran noticed. (Of course, I visited all the time.) But as at Gran's funeral, John and Sheila had brought their spouses and their children to the reading of the will, perhaps hoping this belated show of widespread familial devotion might evoke some alchemical, beyond the grave recognition and mysteriously influence, in their favour, the extent of Gran's largesse.

            Aunt Freda's kids had stayed away, perhaps influenced by lingering resentment over their mother's continued wayward ways a l'amour - they were no fans of Findlay, that's for sure - or perhaps they knew Freda was chasing a lost cause and didn't want to be around to catch the fall out when confirmation came. I couldn't have cared less. Nor had I brought my wife or my own kids. They were too young to understand or care, and Maureen had declared herself a disinterested party - she wasn't "blood" after all. She'd been fond enough of Gran, but with two small children to look after, a job of sorts to pursue - she has a modest on-line business promoting and selling arts and crafts - and a husband who worked long hours, for the last few years she hadn't been as involved with Gran as she possibly might have liked to have been. Besides, she was always telling me before Gran popped her clogs, I was doing enough for her for the both of us, for the whole family, really, which of course, in a way, led to the stink after Gran's final wishes were revealed.

            By all reasonable expectations my parents should have been there too, Reg, my father being the youngest of Gran's children, and Molly, my mother, a couple of year's younger than Dad, would have been late middle-aged, not quite officially old. But long before Uncle Eric and Aunt Joan croaked it in the Caribbean, Mum and Dad kicked off the sort of run of bad family luck once associated with the Kennedy clan in America. They had the grand misfortune to be caught in a dense fog covering the Thelwall Viaduct on the M6 Motorway, which led to a catastrophic multiple vehicle crash. Dozens of cars, trucks and tankers piled up and five vehicles burst into flames, one of which contained my parents. Burnt to a crisp! It was hard to take. I was on the cusp of starting university, looking forward to escaping the family home and the overbearing presence of my parents. Now I was orphaned and head of a household, with a younger brother, Ben, to comfort and look out for.

            Aunt Freda was keen for Ben to move in with her and Uncle Tony and her brood, and for me to disappear to Uni. Of course what she was really after was getting some sort of power of attorney - control in some way - over Mum and Dad's estate. But she was out of luck. I'd come of age, Dad's will was rock solid, and he'd seen to it that there was all the insurance in the world to cover our needs under any circumstances. Aunt Freda was flabbergasted; she'd never have credited Dad with having such foresight. Ben and I inherited the whole estate, all debts cleared and more by insurance, and I was granted guardian/parental rights over Ben, until he came of age, which wasn't far away. Our position became impregnable and unchallengeable when I took the decision to defer my university career until Ben was an independent adult himself. In short, I looked after him for a couple of years and then we both went to Uni in the same year. Aunt Freda was furious. Uncle Eric felt slighted, believing his kid brother should have entrusted mine and Ben's welfare to his tender mercies, but to be fair, it was a matter of pride for him and he had no pecuniary interest whatsoever. He was far too dim to spot the chance, or perhaps far too decent. In any case, my parents' cruelly shortened lives set me and Ben up quite nicely from a financial point of view, a fiscally turbo-charged start in life that propelled Ben to the States from where he's never returned, at least not on a permanent basis. He made the effort to get to Gran's funeral, but he wasn't interested in hearing her will read, and he was flying back home before Gran's ashes had cooled, trusting I'd tell him anything affecting him. And it was to him, my kid brother, I turned for advice when the ructions erupted.

            It started, naturally, in Fotheringay's chambers. I can still feel the shrill blast of Aunt Freda's scream. Whatever the reality of her expectations, she wasn't going to let the moment pass without the strongest possible protest. Gran left her a hundred quid, as she did John and Sheila, and Freda's two boys, Dennis and Tony (junior). In addition, Shelia was left a few trinkets, cheap jewellery. My brother Ben was left nothing, which was in reality a respectful acknowledgement of his non-relationship with Gran rather than the calculated slight her token gifts to the others were. The rest of her estate, her house, the balance of her savings, all her personal possessions beyond the few allocated to Sheila, was left to me. I was flabbergasted; Aunt Freda was apoplectic; the rest of them as stunned as me.

            After screaming, Aunt Freda led the charge of recriminations. I'd been sucking up to, manipulating, unduly influencing and poisoning the mind of a defenceless frail old lady. It was a disgrace. Indeed. It was a disgrace I was the only one of her family who regularly visited her in the last four or five years of her life. Some of them had probably seen her barely once or twice in the same time. Yes, I'd visited her two or three times a week, in passing, her home being comfortably and fortuitously midway between my work and my home. I kept an eye on her, monitored her welfare, did some chores and got her shopping in. No one else was as handily placed as me to do this, and I accepted the role without grumble, not solely out of a sense of familial duty (which was surely there, of course) but also because it was simply the decent thing to do anyway, and I'd always got on well with Gran. I enjoyed her company. I did not engage in this with an eye to future pecuniary gain and I had always believed Gran would have settled her estate equally on all her surviving family members, including Aunt Freda, despite their antipathy.

            I did not say any of this, I simply noted they were shocked, angry and profoundly disappointed. I thought they'd calm down and come round to my way of thinking, which was I would monetise as quickly as possible all Gran's assets left to me and share out the cash proceeds equally amongst the family. I didn't tell them this either as they raged on in Fotheringay's chambers, beseeching him to explain how Gran could have done this and threatening a legal challenge. He called for order, and when he got a semblance of it, he solemnly declared that Gran's will was unimpeachable and we'd all just have to lump it. When they turned on me again I said why don't we all meet up at Gran's house (my house now) and discuss what should be done. To which John, to my surprise, said too effing right, with which Aunt Freda and Findlay heartily agreed. As we dispersed, I knew I had to phone Ben, which was a bit of a bugger since the call would cost a small fortune, but then again, I did have a small fortune to hand.

            The following Saturday I arrived at Gran's at the agreed hour to find a veritable throng on her doorstep. In addition to all the will reading attendees, Aunt Freda had coerced her children, Dennis and Tony, into appearing with their respective spouses and children, presumably as an intimidating show of strength, at least in their minds. She'd dragged along some in-laws too, her dead husband's blood, though it still baffles me why she thought it was any of their business. Strength (again) in numbers? I was alone, armed only with the supportive words of advice from Ben.

            Aside from the solicitor, Fotheringay, I was the only holder of a key to Gran's home. She'd let me get a copy cut of her master some years ago, but when I suggested getting some more and distributing them around the family, she had steadfastly refused and made me swear I wouldn't do such a thing behind her back. So the family had to wait on me, and maybe that exacerbated their sour mood, which had not sweetened one droplet since the day of the will reading. Before I'd barely got the door closed behind the last of them they were demanding to know what I was going to do to put right this evident injustice. I called for order, tried to fix my attention on Aunt Freda, to blatantly select her as their leader and spokesperson, since they'd clearly not bothered to do that themselves, when I caught out of the corner of my eye Gran's other grandchildren and their spouses surveying her possessions, which were legally now mine. I gave up on Aunt Freda and watched in horror as their covetous eyes slithered over Gran's furniture, the pictures on the walls, the lamps and stands, the occasional tables, the mantle clock (a big old ugly brown thing), candlesticks and place mats and coasters and ornaments, the mundane yet treasured bric-a-brac that transformed a house into a home. I began to hear them muttering about this and that, how much they wanted whatever it was, how much they'd fight for it, how they were entitled to it for some spurious reason they thought up on the spot. Aunt Freda drifted away from me and joined them, leading the division of the spoils between them as if Gran's will, and my rights, had nothing to do with reality. I began to realise I would have to take Ben's advice and abandon completely my prior plan. I began to realise I had to act quickly before they spread through the house like a swarm of locusts and started pocketing whatever they fancied.

            I exploded, raging, roughly ushering them out of the house, telling them they were not welcome, promising if they took anything I'd report them as thieves, I'd have the police on them, and I'd call them now to have them removed if they didn't go quickly. My cousin John called me a twerp and my cousin Dennis something much worse. Aunt Freda mixed insults with threats, but like the others she did eventually adhere to my wishes and left, maybe because like the rest she sensed she was on morally shaky ground and legally did not have a leg to stand on. Belatedly they realised that if they were to get anything out of me they had better at least pretend they were decent, honest human beings, instead of the uncaring, avaricious slugs they really were. They were calming down, bumping around like a gaggle of geese on Gran's front lawn, when I got round to telling them I'd be writing to them all in the next week and telling them what I'd decided. I would decide, I emphasised, not some ad hoc family committee. Sullen faced, they dispersed, and I stood outside Gran's for the best part of half-an-hour reining in my anger, quelling my trembling limbs, and standing guard in case any of my loathsome relatives should decide to return to Gran's to chance a spot of thievery.

            I wrote them as I said I would, and it was Ben's solution I presented, frankly one which hadn't occurred to me until I'd spoken to him the evening of that wretched day in Fotheringay's chambers. I was terse. They would not get a penny beyond what Gran had willed them.

            I sold her house and all her possessions, careful to ensure Sheila got the trinkets gifted her, paid the death duties and pocketed the rest, which along with Gran's surprisingly healthy cash savings made a tidy sum. I offered Ben half, even though he'd already said he wouldn't accept a penny. He refused again.

            I've not seen or heard from my cousin's and their families since, which in truth is not a radically different state of affairs to before Gran died. I certainly don't bemoan not getting a Christmas card from them. Aunt Freda lives nearby, as she has done for many a year, and it's impossible to avoid passing her from time to time. And that's what we do - pass each other - wordlessly without exchanging so much as a glance.

            My wife Maureen, who was as insouciant as can be over our windfall, though happy to help me spend it, catches me every now and again shedding a tear over my torn up family. I tell her I know I shouldn't feel guilty but I do. I tell her I know Aunt Freda and the rest of them don't give a fig about me, and never have, but they're still family and … And what? I tell her maybe we should give them something after all, before we've spent the lot. She whispers in my ear. She whispers, I love you. She tells me if I want to give away the rest of the money then fine; but give it to charity, give it to the deserving. And then she reminds me what I've always known, deep inside, and she rather quickly deduced not long after meeting me: it was no mystery at all why Ben had never come home from America.

Wave

This is based on a "true story", or at least a story my father told me. He was based with the Med Fleet in the 1930s in Malta and had a hundred tales like this. The unfortunate horse and its untimely demise is "true", the characters and the embellishments are fictional.

The San Gwann Ghost

 

When the two new arrivals rolled into the Victoria bar in Sliema, fresh faced from Blighty, the other more experienced matelots, resplendent in their uniforms, welcomed them with open arms: they'd need some guidance.

            "Make way, make way," one called, introducing himself as Johnny Mason, as he harried his mates into making space around the three tables pushed together, around which were clustered half-a-ship's company, or so it seemed to the ever patient locals.

            "Billy Mill," the first of the newcomers informed everyone, shaking hands within reach, and then taking the stool that appeared behind him.

            "Frankie Fallon," said the other, squeezing himself onto a space that appeared at the end of a bench seat.

            They were soon into the swing of things, drinking immoderately, beer and rum and gin, and complaining about the weather: so darned hot. And humid; unbearably so. "You'll get used to it," Ernie Fulton roared, only for Jackie Welsh to pointedly observe that Fulton evidently hadn't because he perpetually looked as if someone had just thrown a bucket of water over him. "I've only been here 5 months," Ernie good humouredly returned. "Give me a bloody chance."

            "Where you lads from?" Welsh, evidently a cockney, wondered.

            "Sunderland," Mill and Fallon replied in unison.

            "Oh aye, where's that?" Welsh laughed.

            "Somewhere up fucking north," Fulton, a fellow cockney, guessed.

            "What you doing here on your first night in Malta?" Mason wanted to know. "I'd have thought you'd be in the Empire in Valetta, you know, chasing the local skirt," he added with a wry grin.

            "We asked where the best bars were," Billy Mill replied. "We were told Sliema."

            Big Jock - real name, Fraser McClellan, but he was tall and broad and Scottish - cackled uproariously before saying, "They were probably figuring they were doing you a favour."

            "Yeah, save you some time and money," said Mason.

            "Don't follow," said Frankie Fallon.

            "It's like this," said Welsh, getting sort of earnest. "This place is where sad gits like us, being almost the entire complement of His Majesty's Mediterranean Fleet, end up when we've spent weeks and small fortunes trying and failing to get off with any of the talent hanging around in Valetta. Talent of the female variety, you understand."

            "It's like Ireland," Big Jock observed. "The girls are virgins or married. Catholics, devout ones, you see."

            "I've never been to Ireland," Frankie Fallon moaned.

            "Me neither," said Billy Mill, equally dolefully.

            "The point is, lads," Big Jock continued, "if you're thinking of getting your hole here, then forget it, unless you want to pay, or you want to get hitched."

            "Yeah," said Fulton, "I heard that's the only way to get it in, promise to marry them."

            "I heard," Welsh put in, earnest again, "that even if you get hitched, you're lucky to get anything more than one off the wrist."

            "I'm not interested in getting married," said Mill, taking a look around the bar.

            "I'm too young to marry," said Fallon, following suit.

            "You'll be hard pushed to find a single woman in here, lads," Mason told him. "That's why we're all in here, remember," he added, laughing.

            "Except for our barmaids, of course," Fulton observed, having followed the gaze of the two new hands. "The short, very dark one, is Tamar Spiteri. Hitched to a local lad, so don't even think of going there. The other one is Eileen Cremona and …"

            "What?" Billy Mill prompted.

            "Rumour is," said Welsh, leaning in, "she's ripe for plucking. And look at her. Phwoar!"

            And so Billy did, along with half the company. The young woman's plain cut, floral patterned dress couldn't hide the slender shapeliness it encased. Her dark brown curls, worn in long waves to the shoulders, perfectly complimented her light olive skin. She had a dazzling, brilliant white smile she was projecting across the bar to every drop-jawed, quaking matelot. For a moment, Billy fancied he was in love, but then so was half The Royal Navy, apparently. Everyone there seemed to have forgotten their own wisdom on matters carnal.

            Snapping out of his daze, Billy wondered, "Why should she be any different?"

            "Because," said Fulton, "she's stepped out with a few of the lads these last couple of months …"

            "And what?" Big Jock roared, butting in. "Get a grip of yourself, man. You know fine well what that's all about. Look lads, don't get your hopes up, the truth of the matter is Foxy Fulton has gone and got things all arse about face." He drained his pint. "The thing is, Eileen over there lives the far side of San Gwann, about 2 miles from here. Most of the time her brother picks her up after work, but occasionally he can't and she has to walk it. Well … it's the ghost. Frightens the wits out of her. So if her brother doesn't turn up, she's likely to ask one of us to hang back with a view to escorting her home safely."

            "See what I mean," Welsh cried. "She's not fussy. Hasn't set her eyes on one of us. But she should. She should settle for a regular escort. But anyone will do for her. Flighty. If that's not a sign …"

            "It's a sign that you and Foxy haven't got much between your ears," Big Jock interrupted. "Hasn't occurred to you that she doesn't single one of us out because she knows if she ever did, whoever it was would be thinking they were in. You walked her once, Welshy. You weren't …"

            "No I wasn't," Welsh retorted. "I was a perfect gentleman. And I didn't see no bloody ghost neither. That's all a cover."

            "Cover for what?" Mason asked.

            "And when I walked her," said Fulton, "I saw no ghost either."

            "Plenty have," Big Jock declared. "Including me. Including plenty of other girls who walk that way regularly, so I hear."

            "And me," Mason agreed. "And Ronnie Leggart and Tony Tatlock."

            A couple of heads bobbed up out of the sea of them, at the far end of the conglomeration of tables: Leggart and Tatlock, impossibly hearing their names above the almighty din of loud talk, banter and laughter. "It's okay, boys," cried Mason. "We were talking about you, not to you."

            Mason shook his head. "I don't mind confessing I was scared shitless." He looked to Big Jock for confirmation and the Scotsman obliged with a short but firm nod. "Huge white thing, appeared out of nowhere. Eileen screamed. Me too. And then it was gone in a flash."

            "She screamed?" Billy wondered. "But …"

            "Every time," said Mason, "she told me. No matter how many times she's seen the damn thing she can't help herself."

            "It's not a prank?" Fallon asked.

            Mason shook his head. "A bloody good one, if it is," he said. "Several of us have been down there during the day and we've never found anything. The stone wall is quite high and there's a huge bramble bush the other side, in the field. Would take a heck of a nifty blighter to hop over that wall and back without doing himself some damage, either on the wall or in the bush. Bloody mystery."

            "You think it's someone dressed up - like in a white sheet, or something?" Billy Mill wondered.

            "Can't be a ghost," Mason snorted. "No such things. But it did give me the willies."

            "Not nice," Billy remarked softly. "Terrifying the young ladies." He frowned. "Well I can think of one way of fettling it, ghost or no ghost."

            "What you thinking, Billy?" Frankie Fallon asked. "You're not going to mess with the ghost, are you?"

            "We'll see," Billy replied. "But first I have to get Miss Cremona over there to agree to let me walk her home one night."

 

It was two days after the shooting the Maltese police trundled into the Victoria bar making their enquiries on behalf of the incensed farmer. It was all round the island his prize white stallion had had his head blown apart. Billy looked anxiously over to Eileen. She'd told him she wouldn't betray him: after all, he'd honestly believed he was protecting her, if not from a ghost, then at least from a severely deranged being of some sort. How was he to know, how was anyone to know, it was just the farmer's big daft friendly white horse sticking his neck out and over the wall to see who was making the footsteps on the lane adjoining his field. But, Eileen had said also, it would be better all-round if Billy confessed, and she would back him to the hilt by pleading with all her might his good intentions. With luck, he'd get a warning and an order to compensate the farmer.

            "Tell them," Big Jock urged him. "Play dumb. Say you've been ill with fright since confronting the ghost and have only just found out the terrible truth. They'll think you're a dolt anyway, and turn you over to the MAA. You'll probably have to face Captain D. The Navy'll compensate the farmer and they'll take it out of your pay. I doubt they'll flog you, even if you are a fucking idiot."

            Foxy Fulton, giggling, said, "I blame myself. I should've checked out that sling bag you were carrying. Ought to have known there was something dodgy in there. Not that I'd have guessed it was a Smith and Wesson revolver, for God's sake."

            Johnny Mason, who'd barely stopped laughing since he'd heard, and who wanted to know more, joined in. "The local plod won't want to get involved once they find out it's a matelot responsible, except they'll be fucking fuming about you discharging a firearm, you bloody fool. I hope it wasn't Navy issue."

            "It wasn't," Billy Mill groaned. "Family heirloom," he said, blowing as he stood up and drew the attention of the policemen.

            The bar fell quiet as Billy Mill made his way to them. Mason caught Eileen Cremona smiling approvingly. The policemen caught the drift of what Billy Mill was telling them, and a few minutes later they took him away.

            "Fuck," said his mate Frankie Fallon.

            "He'll be okay," Welshy opined lightly.

            "Yeah," Fulton agreed.

            "Yep," said Mason. "Just another stupid green matelot. Sorry Frankie, he's a good hearted lad, I know."

            Then the whole swarm of them burst out laughing, much to the consternation of the sour faced locals, who'd clearly formed the opinion it was no laughing matter a British matelot wielding a gun and shooting an honest farmer's defenceless horse.

            "He meant well," Eileen told Mason as he got in another round.

            "He did," Mason agreed. He shrugged. "Must be some kind of record, here just over a week and he's got himself slung in the brig. That's some going - even for the Med Fleet."

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Wave

The Gas Debate

 

"There's no point in getting chippy with me," Nitrogen cried. He wanted to fume, but he was at standard conditions and so fully gaseous. He envied cousin Bromine, she could fume as much as she liked.

              Helium sighed. It wasn't his fault he had so few affinity issues; that's how he'd been created in the high density fireballs of the stars. "I was only saying that despite you and Oxygen's history, despite your progeny, harmless as they are …"

              "Harmless!" Nitrogen squawked. "You wouldn't think that from the press they've been getting. Spawn of Satan, more like."

              "I'll admit -oxide, -dioxide and -tetra-oxide have been a bit of a let-down at times, mucking around in the atmosphere and all that," Helium conceded. "But on the other hand little old 'Nitrous' - well, he can be a bit of a laugh. He's a chip off the old block, wouldn't you say? More you than Oxygen."

              "I guess," Nitrogen agreed grumpily. He wasn't sure if he was being made fun of. He was feeling a little unappreciated. After all, he was pretty damn useful by himself, keeping Oxygen from rotting food for one thing.

              "And -" Helium declared hastily, "- even if they are a little toxic, they are hardly as problematic as Carbon Dioxide."

              Molecules? Like Carbon Dioxide. Things only got complicated once you started making them. "I've already said, nothing to do with me," Nitrogen shot back, painfully aware that in one sense he belonged with the molecules too, being diatomic. What about all the fertilizers and pharmaceuticals he was involved in? Couldn't Helium go on about that rather than giving him grief over Carbon Dioxide?

              "For crying out loud, go moan to Carbon about it."

              "He's a solid," Helium stated glumly.

              "So?"

              "Well, I don't get on with them," Helium explained. "I mean, they're so up themselves, so precious about … about being precious, so to speak. So pleased with being … well, solid, and visible. You know how it goes - Oh you high and mighty gases, Hydrogen and Helium, there's just so much of you, but you're not a fraction as interesting as us solids."

              "Don't let it get to you," Nitrogen advised. "They're only jealous, what with you being a noble gas and all. Monatomic too: special. I mean … what exactly are you used for?"

              "Cryogenics, arc welding … a bit of pressurising and purging, you know, when an inert atmosphere is needed. That sort of thing."

              "I do a bit of that sort of thing myself," Nitrogen grinned.

              "Yeah, yeah," Helium hastily agreed. He was fed up with Nitrogen's bragging. "But the thing is, Carbon is just about the worst of the solids. If anyone is all high and mighty it's him. You'd think he invented affinity. Everyone's dabbled with him, you too, Nitrogen. Hydrogen, of course. And let's not be shy about it just because they're gases, Chlorine and Fluorine too …"

              "Well that's no surprise," Nitrogen interjected. "The Toxic-Two, furiously reactive. Heaven made for Carbon. They make me regret being a gas sometimes."

              "Exactly," said Helium. "And Carbon's got a whole branch of chemistry to himself, the greedy so-and-so. No wonder his ego is the size of a planet. So all in all, and especially since I won't collude with him - calls me a cold fish - he's not going to listen to me about his dalliance with Oxygen. So it's all down to tackling Oxygen herself, don't you think?"

              "Then why don't you do the tackling?" Nitrogen snapped.

              "Because I've nothing in common with her," Helium sighed. "I'm monatomic, she's diatomic. I'm neutral, chemically celibate. She's … experienced. And let's face it, you have a history with her. Good God, between you, you make up about 99 percent of the atmosphere."

              "Hmm? That's the rub of it, isn't it?" Nitrogen proposed. "The atmosphere."

              "I guess it is," Helium confirmed. "Everyone appreciates what a damned good job you've been doing for millions of years keeping Oxygen … in check. Must have been difficult after all those years of convulsions with Hydrogen producing all that water - which was a good thing, no doubt. But it's this thing with Carbon, the last couple of hundred years. It's been getting out of hand. You've got to find a way to persuade her to start giving Carbon a wide berth. We can't afford any more CO2."

              "CO2 has its uses," Nitrogen protested. "Fizzy drinks, bread making, extinguishing fires, fruit preservation … and a line in refrigeration too, if you don't mind me mentioning."

              "Hardly cryogenics," Helium sniffed. "Still, leaving that aside, we have more than enough for those other things, while everyone knows there's far too much CO2 floating around in the atmosphere. Agreed?"

              "Agreed," said Nitrogen, reluctantly. "But it's not as simple as you'd think, even if I concede that Oxygen might listen to me."

              "What's the problem?" Helium asked, deflated. He'd thought he'd had him but now it sounded like he was backing off.

              "Let's face it," Nitrogen explained. "We're just atomic arrangements cooked up in the stars over the last fifteen billion years."

              "What are you saying?" an alarmed Helium wondered. Then it dawned on him. "You're not … suggesting …"

              "Afraid I am," Nitrogen responded.

              "But humans!" Helium protested. "How can we trust them to do anything right?"

              "Well it's them, or it's no-one," Nitrogen explained. "After all, it's humans who are madly burning all the fossil fuels and letting Carbon and Oxygen get it together big time."

              "True," Helium conceded. "But how are they suddenly going to wean themselves off all that short-term-advantage way of thinking. They're not exactly known for planning ahead."

              "If they want to survive," said Nitrogen, "they're going to have to learn to, and pretty quickly. Makes no difference to us. We'll go on to the end of time, until all the stars burn out and time itself ends."

              "Oh, listen to the cheery-one," Helium sighed.

              "Let's hope the humans have half-a-mind to come some of the way with us," said Nitrogen.

              Helium shrugged. "Let's hope," he said.

I entered this piece into the 2019 Biggar Science Festival writing competition, Write Science. With a solid background in science and technology I thought I had something to contribute. It's published in the BSF Write Science Anthology, Elements

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Wave

My first attempt at the increasingly popular form known as Flash Fiction. It's a short, very short, short story.

Not Tonight

My brother Harry sits watching the television.

                   I climb the stairs thinking about tumbling down them with Harry. The nurse had heard me coming and I pass her on the landing. She smiles thinly. I give her back the same before entering my mother's bedroom.

                   Her two favourite photographs are at her side, the one of Dad in his uniform which he was wearing when he met her, and the one of me and Harry exuberant in mud-caked rags and our single digit innocence.

                   Below us the TV is booming with nonsense.

                   Even now I'm not certain if she's in any pain. I don't trust the nurse's judgement and I can't decipher my mother's tacit replies. There's only one look I understand, the one saying: Not tonight.

                   I'm grateful.

                   I tell her my day in the vaguest way. I'm upbeat about everything, work, her grandchildren's progress, the worthiness of the daughter-in-law I know she despises. I lie about Harry again, he has an awful cold he doesn't want to pass on. I wish she could talk back but she can only stare. And I have to be ready for the nuance in the stare which will tell me when it is no longer Not tonight.

                   I hear Harry guffaw loudly and the nurse cackling.

                   I tell my mother how much I miss Dad. I tell her what a wonderful father he'd been. I tell her how many times he told me what a wonderful wife she'd been.

                   Tomorrow she breathes.

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Wave

The Battle of Wills

 

They looked at the wreckage.

            Jenny gulped. "Must have …"

            "Flipped?" Mark suggested.

            Security had taken Barry away, to a padded cell in a nut-house - probably. What had he been thinking, taking on the SDC-666X? At Chess! He was no Kasparov, barely county standard, the SDC-666X had wiped the floor with Deep Blue.

            "He thought there was a flaw, with the …" said Jenny.

            "Eighteen hours straight!" Mark cried.

            "He is … the geek's geek."

            Mark shook his head. "It'll put back the roll out months. What are we going to do? He had to be sure, didn't he."

            Jenny could feel the focus of blame homing in on her. Not fair. She was a manager, not a technocrat. If Barry wanted to go mano e mano with the SDC, who was she to gainsay him. He was almost single-handedly responsible for all its higher functions, the AI. Barry was the only man on the planet who could find bugs. How he was doing that playing chess, she couldn't say. But whatever went on between man and machine, it was clear the machine won. Ironically, Barry was the only man qualified to analyse his own defeat.

            Mark surveyed the work-station rubble, shattered glass, cracked plastic, disintegrated, pulverised remnants of keyboard, monitor, mouse, speakers. "Well, it only cost us one terminal," he said, ruefully.

            "Really? What about Barry?"

            "Barry, the man as smart as an AI enhanced super computer, not - clearly."

            Jenny laughed. "Yeah. He was shit at chess."

 

Another flash fiction piece, inspired by new twists to old cliches - in this case "as smart as ..."

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Wave
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Inspired by a randomly chosen postcard from a heap on offer at a Biggar Writers meeting: a picture of the remarkable artificial oasis, Huacachina, in Peru. Evy herself was inspired by images of beautiful Peruvian women, like the one shown. I think I managed to craft a cute little love story.

Evy Gonzales

I think I shall never see

A poem lovely as a tree

 

The dune buggy ride and sandboarding were every bit as exciting and exhilarating as we'd expected. Cresting dunes, leaving our stomachs behind, we squealed with delight, like small children at the funfair. Sand sprayed everywhere, landing slime-like on our exposed limbs, burrowing inside our clothing and footwear, challenging our vision, but we were undeterred. Pammy, in her inimitable way, screamed Faster, only for our driver to tell us in his halting English we were going fast enough. I chuckled to myself: nothing ever went fast enough for Pammy, including my wooing of her.

            Around the sand-boards she hovered close, surreptitiously attempting to squeeze herself between me and Bob weaving back and forth up the line of boards, giving our inexpert opinions. Our guide obliterated our fanciful notions, gruffly reminding us we'd all confessed we were novices, so this comparatively low lying, not so steep sand bank in front of us was an ideal starting point. We would lie face down on the boards and take an easy glide downhill, see how we faired. Later, if he thought we were capable, we could be braver, start higher up on a steeper slope. I felt Pammy at my side silently beseeching me to take her with me wherever I went.

            I looked down at the oasis - Laguna De Huacachina - captivated as always by the trees, their lush green, thick foliage engulfing the site, greedily gobbling up the spaces around the lagoon. Ever since my 18 month sojourn in the Shetland Isles I've been affected this way, a new woodland or forest, even one as evidently manufactured as Huacachina's, would stir in me such high emotion, an aesthetic sensibility I rarely experienced otherwise. Those barren northern isles, those treeless vast expanses of peat bogs had scarred me. I remember leaving them behind and feeling the shocking thrill of seeing trees again after a long period of deprivation. So I gazed in wonder at that little plop of bushy green around the still lagoon surrounded by another vast expanse, the ocean of sand we were larking about in.

            I heard Pammy praising the gorgeous view, no doubt hoping she might ignite a romantic moment, accelerated by the grand loveliness and the abundant life of the oasis below us. Poor soul. I had romantic notions of my own, beyond the beauty of the trees the girl on the bench in the shade of a heavy bough. She had her own captivating qualities, not least of which was her beaming, broad as a canyon smile, which I fancied she summoned up especially for me.

            Her other qualities were more strident: a fulsome bosom and waspish waist, with generous hips, a certain shapeliness that appeared common among the local young women; long, dark locks tumbling in waves to her shoulders; darker still, bewitching eyes; her skin a desperately attractive deep olive; her features an enticing blend of Hispanic and Quechan - probably - or some other ancient heritage. She was effortlessly perfect, in stark contrast to Pammy's studied androgyny: the slender form and flat chest she chose to conceal below mannish garbs; her savagely cropped but untidy hair; green eyes she advertised with a variety of colourings on her eyelids and sockets, her one obvious concession to femininity; pale skin that refused to tan smoothly, assaulted instead with reddening patches of various degrees despite the liberal application of heavy duty sunblock.

            Despite her androgynous pose, Pammy was leaving me in no doubt she desired to know me better. No matter how high I took my board up the side of the dunes, no matter how steep the slope down, she doggedly followed me. When the sun began to set there was only Bob and me and Pammy left, ready for one final plunge down the sands, the guide and the rest of our group below, waiting impatiently by the buggy. I artfully held back and allowed Bob and Pammy a decent head start.

            I wanted to make sure of an outer seat on the buggy, preferably not next to Pammy. I was partially successful, I sat next to her on an outer seat as our guide drove us back to Huacachina. She put a hand on mine several times, ostensibly for support to balance against the rocking of the drive, but her touch was light, teasing, sensual, and I had no doubt of its true purpose. I knew our guide intended dropping us off at our hotel, and as he slowed almost to a stop at a junction, I took my chance. I hopped off, squeaking I'd see them all later, in an hour or so, in the bar, had something to do. The buggy accelerated away, their hoots of derision and astonishment dying in the wind they took with them.

            I found her in less than a minute, where I expected, on that bench under the large tree set back from the lagoon. The blisteringly beautiful sunset was nearly over, the swirls of decaying yellow and orange and purple rapidly giving way to a black horizon. The street lamps were already blazing, but they were a poor substitute for the real thing, and they made little dint in the gloom around the tree trunk where I could just make out the shape of her. I had to see her, I had to muster the courage to speak, I had to know if the invitation I perceived in her smile was true. Suddenly I was rewarded, a slash of brilliant white lanced the dark air, her teeth dancing, as she flashed me the grin I prayed I would own one day. I croaked a Hello, an Hola, for good measure, my heart thumping so vigorously I thought my ribs would crack.

            She stood, I guess, and emerged from the shadow of the great tree's protection, stepping toward me. For a mad moment I thought she might fall into my arms, but she stopped a foot or so short of me. She was quite petite and had to noticeably crane her neck up to look me in the face. I gazed down, past her sparkling eyes, beyond her cheery smile, into her upthrust cleavage, the greater part of her impossibly generous breasts exposed. Fearful she'd think me tactlessly lecherous, I took a step back and tore my eyes away, sent them scanning further along the path and over the lagoon. I giggled nervously.

            She said something in Spanish I didn't understand and I dared to look at her again. She was wearing a short, simple low-cut dress with thin shoulder straps and heelless sandals, presumably the red number, or sister of the one I'd seen her in twice before. I introduced myself, in English and Spanish. She replied in Spanish and English, but the information was the same: her name was Evy … Evy Gonzales. In Spanish I told her she was very pretty, and she thanked me, smiling broadly. We were getting close to exhausting my Spanish vocabulary but, mercifully, she said she knew a little English. We began to walk. We began to talk.

            We made do with my pigeon Spanish and her pigeon English, enough to elicit some trivial personal information, inadequate to sustain a meaningful conversation. She had a few more days in Huacachina before returning to her studies at Lima University. I was scheduled to head back to Lima with the others the following day. These were the most salient facts we deduced in that fraught but heady non-conversation. I was terrified I'd never see her again. What a fool I'd been to delay my approach. A fool for holding out while I weighed up my options with Pammy.

            I walked alongside Evy, my skin prickling as if I was at the heart of a breaking thunderstorm, listening to her switching back and forth between Spanish and pseudo-English, in those lavishly purring tones of hers, sonorous and beguiling. When her bare arm brushed mine the crack of the discharge between us was almost audible. Inside, I boiled. My trembling limbs deliquesced. I stuttered some nonsensical English, some equally nonsensical pseudo-Spanish. It wouldn't have mattered how fluent I'd been in either tongue, I was now incapable of delivering anything making any sense. I laughed at myself - the same in any language - and found Evy laughing along. She was as nervous as me, I belatedly realised, and possibly, hopefully, as desirous of me as I was of her.

            We were halfway round the lagoon and she led me to a wrought iron seat with an ornate backrest, nestled under another impressive tree. I told her in English I loved trees while I scratched around in my cortex for the Spanish translation. I wanted to tell her that as lovely as the trees were, and as besotted as I usually was with them, beside her incomparable beauty - beside her - they were dull, insignificant, uninteresting. She responded in Spanish and then quickly answered again, in English, Me too, presumably in reply to my declaration of love of trees. Spoken language was becoming less of a problem. She leaned into me, invited my arm around her shoulders, and nestled her face into my chest. She chuckled at my racing heart, looked up at me, joyfully giggling. Then she put her head back down and I felt her warm breath permeating my tee-shirt. I think I could have sat there forever.

            I could never fully relax, of course, I was far too wired for that, but I did calm down a little and began to wonder what had happened, and what was happening. We'd exchanged chaste smiles in the past two days, and today had taken the decision to step up our interest beyond a passing fancy. I was amazed I'd read her so well. But where were we going, where could we go? In the immediate future, both of us back to Lima, but not together. The mere thought of being apart got me quivering and I hugged her closer. Of course I wanted to physically consummate our blossoming relationship, if Evy was keen and willing, though it was awfully early in the game and we surely couldn't use either the hotel or her parents' home. That left an al-fresco tumble beneath the blessed tree, and though I might have found it an acceptable venue for having it away with Pammy, I wouldn't contemplate it for Evy and me, unless Evy expressly - somehow - said she wanted it. I began to shift restlessly as I wrestled with the potential linguistic tautologies we might have to embrace to get a mutually intelligible handle on such a delicate matter.

            Evy stirred, lifted her face to mine and said something in Spanish, I had no idea what. She smiled gently, indulgently, and then said, Kiss me, as she moved her lips to within a hair's breadth of mine. She was every bit as delicious as I'd imagined, and I swooned, dizzy with joy. I chanced a hand on her breast and she gently pushed it away as she broke the kiss. I had my answer, at least partially. However, she smiled encouragingly and spoke in Spanish again. Then, frowning, she tutted to herself, translating in her head I presumed, and finally said, Not here, In Lima.

            We walked on and shortly she had us pull up. Gesturing me to wait she dashed off, returning a couple of minutes later with a slip of paper in her hand. She handed it to me saying, Lima, her address and a phone number, of course. Then she grabbed my arms and levered herself up onto tiptoes to give me a short-lived but fearsome kiss. I was still quaking when she released me and, to my total chagrin, flew away into the night.

            I looked around helplessly, bereft, devoid of any will to do anything but dream of meeting Evy in Lima. How long I wavered on the footpath I cannot tell, but once I did regain some consciousness I realised I was less than a minute's walk from our hotel. I'd taken three or four steps when I almost collided with Pammy running towards me.

            "Where the hell have you been?" she demanded to know.

            "Walking," I said. "Round the lake."

            "For four bloody hours?"

            "Surely not that long."

            In the glow of the nearby lamp I could see her scowling. "We were thinking of getting up a search party," she told me, as her face began to soften. She took hold of my arm and tugged me close. "Come on," she continued. "Dearie me, whatever am I going to do with you?"

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Wave

A humble little ditty inspired by the pandemic.

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The History of TV

 

"I'm having trouble with Toby again," said Grandpa.

            Grandma stirred from the dream she was pleasantly drifting through. She shuffled into a sitting position next to him, bad temperedly plumping up the pillows. "What is it this time?" she sighed. Toby was a difficult child; why didn't his parents take any notice? Worn out, probably, like she was with Grandpa, a difficult adult.

            "He's asking about Television," Grandpa told her.

            "Television?"

            "Yes, Television, remember it?"

            Grandma was aghast. "Remember it? I'm five years younger than you and my Grandma could barely remember it. I only know what I've read in books. Like you. And like you, Toby should look it up. Plenty of books."

            Grandpa groaned. "I tried that, Grandma." He put his hands briefly in a helpless gesture. "It's that new teacher of his."

            "What about her?"

            "Bit of a history buff, from what I can gather. Wants the kids to research 'primary sources', or some such thing. Toby got Television. Don't read up second hand opinions in books, go find an eye witness."

            Grandma snorted. "That's journalism. Not much of a historian, is she? Like I said: there's no one around today who's ever seen a television, so we've only got the books to rely on."

            "I know," Grandpa gloomily agreed. "I'll have to pretend, I guess. Help me out, Grandma, what do you remember? Don't look at me like that. I mean, what have you read about television?"

            Grandma would rather have gone back to sleep, but she knew there was no stopping Grandpa now. He'd mither on until he got some sort of answer to hand down to Toby. "Let me see," she said wearily, gathering her thoughts. "It was a box, an electrical box, with a screen showing pictures and sound coming out of it. Every household had one, apparently."

            "What for?" Grandpa wondered.

            "For entertainment," Grandma remembered.

            "How so?"

            "Well, apparently," Grandma continued, frowning, "these boxes - television sets, yes that's what they called them - could show concerts and dramas and sporting events and people chatting, singing, dancing … and so on."

            "How?"

            "How should I know?" Grandma snapped. Rattled, she ploughed on nevertheless. "They had these things called broadcasts that came from television people who somehow or other got them into your box, your television set."

            "Sounds like an awful lot of bother," Grandpa remarked. "Didn't they have auditoriums back then?"

            "I suppose they did," Grandma replied. She sounded unconvinced. "Anyway, folk had these TVs to entertain them. Ah! That's another word for them I remember reading about - TV. They called them TVs or … tellies. Anyway, they did the entertaining back then."

            Grandpa was sceptical. "No. Some people did the entertaining. There had to be people at the other end doing that. There weren't lots of little people inside each TV singing and dancing and acting and talking and all that stuff. Couldn't be."

            "Of course not," Grandma agreed. "That's what a broadcast was," she continued. "Some folk doing whatever being shown to millions at the same time, through the TV."

            Grandpa was simultaneously amused and perplexed. "Really?"

            His scepticism bounced off Grandma. She was on a roll now. She was remembering so much more. "And they had these things called adverts - advertisements - like the notices you post on the village news-board, I guess, except bigger and grander, telling you all about all the things you could buy."

            "You only have to go down to the village shops to see that," Grandpa butted in ruefully. "Why would anyone want to sit around watching someone in an electrical box telling you about something you could find out for yourself in five minutes, if you wanted to."

            Grandma thought hard. "The idea was, I think, they were trying to persuade you to buy things you never realised you wanted until they told you about them. They put these adverts on alongside the entertainment, hoping to get your attention, I guess."

            "Why?"

            "So you'd buy the stuff they were selling," cried Grandma, exasperated.

            It was Grandpa's turn to think long and hard. "Sounds rum. So, someone piped in this entertainment to these boxes - tellies, TVs - and you watched the whatever while they advertised stuff, so you'd go and buy it. That was the idea?" He scratched his head. "What a lot of bother. If you want entertainment these days all you have to do is wander down to your local and there's always something going on. And if you want something, well no one has to advertise, just go down to the shops when you need something. No wonder this telly thing fizzled out and no one knows much about it. The whole set-up sounds pretty ludicrous to me."

            Grandma folded her arms. She was wide awake now and couldn't imagine when she might next get the chance to sleep. "Oh well, whatever the point of it, it lasted over a hundred years."

            Grandpa folded his arms. "Well, what do we tell Toby?" he wondered, unsure if they had come up with anything substantive yet.

            Grandma had been thinking and remembering again. "Well there is a story to be had, when I come to think of it."

            "Oh, yes?" Grandpa was intrigued. Grandma never made a mountain out of a mole-hill so she probably had something interesting to share. "What is it?"

            "The story of television is the story of its demise," Grandma declared.

            "Go on," Grandpa urged.

            "There was this other thing that came along," Grandma continued, struggling with her memory. "Computers. The - what did they call it? - Internet, that's it."

            "Computers?" Grandpa cried, his sceptical streak resurfacing. "What, like those fancy adding machines …"

            "Oh, Grandpa," Grandma cut in. "Where did you go to school? They did a lot more than adding up the grocery bill …"

            "The … Internet? Never even heard of that," Grandpa exclaimed, completely lost now.

            Grandma playfully slapped him with the spare pillow she'd been nursing in her lap. "Oh shut up, Grandpa, and let me think." She put her head back and closed her eyes, marshalling her thoughts.

            "I remember now," she went on. "I did read about it, long time ago. Everyone had a computer in the house, like everyone had a TV. A fancy computer. They called them Peacies - don't ask me why. And these Peacies could do everything the TVs did and lots more besides, and people got to using them instead of their TVs. There was this big electronic library called the Internet these Peacies could connect to and as well as getting all the TV programmes you could look at anything: any books published, or recipes, or any facts about just about anything."

            "You can do that down the library," Grandpa observed.

            "Yes, but you didn't have to leave your home. It was all on the box, or in the box, or whatever, on computers and the Internet."

            Grandpa was unimpressed. "What was it with people back then? Didn't they like going outdoors, seeing folk, doing things for themselves? No wonder that television thing didn't last. And as for the … Peacies, computers and that … Internet thing, well that didn't last either. Never even heard of it. What did for them?"

            Grandma shook her head. "You never did like history, Grandpa?" she suggested. "I don't know what did for Peacies and the Internet, but they finished off television. I do know that."

            Grandpa shifted uneasily. He was trying to suppress a superior smirk. "Grandma," he said, "I heard it was something completely different. As it happens I have done a bit of reading myself."

            "Oh, Grandpa, and what did you read?" Grandma snorted.

            "I read it was some virus."

            "Virus?"

            "Yes?"

            "What kind of a virus?"

            Grandpa shrugged. "Something like flu," he answered.

            "How does a television get flu?"

            "Not the television, Grandma," Grandpa laughed. "The people got it."

            "And?"

            "It was what they called a pandemic," Grandpa explained. "Everyone got it …"

            "Everyone?"

            "Well, just about everyone, everywhere, and they all had to stay at home sick because the health service couldn't cope. And they all sat around watching TV …"

            "You've been holding out on me, Grandpa," Grandma complained. "You cheeky so-and-so. You know a lot more than you've been letting on. You could've …"

            Grandpa grinned. "Where would the fun in that have been?" Grandma slapped him with the pillow again. "Anyhow, it was the virus that did it, killed TV. Everyone got fed up watching what they called repeats, same thing over and over again. And there was no point in advertising cos nobody was going anywhere, just getting food trucked in, so there was no money in it for anyone. So there was no money to make anything new to broadcast so there were only repeats and then everyone thought there must be better things to do … And it just fizzled out, apparently. No one could be bothered with it anymore, especially after the great catastrophe."

            Grandma's eyes twinkled with recognition. "Oh yes, of course, the population collapse." She cleared her throat. "You know there was once nearly 8 billion people …"

            "I know," Grandpa put in. "About ten times more than there is now."

            "Phew!"

            "Yeah," Grandpa concluded. "Not enough folk around these days to sell a daft idea like television or - what were the other things? - oh yes, Peacies and Internet. Yep, that virus finished them off along with seven-and-a-half billion souls."

            "Shame," said Grandma.

            "Not really," Grandpa opined. "Must have been awful stressful with those many folk around. Must have been a nightmare getting out and about. No wonder they sat around for hours watching TV."

Wave

I can't remember which writers club challenge inspired this semi-autobiographical ditty: based on a true incident.

The Refund

 

I saw him immediately, the moment he burst in from the street through the doors at the far end of the floor: the irate customer. He moved swiftly, his limbs jabbing and jerking in peculiar fashion, as if driven by a powerful yet poorly performing, misaligned reciprocating engine. He was racing our way, weaving through the crowd, his hair, an unruly mess of tight curls bundled high on his head, waving and bobbing ridiculously as he approached with agonising purpose. My stomach churned. As he reached the counter I noticed the fixed rictus he was wearing, an incipient scowl if ever there was one. His tweed jacket with the leather elbow patches reminded me of my English teacher.

            "Yes?" I asked.

            This was England 1975, and as yet we had not succumbed to the American model for shop assistants, drooling sycophancy. Nor, in those days, did we have any concept of no quibble exchange or refunds. Anyone, we were advised, who was returning an item purchased in good faith was a chancer who had probably damaged the goods and was trying to make good his or her loss. Or, worse, the customer had changed his mind about the purchase and no longer found it desirable, so wanted their money back. I was weighing up into which category this gentleman fell when he produced, as if out of thin air - I hadn't noticed him carrying it - an LP record, a double in fact, one of those ghastly compilation albums for people who have no idea what they like. The latter category, I thought; he'd bought himself a turkey.

            "This is damaged," he declared, his little piggy eyes dancing unnervingly. I thought of shysters and serial killers.

            Now, this was also Boots (The Chemist) 1975, which, though I owed my current employment to it, sold records, incongruously in my opinion. I suppose an argument could be made that at least the aspirin was close at hand as you made your way out, and you'd probably need a shed load of pain killers after listening to whatever tub thumping musical baloney you'd just procured. Convenient. Grab the antidote to the pop tosh you buy all in the same place. For God's sake, buy records in a bloody record store! However, I did not let these sour reflections deflect me from my duty.

            "How?" I wondered.

            Those piggy eyes narrowed, his brow furrowed. "How?" he repeated. "I don't know how. I only know it is," he added helpfully.

            "In what way?" I clarified.

            He was not mollified, his furry eyebrows bristled with indignation. "It jumps," he spat.

            "It jumps," I repeated. "I see," I added, motioning him to hand over the LP. I slid one of the discs out of its cover slot and began to remove the inner sleeve.

            "It's not that one," he barked, not exactly Alsatian like, more Yorkshire Terrier.

            I turned my attention to the other disc, and put it on the turntable we kept ready on the shelf at the rear of the counter. I listened and listened, but it all sounded perfectly fine to me. I looked at him helplessly; I knew for certain we were in for an argument. Was I to play the whole twenty minutes of both sides?

            "It's not there, not there," he yelped.

            "Where?"

            "There."

            "Where?"

            "On the run-up. The run-up," he squawked.

            I took the needle back, over and over, to the beginning of the disc, the run-up to the first track, but it always played precisely as it should, a smooth run-in to some insufferable power ballad. Every time I tried to prove him right (or wrong) he complained testily I was dropping the needle after the fault. Eventually I said I couldn't find a fault, so there was nothing I could do.

            By now he was flushed the colour of beetroot and his hair was under the influence of some sort of anti-gravity, levitating ceiling-wards. As his arms flew into outraged gyrations, for the first time I noticed his purple bri-nylon shirt, sporting huge, unsightly damp patches. Call me slow, but I was beginning to think he was exasperated with me, perhaps even angry.

            "I'll get my supervisor," I suggested.

            "You do that," he snarled back.

            But she was with us already, presumably having heard the commotion building as Mr Angry got angrier and angrier.

            I stood aside and back a step. My supervisor, an experienced middle-aged lady, quickly cooled the situation. She spoke quietly, apparently solicitous to his every comment, though I couldn't hear anything they actually said. He stooped slightly, to meet her mid-counter, so to speak, as they continued in hushed tones for some time. I could see his thin lips motoring away as they, clearly, bickered. Suddenly he drew himself back and up to his full height. He had something to say, and for everyone in earshot to hear.

            "You leave me no choice," he cried. "I'll be back in a few minutes with a policeman and we'll see what he says about the Sale of Goods Act, and what you as a retailer are obliged or not obliged to do."

            He'd said policeman rather loudly and my supervisor visibly blushed, an uncommon sight. I thought: Oh bugger, he's surely not going to drag a copper in here, is he?

            Would my supervisor call his bluff? Not on your nelly. She couldn't risk such a bad look, a uniformed officer arbitrating a dispute with a customer in the store. She turned to me. "Give him his money back," she snapped and swiftly disappeared from the scene.

            "Your receipt, sir? May I see your receipt?"

            He'd won. I thought he would smirk, or betray some other triumphalist trait, but he simply pulled out his wallet and began thumbing through a bundle of receipts he extracted. "Here you are," he said eventually. "Two pounds, ninety-nine."

            "Thank you," I said, as if I had some reason to be grateful. I opened the till and scooped up his refund. "There you go," I said, mustering a smile.

            He looked at me gravely. "You know," he said slowly, "all this could have been sorted out in no time at all if you had the same policy as Marks and Sparks."

            "Marks and Sparks?" I repeated dully.

            "Yes," he affirmed. "They have a no questions, no quibble policy. Take something back and they just give you a refund, right away, no fuss."

            I watched him go, moving in a somewhat more co-ordinated way than he'd managed on the way in. I thought, Marks and Spencers … They don't even sell bloody records.

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Wave

The idea behind this was to write a short piece on the theme of love. Like all our challenges at Biggar Writers, there's an awful lot of scope for interpretation. I kind of cheated again on this one, basing my short story on a real life incident.

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The Most Beautiful Woman in The World

 

My gargantuan mixed grill supper was finally settling and I braved heading downstairs to the bar. I feared Dave would be there as usual, but I fancied a pint. He was as skinny as a thoroughbred whippet despite consuming upwards of four pints of heavy ale every night: a swift half gallon he called it. Then again, even though he shared the upstairs flat with me I never saw him eat anything other than the odd packet of pork scratchings. For him it was in from work, have a drink, go to bed.

            "Pint?" he enquired as I swept into view.

            "I'll get them," I said. I had to head him off; letting him buy me one at the outset would put me in a drinking routine I couldn't possibly contend with.

            Billy, our landlord and barman sidled up. "Usual?"

            I nodded. There was a bit of a wait. There always was. Billy prided himself on keeping his ale in tip-top condition and believed easing it out of the barrels contributed to providing the best possible serving.

            "Rang the missus?" I asked. It was a routine overture, along with standard enquiries about the day and, if it was Thursday, was he looking forward to getting home for the weekend. Which was the dumbest bloody question we asked each other every week. I noticed the stack of coins on the bar in front of him. "Not yet," I observed.

            "No. Wednesday. She'll be round her mates until gone nine. You?"

            I smiled. "Rang her from work," I replied. I hadn't told him we were barely on speaking terms, one of the reasons why I'd started working away from home.

            He grimaced. "They don't like that - personal calls," he warned. I knew. Then he grinned. "Tight-wad."

            "Fuck 'em," I said. "They don't like me posting timesheets to my agent either, but I still do it."

            He smiled, more broadly. "Because the cost of a stamp is going to break you?"

            "It's the principle," I observed, rather pompously. What principles did a jobbing contractor have?

            He changed tack: the lives and doings of an on-the-road jobbing contractor a subject we'd done to death over the previous six weeks. "Eddie said he'd be popping in later," Dave informed me.

            "Eddie?"

            He frowned. "You know … You know Eddie? Oh, thought you did. You'll recognise him," he assured me.

            Our pints arrived, a dark amber body with a thick creamy head, the best pint in town and maybe the best I'd ever had. I once asked Billy how he achieved the feat. He said his beer came from the local brewery and all he needed to do was keep his tubes clean, a soapy solution periodically applied and plenty of clean fresh water to rinse. That was it. So much for the dark arts of the cellar man. As for the dark arts of a drinker, Dave had consumed three-quarters of his pint in one gulp. Cream dripped from his bushy moustache. He always turned up Monday clean shaven with a neatly trimmed tash and gradually became more hirsute as the week progressed. I asked him once if he owned a razor and scissors and he looked at me as if I was mad. I was about to be boring and ask him the same question again when in walked Eddie.

            I didn't know him from Adam. He was in his early fifties, a well weathered face, sort of crinkly and tanned. He was wearing his work's overalls which, despite his short, slim build, failed to disguise he was in fact quite muscular, well-toned I guessed. Maybe he worked out.

            We had a fevered little spat about the drinks. I said I was in the chair, Dave said it was his round, and Eddie trumped us by saying he needed change for the phone. I said I'd pass; I had almost a full pint still.

            "Phoning home?" I asked him dumbly. I had a talent for stating the obvious.

            He nodded and took an inch off the top of his pint, excused himself and went over to the pay phone. At least he didn't drink like Dave, I thought. We lost him for over half-an-hour, which made his call home outstandingly lengthy by my standards. I've never been comfortable with telephones, and with my wife and I being practically estranged I was never going to be able to idly chat with her for more than a few minutes. Of course, that was part of the problem; she was looking for more than idle chat and I couldn't deliver.

            I'd overheard Dave a few times to his wife, on the same phone Eddie was now using. I hadn't been earwigging, by the way, it was simply Dave spoke rather loudly, unabashedly. He dispensed his news, the tale of his day, lightly, assuring his missus he was well, the only cloud on his horizon not being home with her: he loved her and he missed her. And then he spent the rest of the call, anything from five to twenty minutes, listening. Eddie, by contrast, was entirely inaudible to anyone in the bar and it was impossible to tell when he was speaking and when he was listening. Not that anyone was interested, except perhaps me, who was always fascinated by anyone who could spend more than three minutes on the telephone without wanting to commit hari-kari.

            "Everything all right?" Dave wondered as Eddie re-joined us.

            "Not really," Eddie muttered back.

            Dave frowned. "What's up mate?"

            "How do you do this?" Eddie replied. "How long you been doing it? Two years? You must be mad. And you," he continued, eyeing me, "how long is it?"

            "What?" I wondered.

            "Working away from home."

            "First time," I replied. "Started a couple of months ago."

            Eddie shook his head. "Me too," he remarked sourly.

            "You'll get used to it," said Dave, adding, "You'll have to."

            We all took the reference; we were lucky to be working when so many weren't. We'd chosen the metaphorical Norman Tebbit solution. With this in mind I said, "We're all Thatcher's children now. Getting on our bikes, being 'entrepreneurial'." I shrugged. "Well, chasing work."

            It wasn't what I wanted, it wasn't what I'd thought I'd be doing just a few innocent years ago when I entered the workforce. But it was the way it had panned out, and one had to provide. Maybe we were all thinking the same, more or less.

            "It's harder on Our Lass," Dave remarked, with a rare bit of insight. "At least I'm working all day and I don't have time to dwell on things so much, or have to fret about the kids and housework, for that matter. What about your missus?" he asked suddenly, pinning me with a grin.

            "She likes me being out of the way," I replied defensively. "And she likes the money." Then I got incautious for some reason. "Thing is: there's only two things she doesn't like about me; everything I say and everything I do."

            Dave's jaw dropped a tad and he covered his shock by destroying his current pint and ordering another round. He'd suspected, I think, that the state of play for me back home was less than ideal, but perhaps not as bad as I'd now intimated. Eddie broke the awkward silence.

            "I'm sorry to hear that," he said. He was three inches shorter than me and twenty years older, but he still towered over me in every important respect. He dispensed advice I was expecting, quietly, with authority. "This isn't the life for you. If your marriage is going through a rocky patch, the last thing you need is to be away from home most of the time."

            "It's the way she wants it," I told him.

            "I doubt that," he replied.

            "It's what she said," I affirmed.

            "Might have been the words she used," Eddie remarked ruefully. "But I very much doubt if that was what she meant."

            I squirmed I confess; I knew there was much in what Eddie had said. The truth was, I heard what I wanted to hear. "Is everything so good back home for you, you can afford to work away? Is your missus not wanting you home every day?"

            "She does," he said, nodding, with a darkness I took for sadness clouding his eyes. "And she doesn't." He took a sip of beer. "Over thirty years working the same place, same job, coming home every night to my darling. I was happy. She was happy. We had everything we wanted. Then the redundancies came - again - another round. And this time I didn't manage to dodge the bullet, so …"

            "So, same as us, then, more or less," I said, though I knew it was a thousand miles different. I'd had a job. I'd packed it in to go it alone. I had options Eddie probably didn't.

            "We could have managed," Eddie continued. "But the missus said I'd be miserable home all day. I wasn't ready for my pipe and slippers in the evening after a day pottering around the garden. She said: find something. So I did." He laughed. "I'm working my notice," he informed us.

            "What?" Dave cried. "You've only just got here."

            "Yeah, but the agreement was, if I didn't like it I'd come home. And I don't like it."

            "It's hard …" I began to say, but there was something in his manner that silenced me.

            "It's like this," he said. "I married the most beautiful woman in the world, and thirty years later she's still the most beautiful woman in the world. Gents, tell me: who doesn't want to spend every day of his life with the most beautiful woman in the world?"

Wave

The Price Is Right

 

My reputation restored I set about resurrecting my business, which had been idling in the trustworthy, if unimaginative custody of my splendid partner Marsha Moore. Skittish with delight about my return she fussed over me the whole morning, circling my desk like a hawk eyeing prey, diving periodically into the mess of papers in front of me in futile attempts to clarify what each and every individual item meant. Collectively they meant simply we were close to bankruptcy and carrying on business in any viable form might prove tremendously difficult. Martha could see the despair in my face and was on the point of declaiming something when I spotted the promissory note. I held up my hand to shush her, but she ignored me.

            "I did the best I could," she protested hotly. "I paid every bill and cashed every cheque, I did."

            I told her I appreciated all she'd done in my absence and assured her our present predicament was entirely beyond her control: in short, she was not responsible. Was it possible, I mused, as she began to calm herself, the promissory note I had in my hand might hold the key to something akin to salvation.

            "Oh that," she said dismissively. "Arrived this morning. By the looks of the gentleman who delivered it I very much doubt it."

            I asked her to describe him: aged, ill-kempt, malodourous, she said. I looked at the name on the note, neatly hand written above an address: Mr Price was evidently a taverner, whatever his sartorial or hygienic shortcomings. Marsha confirmed the man who'd delivered the note gave his name as Mr Price, and now that I should mention it, he did rather have the whiff of the brewery about him. So I'd been approached direct, and not through an intermediary or agent.

            "Said there'd be another five guineas in it for us the moment you made yourself available to him," Marsha informed me.

            I wondered if Price was entirely conversant with the services we offered but Marsha said, on questioning, he evidently was. He'd been following my trial in the papers and knew without doubt I was the man he needed. Intrigued, I grabbed my hat and cane and headed for Mr Price's inn.

            The old man and another person were together in the back part, and there seemed to have been high words between them, for their voices which were raised to a very high pitch suddenly stopped on my entering, and the old man advancing hastily towards me, said in a tremulous tone he was very glad I had come.

            The pungency of stale ale hung about him. Baffled, I introduced myself, adding I presumed he was Mr Price. He said he knew fine well who I was, as did honest men and scoundrels alike in that part of London, adding a surreptitious glance in the direction of the younger man on the word scoundrels. He stepped forward, a thin rake of a devil, a sneer in his visage, a threat in his stride. But almost immediately he pulled up short and hesitated. "You?" he wondered. Then something of the sneer returned to his lips and he carried on with renewed confidence. "Happen you should be in gaol now," he remarked slyly.

            "Happen you haven't read the papers lately," I replied.

            "Never mind," the fellow continued, craftier in aspect by each passing second. "You have no business here, if you knows what's well for you."

            I had no intention of ceding an inch of ground. "On the contrary, I'm here at Mr Price's invitation," I told him. "And I do believe," I continued, "these premises belong to Mr Price and therefore it's from him I shall seek guidance regarding my presence or otherwise."

            "You shall stay Sir!" the old man exclaimed. Whatever else my arrival might portend, it had already in no uncertain means invigorated the old man to a level of confidence not evident a few moments before. Turning to the younger man he said in the manner of a dog barking, "And you, Sir, shall leave - now."

            The rascal, for now I was sure he was indeed one, looked about him uncertainly. "I'll be back," he said finally, and strode away with a threatening purpose. The old man watched him away and then turned to me.

            "You see my problem?" he wondered.

            I nodded.

            "Scoundrels, vermin, parasites," he continued. "They're swarming all over this parish and many more beyond, and it's up to good men and true to resist."

            "There'll be violence," I said.

            "Aye, I suppose there will be," he agreed.

            "The constabulary?"

            "The constabulary!" he echoed hotly. "What use is the constabulary to an honest man? The constabulary is more than likely in cahoots. The law is no protection against these foul blaggards, Mr Hendricks. We need a champion unafraid to work above and beyond the law in the pursuit of justice for the exploited and oppressed. We need a man like you, Mr Hendricks, and we shall pay you handsomely for your efforts."

            His wild presumptions amused me and I struggled mightily to keep my visage in a serious manner. I said, "You appear to have been following the record of my recent court appearances, from which you must surely have gathered I am fully accountable to the law, not above it."

            "But they found you innocent," he observed. "Your methodology, your practices, your actions all vindicated, your opponents vanquished. You have precedent on your side Mr Hendricks. I would not ask you to stray beyond the boundaries you have already established, but would urge you to the very limit of them on our behalf."

            I sighed. I had a new and widespread reputation to which I found myself aspiring. "Extortion?" I ventured, by way of accepting the case.

            Price nodded vigorously. "Blood sucking …"

            I put up a hand to silence him and took out my notebook. Licking the point of my pencil I said, "Details, Mr Price, details."

The challenge which led to the creation of this trifle was to randomly select a book from our shelves, turn to Page 15, and note the first full sentence there, then create a short piece either including this sentence, or using it as the basis or inspiration instead. I picked up The Old Curiosity Shop and built a story around Mr Dickens' sentence, which remains somewhere in the story completely intact. Can you spot it? If not, go to Page 15 and see the sentence, assuming you have the same edition of the book as me.

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Wave

The Wrong Colour                                       

 

Mrs Jones's very large, old saucepan, known as OP for Old Pan, was fretting. The latest house move was particularly upsetting, raising once more the prospect of OP being replaced. The other saucepans nestling in the same kitchen drawer were not short of taunts: they were a smug set and nasty minded with it. Large Pan (LP) led the way.

            "Third house move in twenty years, you say, OP," said LP. "And they haven't replaced you yet. So what's your problem?"

            The subtext was, of course, OP would be incredibly lucky to survive yet another purge when the Jones's got round to fitting the inevitable new kitchen.

            "My problem is sharing this drawer with you," OP snorted defiantly.

            Medium Pan (MP) decided to join in. "Oh, don't fret, I'm sure Mrs Jones will soon be finding a new place for you."

            "Listen MP," said OP, voicing a bravado he didn't feel. "I've survived three houses and five kitchens so far. I'm sure there's another one in me yet."

            Every pan knew OP didn't believe this. Small pan (SP) spoke next. "Yeah? There's really not much point to you anymore, is there OP?"

            "Excuse me," OP hotly contended. "I'm bigger and better than any of you three, bigger than all of you put together."

            "You're old," MP sneered.

            "And we have copper bottoms," SP remarked slyly.

            "And you're not even a proper saucepan," LP opined. "I mean, look at you, more a stock-pot I'd say, with your transparent vented lid. Mrs J is always using you for making stock and soups and casseroles. You're almost a cauldron, you oversized prima donna."

            OP exploded. "Cauldron! How dare you. I'm nothing like a cauldron. Anyway, all of you have been used for soup and stock at some time or another," OP added huffily.

            "Not me," protested SP. "Warming up milk, and cheese sauce, only. And notice, I say, cheese sauce, as in sauce, as in saucepan."

            "Shut up you little squirt," OP cried. "Put your lid on. And that goes for all three of you."

            "We can't!" they all protested at once. MP continued. "Mrs Jones has stacked us, put our lids over there, behind you OP, as you well know. And I'm stuck in the middle," MP complained.

            "And I'm stuck at the bottom," LP complained in turn.

            "Ha, ha, that's right," OP crowed. "Three pans in a pod. Serves you right."

            "It's not our fault," SP squeaked.

            "Oh no?" OP wondered. "It's because you take up too much space."

            "No we don't."

            "Yes, you do."

            LP was apoplectic. "I'm the largest pan here, the largest proper pan, and I don't take up half the room you do, OP. Which is another reason why Mrs Jones is going to get rid of you. Out you go, and this drawer is big enough for us three with our lids on. She'll work that out soon enough. So bye-bye OP."

            "You're forgetting she'll be getting a new kitchen," OP retorted. "So this drawer doesn't even come into it. Go and ask the crockery. Most of them who survived the last kitchen overhaul are the oldest and biggest specimens. Mrs Jones got rid of the newer, inferior ones. And, and," OP went on hurriedly, "think about it. Same thing with the cutlery. Ha, ha. Newer rubbish thrown out."

            OP felt better. Now convinced the new pans, copper bottomed or not, were in the most danger. OP was an old, trusted, versatile pan, loved and treasured. The others were new-fangled, unlovable tat, copper bottoms or not. Another of Mrs J's mistakes, like the cheap crockery and cutlery she kept buying to replace the mysteriously disappearing knives, forks and spoons, and the oft chipped and carelessly broken plates and cups and mugs. Stubbornly persistent mistakes, though, OP reflected. Ten years or more they'd been around. That was a bad sign: Mrs J might be becoming fond of those wretched copper bottoms. OP slumped back into despondency. Best to stay silent and let the others bicker, which they were managing in fine style.

            Alarmed by OP's blast, SP was in a panic. "You don't think so, do you, LP? Tell me OP's got it all wrong. We're not inferior rubbish, are we?"

            "Of course we're not," LP snapped. "Pull yourself together and don't let that old pan rattle you."

            "OP's got a point though, don't you think?" MP groaned. "We know Mrs Jones has a soft spot for OP because she's held on to OP for so long. But we have no idea if she likes us as much."

            "Don't you start," LP cried. "Pull yourself together, pan. Of course she likes us, who wouldn't? We're top of the range."

            "But we might not fit in the new kitchen," SP whimpered.

            "Fit in?" LP exploded. "We're pans for God's sake, not double decker buses."

            "You know what SP means," MP intervened. "We might not suit the new kitchen Mrs J buys."

            "Stuff and nonsense," LP retorted. "Whoever heard of saucepans not suiting the kitchen."

            "Hush! Here's Mrs J coming," MP hissed.

            She was talking to her husband. "Freddy, darling, this kitchen will simply not do," she said. The pans trembled, as quietly as they could.

            Mr Jones spoke. "Debbie, dear, we've been here barely five minutes. If you don't like the kitchen, why ever did you agree to the purchase?"

            "I thought it might grow on me," Mrs J replied.

            "Like all the other kitchens we've ripped out and replaced," Mr J sighed.

            "Precisely," said Mrs J. "Besides, it's practically my dream house, at last. Just a few tweaks needed here and there."

            "Starting with the kitchen."

            "Yes dear. But this time," she continued ominously, "I want a complete make-over. I want a complete new kitchen and all new equipment. Everything out! New kettle, new microwave - new oven, dishwasher, washing machine, dryer, of course - new coffee maker and toaster and all new crockery and cutlery - good stuff, this time - and all new pots and pans."

            "Hold on a minute," Mr J spluttered, almost choking. "There's no point in chucking out perfectly decent stuff on a whim."

            "It's not a whim, darling," Mrs J observed. "It's what I want. Oh, look at that face of yours. Swallowed a wasp?" She sighed heavily. "Very well, we can keep the copper bottom saucepans and that big old pot you love so much - but everything else has to go, right?"

            "Can we keep the coffee maker too?" Mr J wondered. "It's really a rather good one and it cost a small fortune."

            "No," said Mrs J.

            "Why not?"

            "It's the wrong colour."           

 

The challenge was to create a piece using an everyday domestic object as the theme / inspiration. I chose a saucepan and tried my hand at writing a whimsical / comedic piece. A daft little thing, but it might amuse someone apart from me.

copper-bottom-saucepan.jpg
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