SHORT STORIES • POETRY & RHYME • LINKS TO NOVELS
A veritable mixed bag
Sometimes my writing expands a little from where I started and ends up in a short story, a children's story for one or more of the extended family, a longer poem or just because the words keep flowing.
The selection here is thoroughly mixed, hopefully entertaining, though the casual reader may not always appreciate all of the nuances adopted for the family inspired pieces.
Just click on a title to read the story.
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Alfred's Well (Longish Short Story, orignally for Halloween – October 2018)
As I hoed around the old rose bed, the soil moved. Not where I was hoeing, but rippling beneath my feet. I stood back and the trickle of soil followed me, so I stepped forward over the widening bowl of shifting earth, turned and knelt down to take a closer look. Where I’d uprooted a couple of old roses that had both looked dead to me, I could see the movement gaining pace.
The cottage I had bought and moved into just a two months ago, was old, bow walled and in need of much care and attention. That was the beauty of it. I had already started on a few urgent repairs, but the main restoration was still to come. This was to be a dream cottage that would be a dream to live in. The garden was overgrown and I’d scythed much of the long grass and weeds, but I was keen to preserve some decent looking, country garden roses, perennials and shrubby plants. Hence the hoeing around the base of the roses, tracing out the pattern of a pentagram as I reached the borders of the bed in which they’d been planted.
It was just a little off-centre where the dry, grainy, soil was now disappearing down a small, but widening hole. A whiff of stale, foetid air assaulted my nose. I must have disturbed something there that had been previously blocked in, but was it just something that had rotted away or was there a small void beneath where I had been standing. When I later found out the truth of it, I shivered. Any carelessness could have been the death of me.
Expecting the soil to resettle, I gathered up the weeds, old plants and roots I’d chopped from the ground and tossed them on to the barrow, before carting them off to the far corner of the garden, beyond its small, mixed fruit, orchard, where I had temporarily piled an assortment of rubbish from my workings on the cottage and its unkempt plot. My first aim was to clear a decent area for establishing a new lawn, a couple of herbaceous borders, for next year, and a small plot for winter vegetables.
Returning to the rose bed, I immediately saw that the small hole had now become two bricks wide and gaped a black smile at me, urging me to take a look. I fetched a spade from the shiplap timber garage that came with the property, which stood slightly apart from it at the end of a short, green-weed and buff-gravel drive that crunched under my wellie clad feet. Treading carefully, my first thought was to level the soil and fill the hole. So, I drew earth across to fill the mouth of the gaping fissure, which greedily sucked it down with an ever-widening smile. This needed a different approach. I then stood on the other side of the rose bed and drove the spade in near the centre, thinking to get a good spade full and throw it forward, but it struck something hard a little over half a spit down. I explored.
Scraping back the earth revealed a flat stone that extended back under my feet. Lifting off a full layer of soil showed it to be of pentagonal shape, about a metre across, faintly inscribed, and aligned in opposition to the points of the star polygon border. Carefully pushing away soil from around the edges I could see that it sat on old brickwork, which had become frost damaged after an exceptionally hard winter. Two bricks had been knocked backwards by the rough actions of my rooting and hoeing. Time for a torch, so back into the kitchen, where I picked up one of three placed handily around the cottage: power cuts were likely, whenever there was stormy weather.
Peering into the void left by the departing soil, I could see that within the pentagonal rim of the edges, the bricks funnelled shallowly into a circular shaft, into which the loosened material had slithered down. What could be down there? Was it a well? Or an old ventilation shaft from a mine or a tunnel? There was certainly no mention of wells or mines in the sales particulars or the deeds and the nearest railway line and canal were both over two miles away. What’s more, the cottage was near the top of a steep hill. Beautiful panoramic views, but hardly a place to find much water. The stone lid had to come off, for me to discover more.
It was heavy. Very heavy. I could have done with some assistance, but with several attempts and by lifting an edge and shuffling it to one side it cleared the shaft far enough that I could peer down. After about ten feet of meticulously laid brick, all quickly faded to a deep black. I shone the torch down – it was my most powerful one ¬– to see more neat layers of perfect brickwork and still the dark persisted deep down. I picked up a half-hand sized stone and dropped it down, counting the seconds to the splash of water or the dull thud of earth. Nothing. If this was a well it was, indeed, deep and dry; perhaps just muddy at the bottom, or why no sound? And why, after a winter of heavy snow and rain followed by a wet summer, until the last baking month or so, would it be dry? Perhaps the stone lid would give a clue.
I laughed in disbelief when, using an old scrubbing brush, I finally swept away the grime of years to reveal the inscription, still faint in the flat light of day, but clearly once sharply chiselled in. It was difficult to read, in an ancient hand, all long tailed ‘s’ and ‘f’ characters and other curlicues that obscured the flow of small, if precise, text. It read “Beware! Here lie the lost souls and evils of this parish, exorcised by the V. Rev. Wilfred Huffton on the 30th Day of October in the Year of Our Lord 1334.” There were more words inscribed around the deep outside edge: “May this this stone forever trap all evil in the inglorious bowels of Mother Earth and a curse on any man who ventures to remove it.”
I suppose, at the time, I did wonder about the curse bit, but as I didn’t fall down dead within the next thirty minutes, it slipped from my mind. I’d partially removed the stone and it was too late to do much about it – and I certainly did not have enough energy left to slide it back across. Not without help. I took another look into the void before going indoors, noticing that there was a slight updraft of stale air, slightly sulphurous and warmer than the air around me.
That night the power failed. Not for the first time. I’d been warned and I’d resolved to have a word with the power company before winter, to see if something could be done. Usually it came back on after forty minutes to an hour, I’d been told, but this time it stayed off all night. A dark, moonless night, stars shrouded by dense cloud.
A mid-morning call to the utility distributor told me that there had been no reports from the village below nor any of the three properties on the hill, just below mine, and suggested I call an electrician to check my own wiring. I did that myself; I had the skills, and found nothing wrong in the house, but outside, where the cable entered the cottage, it had come adrift. Back to the power company, who sent an engineer – eventually. I resolved to get a generator, before winter set in.
It was a dry, crisp, day and, since I couldn’t use any power tools until the mains cable was re-attached, I decided to fix those bricks at the well top, so that I could slide the stone back for safety. Later, I would build a raised, wishing well, feature at the centre of the rose bed. But, the first of those two tasks had already been done. Had I dreamt removing it? No: you could see the scrape marks in the soil to where I slid it, the re-centred top was still brushed clean and the inscription seemed even more legible, more forbidding, in the bright sunlight. Soil was drawn up close to the rim, where it had been escaping, with no sign of loss down the void below. Now this was no child’s prank, the stone was too heavy for a youngster, or even two or three of them, to move without adult help. The surrounding soil was as I’d left it: well hoed. And, when I looked around the patch, I could see no boot-marks that weren’t mine.
I was perplexed. There’d been no storm in the night, no earth tremors to shake and slide the stone pentagon back over the well and though the slight slope of loose soil might just allow gravity to slowly shift it downwards, how come it had ended up so perfectly positioned over the wellhead? I found that impossibly spooky, totally unbelievable. I could understand the mediaeval beliefs behind such a memorial to banished evil and strange tricks being played, but in the twenty-first century? There had to be a rational explanation.
As I toiled away at clearing the ground for a new lawn, I kept looking back at the well, wondering if I should cover it back up with soil or leave the dip in the middle of the rose bed, ready to build a new well top. I decided to leave it. It would save me digging it up again, later.
That night, despite being tired from digging out roots and levelling the ground, I slept fitfully. Dreams of crumbling cottages and church ruins were interspersed with ghostly apparitions, mischievous gremlins and mad priests waving giant crucifixes, shouting Latin incantations (so I presumed – I don’t actually know any Latin). I awoke more exhausted than when I retired to bed. It was time to ask the neighbours if they knew that there was a well on my property. The answer was a positive negative from all of them, but one suggested I speak to the librarian and local historian, in the small town just three miles away. I did. And she piqued my interest, in more ways than one.
The librarian was not the tight-bunned, spinsterish figure with a frown and heavy glasses that ran the library where I had come from. This one was a slim, natural blonde with bright and clear, deep blue, eyes and a soft, pink-lipped, smile. As she turned pages of archival records, not yet digitised, her long fingers – tipped with blue nail varnish and not overly long – were now in white cotton gloves, with the mound of her broad wedding ring showing through as they moved delicately across copperplate script and mediaeval scrawl. Luckily the library was quiet and she was able to sit with me at one of the study tables usually populated by students with laptops, guiding me through the historic records and pointing out which might have the most information.
When left on my own, I found the volume of information daunting, much of it having little direct relevance to my cottage or the other cottages on the hill. I was beginning to think it all a waste of good renovation time, when I found a page in a Victorian gazetteer, alongside a district map that showed the isolated cottages on the hill had once been a small hamlet of several more buildings. Its name: Alswel. The descriptive text read, “deserted stone cottages, mostly in disrepair, being former tied properties of the Fawdrell Estate, which sold off land to reduce its boundaries, supposedly because of debt, in the fourteenth century. Rumoured to be the location of the ‘Forbidden Well’, believed to be a legendary “pit of evil” by the nearby townsfolk. Also known as Alf’s Well.”
I had only told the librarian that I was researching the cottage and had not mentioned the well incident. I still didn’t. When she came over to see how I was doing, I showed her the gazetteer entry and her eyes brightened. She disappeared in to the back office and ten minutes later came back with several photocopied sheets, saying the originals were too valuable to be released and that even these sheets were third generation copies.
One referred to the demolition of five cottages deemed unsafe and too close to the road at Alswel, when it had been widened from little more than a farm track. Two other properties were deemed unfit for human habitation and three had been left standing down long drives. One other property remained at the top of the hill, but both the council inspectors and the demolition contractors refused to visit it. It was situated down a short, green lane leading from the main byway and posed no hazard to road users. That property was now mine. Its name, at the time, was Pentacre Cottage. The name on the sales particulars, I was given, was shown as “Shadowrose Cottage, set in a five-sided acre of land…” and, as I had discovered on viewing, contained a pentagram shaped rose bed as a central feature.
The next sheet down showed an almost illegible ancient document that looked like a diary page. At the bottom was a typed translation in modern English: “The Lord of the Manor at Causton Major, Sir Eldred Fawdrell, following the loss of thirteen cattle on the Southern Tor Pasture this summer, the loss of thirteen ewes in lamb, in the winter, and coupled with the sharp decline of game birds and rabbits, has declared the land invaded by spirits. The V. Rev. Wilfred Huffton has been summoned from the Abbey at Causton Vale to perform his exalted Rights of Exorcism to cleanse the land and all properties that are contained within the pastures on Tafton Tor of all evil and to draw out the satanic possession of one tenant, Mr Alfred Headbow, well builder, residing at Top Cottage, Alswel, Tafton Tor.”
Other sheets made references to Alswel being within a small but thriving community, until the mid-fourteenth century and afterwards a habitancy of the most lowly and despised members of society. Well, that put me in my place: and my closest neighbours! But it was the final sheet that was the most interesting. This was a record from the registers of the Abbey at Causton Vale. It was a list of religious rites and secular duties carried out within the local diocese and included the following two entries on a page headed October 1334:
“29th | V. Rev. W. Huffton despatched to meet with Sir E. Fawdrell regarding exorcism of land at Tafton Tor and also a gentleman disposed of ill will, thought to be caused by demonic possession.”
“30th | It having been decided that action must be taken before All Souls, which being the following day, the exorcism of fields was carried out in the hours after noon and all evil driven towards the nearest deep well which happened on the property of Mr Alfred Headbow, the subject for further exorcism about this man and all his family, deemed locally to be in league with spirits of the Devil and worshippers of the same. A crucifix was secured to the top of the well and is to be left in place until such time as the well can be sealed by stone, blessed in the Name of the Lord.”
It all added up to why there was a sealed well on my property and I can imagine that a man who could divine water and descend deep shafts into the Earth and return unharmed would be considered to have more than earthly powers. I can also imagine that a man spending so much time living like a mole would adopt strange ways in the light above and, maybe, shy away from regular society, staying close within his family. Mediaeval nonsense, of course, but you have to allow for the beliefs of the time.
Time had passed long enough for my cottage and three others, no doubt rebuilt more than once since the exorcism, to be inhabited by rational thinking folk who had turned them into fully modernised, luxury living, with magnificent views across the valley. Well, the other three had: mine was very much a work in progress and the previous occupants, having been a series of elderly couples and one, lone gentleman, according to the deeds, had chosen to reside in abject squalor. The librarian had returned and smiled down at me before joining me at the table again. I told her what I had found out about my property and that although the present building seemed to date from the seventeenth century, it had origins – perhaps even foundations, going back to mediaeval times. I thanked her for her help and stood up to leave. That’s when she looked at me curiously and asked had I found Alf’s Well, as if she knew it was up there, behind my cottage. Without admitting I had, I just queried whether it wold actually be on my plot or one of the other cottages. She gave me a gentle, but knowing, smile and a hand gesture of maybe, who knows?
Back up the hill, I was pleased I had found the origins of the stone lid to the well, realised that Christian exorcism had been fortified by the pagan mysticism of folklore, but still remained puzzled at the overnight resettlement of the stone on the well top. The only spirits I usually believed in came out of optics at the pub or the standby bottle in my kitchen cupboard. Nevertheless, after a night of deep, dreamless sleep, I prodded around the garden to check what else might be hidden beneath the soil. Doing that, I found the pentagram of the rose bed was enclosed by a circle of rectangular stones, all neatly laid in the section I excavated. That of course completed a pentacle, a mystic symbol from the past. That and exorcism: the mediaeval community had certainly hedged its bets. I covered the stones back over. I wasn’t going to tell anyone what I’d found: I’d have half the archaeological world and a horde of paranormal investigators descending on my patch, if I did, when all I had come here for was a little peace and quiet, well away from my former, frenetic, city life.
Heavy rain came the next day, so there was to be no gardening. A small circular moat formed around the exposed well-head and rose to form a small pond across the centre of the rose bed, covering the capping stone. Nothing seemed to be leaking away down the shaft of the well, suggesting a perfect seal around the top. I looked at the muddy water and after the rain stopped there was not a ripple of movement in it. I had plenty of to do inside, so getting alterations and restoration work done kept me busy, with just the occasional glance outside. As the evening light faded to a grey, autumnal dusk, I cooked myself a simple supper of linguine with asparagus and egg, washed down with a glass or two of Sauvignon Blanc. A stark contrast to my lunchtime labourer’s lunch: Hard cheese, red onion and Branston pickle, in a thick wedge of crusty bread, with an oversized mug of well brewed Yorkshire tea.
The mini pond was still there when I climbed into bed. Dreams that night were few, but one was vivid: as I struggled in quicksand on a strange tropical shore, a high sun relentlessly beating down on me. I awoke covered in perspiration, not knowing if I ever got out. I couldn’t get back to sleep, so I went to the window and pulled back the curtains to be greeted by the first light of dawn creeping across the sky, the hedgerow in front of the cottage still in deep shadow. I padded down to the kitchen, filled the kettle and switched it on, pulled a mug from its undershelf hook, shook in a guessed amount of instant coffee, straight from the jar and sluiced a used teaspoon under the tap as the water began to bubble its noisy way to boiling. Without really focussing my eyes, I looked out of the kitchen window, proud of the amount of clearing I had already done in the garden. Then the rose bed caught my attention. The water had subsided, the soil had levelled so that the top of the well was, once again, hidden from view.
Had I dreamt everything? No. It was all too clear in my mind. I had the photocopied documents, the dead roses I had pulled up were still missing, you could still see a circle of prodded earth and the weed-less rose bed showed that the earth had been recently hoed over. But still I had to satisfy any doubts. As soon as I was dressed, I went out, collected the spade from the garage and walked over to the centre of the pentacle. I drove the spade down and heard the clunk of steel on stone. A stone: or the stone. I slid the spade forward, scraped up a spit-full of damp soil and looked down at part of an inscription “… lost souls and evils …”.
For now, I covered my intrusion back up. It seemed what was wanted. Nevertheless, I still intended to build an extension to the well-head and feature the stone lid as a talking point for the few visitors that might come my way. And that was now a priority in my plans, before the sharp Autumn frosts came. It was already mid-October. I had done enough on the cottage to winterproof it and most of the remaining work was on internal modifications and cosmetic improvement. Broadband was slow out here in the sticks, though 4G reception on my smartphone was really good, most times. But, as I had a landline and had opened an account with a builder’s merchant, I ordered a pallet of reclaimed red bricks, which would be a suitably weather-worn match to the age of the cottage, together with extra blue ones, for the base and capping, and a quantity of pre-mixed lime mortar, all to be delivered the next day.
There was a chill in the morning air, so I decided to light the wood burner. It was slow to take hold, but once the kindling flames charred the logs, the flame brightened and steamy wisps started to rise. I opened the door to push the top log firmly into the flame and suddenly I was enveloped in a cloud of thick acrid black smoke. I slammed it shut and watched smoke still escaping by the hinges and air vent as the flames quickly died. That shouldn’t have happened: the wood burner had always behaved itself before. The flue had been fully lined, right up the chimney, so the cause couldn’t be a blockage and it was far too late for some wily old bird to build a nest up on the chimney pot. But that wasn’t the only mystery. When I opened up the wood burner again, I could feel a strong current of icy cold air being blown downwards from the flue outlet. Chimneys don’t work like that, especially on a calm day. Anyone who has ever sent Santa a letter knows that the draw floats them up the chimney.
As I pondered my latest puzzle, I heard the rattle and clatter of an old diesel engine and a dark green Land Rover passed my front window, stopping just beyond my gate. The driver stepped down, panned her eyes across the front of the cottage and then seemed to peer inquisitively across the drive towards the garden at the rear, before coming around to the back door. That’s the traditional way of entry, down here. The front door’s for weddings and funerals… and the taxman. It was the librarian, in battledress. To explain, she wore tee-shirt and close-fitting slacks, in a camouflage pattern, matching baseball cap, with a pony tail of long blonde hair pulled out over the back strap and a green-cum-khaki bomber jacket. On her feet, brown Doc Martens, something I would have thought passé on anyone else. Her whole ensemble was definitely designer fashion and not army surplus. She didn’t have to knock twice.
I’m sure the smile on my face betrayed more than a questioning welcome. Why was she here? Her deep blue eyes and cream smooth skin positively shone against the muted tones of what she wore, just as if there was some inner radiance waiting to burst forth. We sat in the kitchen, with a cafetière of coffee and she asked how the renovations were going. I offered to show her what I had done downstairs: the bedrooms were still off limits to visitors – any visitors. As we walked around she noticed the blackened glass on the wood burner.
‘Chimney trouble?’ she asked, and I explained that morning’s catastrophe. ‘That’ll soon clean up. Hand me a rag or some kitchen towel, then go and find a good dry log.’
I thought I heard her murmuring something, but never asked what, as I went out to fetch a log from the bottom of the pile I’d stacked inside the garage, knowing that they had been drying out the longest. She set it in place of the one that was partially charred, telling me to throw that one into the nearest ditch. ‘That one will never be any good,’ she said, as she added some fresh kindling, relit the fire and seemed to whisper to the flames as they roared upwards, sending sparks and clean white smoke up and out through the flu. ‘You’ll have no more trouble,’ she concluded with a smile and before I had time to question why, quickly asked about the garden.
I explained the layout of the garden as I imagined it would be by the next year and said I was trying to keep the atmosphere of a cottage garden, but with a little more clear space. I didn’t want it to feel too enclosed but to reach out to the panorama of fields, hills and woodlands that stretched out down the green valley. She agreed that was good. ‘And the rose bed?’ she asked. I told her I was keeping it and replacing the two rose I had grubbed up. She nodded approval. ‘Best not to disturb the pentacle,’ she said. ‘Or the well. You did right to keep it covered.’ I said nothing. I hadn’t yet mentioned that I’d found the well. Yet she just seemed to know. And she’d also used the word pentacle, not pentagram, as if she knew there was a circle of buried stones. Or was my brain just working overtime?
I’d learnt earlier, over the coffee, that her name was Ruth and that she was born only a few miles away, was educated at the local school and after a brief spell of higher education in Norfolk, she had returned as a librarian, getting the job as much on her interest in (and knowledge of) local history, as on library management skills. She moved around the garden as if she belonged there as much as any of the plants, usefully pointing out ones that needed protection, come winter, to encourage early blooming. At the rose bed, she reached out her hand to turn a late, soft pink rose bloom towards her and sample the strong fragrance. ‘René d’Anjou,’ she said, ‘one of the true old roses.’ With her arm outstretched, I noticed a tattoo on her upper arm of interlocking arcs and circles. Without turning her head, she continued, ‘It’s a daisy wheel. There’s one on the front of the cottage, above the door lintel. Hadn’t you noticed? It’s a symbol of protection found on many old buildings. You’ll only have bad luck if you bring it in yourself – like that sour log you used this morning.’ We walked around to the front and there it was, faint with age, lightly hand carved, a little unevenly, into the stone.
I asked Ruth if she believed in old superstitions, like that one, and she smiled back, saying that there is a fine line between superstition and mysteries we don’t yet understand. Then, she thanked me for the coffee and house tour, and marched smartly off to her Landy, calling out, as she drove away, ‘I’ll be back next week, to see how you’re getting on with all this,’ waving her hand in the general direction of the cottage. ‘I might have something for you.’
Over coffee, I’d noticed that her wedding ring was engraved with what looked like a vine pattern and small stars. Five pointed stars. Or were they pentagrams, I wondered later? She also had two silver rings on her right hand, both engraved with some strange markings I couldn’t quite make out. I looked down at my own plain band of gold. I still wore it then.
It was over five years since Laura lost her brave battle with leukaemia. A determined fight that had drained her body, but never her personality. It was her resolve, in those last few weeks, that provided me with strength in the following months. The illness robbed us both of so much, yet beyond her pain she carried a radiance that belied it, an insistence that I never look back with anger or despair and that I live the life she knew she could never share, with a brightness of spirit. I honoured her memory in what I have achieved, as faithful to her in my heart, as when she was alive. The only promise I had yet to keep was her insistence that I don’t die alone; that, in time, I find a soulmate to share what she could not. But there has been no other Laura. No one for me to choose.
Once the initial grief had passed, I ploughed all my energies into the luxury mobile home business we had set up together. Laura’s design skills and my marketing flair had proved a powerful combination. After she died, her brother came on board, bringing a different style, but equally successful, design element and, as we both enjoyed decent mechanical skills, our small workforce was encouraged to achieve enviable capabilities. So much so that our market penetrated the most demanding areas of America, the Middle East and Europe. Demanding on time and energy, too, but very lucrative; which is why I had time and funds to take a year’s sabbatical on the cottage renovation. It was also my gift to Laura’s memory: the getaway we had always planned and which, I know, she would still have wanted me to enjoy.
The wood burner was still blazing cleanly and steadily, the warmth spreading comfort in my short period of recollection. Ruth’s visit had been unannounced, but welcome, and stirred feelings long suppressed. For the first time I felt vulnerable to loneliness and I began to wonder if the challenge of the cottage had blinded me to the isolation it could also bring. Work had been my one soulmate, the cottage restoration another, but maybe they alone were no longer enough.
The rest of the day I spent indoors, working on the staircase, which had several split treads that needed replacing before any one put their foot through. If my visitor did return the next week, that might amplify the risk, should she wish to see more of the cottage. The modernised bathroom was almost complete and all the sanitary ware packaging and plumbing gear would be coming out of the spare bedroom. Although unfinished, upstairs would at least be made tidy in the following few days.
That night the cottage seemed quieter than it had been since I moved in. Almost as if it was resigned to being brought up to modern day living. There seemed to be less creaks and groans from the expansion and contraction of old wood and strained joints. Perhaps having the wood burner going all day had helped warm the old structure right through. Whatever, I had the best night’s sleep since moving in.
Dawn promised another dry, clear day and, with the early arrival of bricks and mortar, my thoughts returned to the well. I’d build my centrepiece to follow the pentagon of the well-head: it would be more practical, in fact easier, than trying to form a true circle. But first, I had to remove the heavy stone, on my own, again.
I thought back to all the archaeological theories for moving standing stones by using rollers and remembered some of the junk I’d removed from the cottage, which included three rolling pins. I fetched them from where I’d dumped them, together with a stout timber about four feet long. I cleared the soil from the top of the engraved stone, from around the base brickwork and, after removing a couple of roses and heeling them in to one side, I dug a level trench along the vacated space, just a bit wider than the stone. With effort, I was able to shuffle the stone slightly towards the trench and, with the timber, lever that side up far enough to slide in the first rolling pin. That made it easier to slide the stone across a little more by lifting and pushing (still with difficulty) from the opposite side. The second rolling pin went in and once the balance was weighted across the two pins the stone moved relatively easily onto the third roller and could be manoeuvred along the trench and out of the way.
It was almost dusk by the time I’d finished the brickwork and I was pleased how it looked – and even more pleased I hadn’t dropped one brick (or my trowel) down the well. The initial putrid smell, when I moved the stone, suggested there was something nasty down there and I was glad I couldn’t see to the bottom. It faded after a while, but there was a sense of something sulphurous that pervaded the air all the time I was working. I covered the structure with a large sheet of polythene and held it down with a cruciform of wood that had come from a partition wall in the cottage, which I’d removed to create more of an open plan layout between the old lounge and dining room. Once the mortar had cured I’d have to find a way of lifting the top onto the plinth. As the well appeared to be dry (and smelly) there was no reason to leave it uncapped. It was the inscription that would add interest to the feature and a strip of gravel across the rose bed was going to give access, close up.
I left the well for a couple of days and concentrated on the upstairs rooms. There was less work to do than I had originally imagined from the clutter and grime of my first viewing, with the estate agent. Although the whole cottage had to be rewired and re-plumbed, so every wall needed decorating, the ceilings had proved sound enough for just skimming with plaster and all the timber doors proved rot and worm free, with strong metal latches and smooth working, tinplate mortice locks. The bedrooms were well proportioned and needed no structural work and the floorboards looked original, but were still surprisingly sound. Once cleared out, the remainder of the work upstairs was just basic decorating. And, that done, there was just the attic, which in the long term would be turned into an extra bedroom, but, for now, was a dark and forbidding void. No heat was reaching it, for when I had inspected it, there was an icy chill far cooler than the day. An unnatural chill, some would have said.
Back in the garden after those couple of days I worked out my lid fitting routine. I needed leverage and movement. A small crane would have been the easiest way, but one was not in my armoury of, mostly, hand tools. But I did have some stout lengths of timber in the garage, ready for the eventual loft conversion, some old tree stumps, ready for log chopping, some metal brackets and rope. Plus, several large, empty, emulsion paint tubs. I stacked the old stumps to give me height and cut a shallow groove in the top one. I fixed a metal bracket around each of the five straight edges of the stone, tied to a rope web that I’d attached to one end of the beam, which was lain across the grooved stump, shorter on the stone side and longer on the other, to act as a lever.
I filled three emulsion tubs with some large stones borrowed off a small rockery to act as a counterweight and found I could now lift and pivot the inscribed stone quite easily. After a couple of dry runs, I could manoeuvre it quite accurately over my building work, so I trowelled on a layer of mortar and swung the stone over, ready to lower it gently into position. I hesitated as the edges were not quite in line with my construction, then felt a sudden rush of air, as if the well had become a giant vacuum cleaner, and everything was pulled towards it, even the rose bushes leaning in and almost uprooted, as the stone slammed down. Perfectly aligned and sealed tight, mortar already gripping it. My temporary hoist was thrown sideways and I was trapped under the beam. And, perhaps luckily, that was how Ruth found me. Muddied, bloodied and extremely embarrassed at my predicament.
My gentle lady librarian just laughed, before crossing the garden to lift the beam off me as if it were a matchstick. More embarrassment, after my struggles. She helped me limp into the kitchen and cleaned all the parts of me she was allowed to reach, before making coffee, without even asking where I kept everything. She must have remembered from when I made coffee before. Or did she just know? There was a certain aura about her, beyond her physical attractiveness. Was I becoming bewitched?
She now knew for certain, of course, that I had found Alf’s Well, but she didn’t seem very pleased. Her first question was how long I had left it open and I told her the whole story of originally finding it, the stone sliding back on of its own accord and the sudden closure onto my handiwork. For a moment she seemed perplexed. ‘So, the circle of stone is still there’, she said. ‘Best expose it now. The pentacle is doing its best to protect you. You shouldn’t have meddled. You were lucky that you used a wood from the cottage to hold down your protective sheet. This cottage and the garden are thrice blessed.’
I asked her what she meant, wondering if her elegant exterior might be harbouring some delusional mental state deep within. She withdrew a small piece of folded paper from her pocket. It was another photocopy; this time of a very old newspaper cutting, dated 3rd November 1746. It described a series of events that happened in the depopulated hamlet of Alswel on the night of Halloween. Strange noises, glowing lights and the sudden death of the tenant in a hillside cottage known as Pentacre. It was understood that the tenant had removed a heavy cover from an old dry well that had been sealed for safety and his death was reported as due to the exertion being too much for him and causing his heart to fail. The well had ben resealed with its cover and in order to stay rumours from local inhabitants the well and the cottage had been blessed by the local vicar, followed by a blessing from a small group practising pagan rights and a third blessing and spell casting by a woman regarded as a beneficent witch.
Without me saying a word on reading it, Ruth read my mind. ‘You don’t believe: you think it all superstitious nonsense. But if you uncover the circle of stones you will find one inscribed with the date 1746. The woman mentioned has a direct line of descent to modern times, too. Me. Like her, I am a white witch.’
I was nonplussed. I couldn’t bring words to my lips. I didn’t believe in witchcraft or pagan rights and my Christian belief was little more than a tentative acceptance that there must be some reason for living, beyond self-aggrandisement. In my silence, Ruth continued. ‘You saw for yourself that the stone was drawn back over the well to seal in what lies below. The pentacle aided that, but some impish evil may still have escaped. The log that smoked your fire so heavily was possessed and reversed the flow of your chimney, but I remedied that while you found another log. More might have escaped when you left the well open but by chance you placed two timbers from a blessed house over the well, in the form of a cross, strengthening the power of the pentacle. The sudden closure today came from counter action to a gathering of lost souls rising in the well. I sensed it at the gate. I had to act fast and it was my power added to the weight of the stone that forced a pressure down the well so sharply. I’m sorry you came to grief because if it, but it had to be done. You should have taken heed of the inscription. I know you read it all.’
White witch. Magic powers. Evil spirits. Lost souls. It was all too much to believe, but I sensed that Ruth did. A surprise, to me, from an obviously highly intelligent librarian who must see that everything has to have a rational explanation. Or does it? Questions popped into my mind as if they had been put there. Why, with the vast knowledge of today’s brilliant scientists, all the global computing power of our era and all the philosophical and creative brains around us, does so much still remain to be discovered? Why should life exist only on our earthly plain, bonded to everyday human experience? What lies out in that vast Universe of ours and what is there within our own sphere that we know little of; and understand even less?
‘Use your eyes, use your ears, use your power of perception,’ Ruth had turned her deep blue eyes to penetrate mine. ‘You are right to question what you’re told, but take time to analyse the answers. Are they trite and what you want to hear or are they unequivocally proven?’
I just couldn’t believe I had become attracted to a witch. Had she cast a spell over me? And, if so, why? No, that was the stuff of fairy tales, even though the incidents she mentioned had certainly been very real. Gradually, the turmoil in my brain cleared. You don’t have to prove, you don’t have to believe, you just have to accept what comes your way.
Ruth told me that as long as I didn’t disturb Alf’s Well, all should be fine and with my thrice blessed ace of land and cottage. Preserving the rose garden should keep my future rosy. I forgave her the pun. Nevertheless, she said that she felt something threatening in the air, possibly in the garden, but might be trapped in the eaves, so to be wary at night, especially around Halloween. I thought she was joking and, perhaps, as a newcomer, I was due a visit by ‘trick-or-treaters’, in a few days’ time. She assured me that nobody from nearby would venture near the cottage on the eve of All Saints day.
Apparently, she had used the local bus to get to the cottage, which is why I hadn’t heard her arrival. Her Landy was in the garage for its MOT. But before walking off down the green lane to the main road to catch a bus back (even though I offered to drive her), she left me with one last tale of the past.
As legend goes, it appears, the reason that Old Alf was thought to be in league with the spirits, was because of the depth of the well. To get down to water from so near the hill top meant Alfred Headbow had to take his construction so deep he disappeared underground for seven days and seven nights, his wife and four children sending down materials, food and drink in a large bucket and hauling up the spoil the same way. Something that took the strength of at least two of them and was sometimes aided by help from neighbours. Each day a note came up from Alfred, telling them what he wanted for the next day and it was to everyone’s surprise that the last note asked for a crucifix and seven candles to be waiting for him at the top. He was coming up.
On climbing out at the top, although grimy and mud stained, Alfred looked as pale as a ghost. His eyes looked wide with horror and he could barely speak, as he motioned for the crucifix and candles to be brought to him. He pushed the seven candles into the soil around the wellhead and lit them, then holding the crucifix over the gaping aperture that led down so deep, he muttered the Lord’s Prayer, an act of contrition and then asked, now in a recovered voice, everyone to repeat the Lord’s Prayer and pray for their own souls. He told them there were devils down there, but barely a drop of water. As soon as he dug down to a decent pool, it disappeared before his eyes bubbling like a boiling kettle, yet the air around him felt as cold as ice. There were sparks of light of many colours and his head spun around so that he seemed to be looking backwards one minutes, forwards the next. That was when he decided to come up, leaving just a small puddle at the bottom, but enough to be drawn with the smaller, old metal bucket that was kept in the kitchen. Finally, he asked for someone to fetch the pastor to give the well an official blessing.
In the following few weeks Alfred complained of nauseous headaches and seeing the lights of spirits, after drawing water from his well and the family suffered several bad turns and bouts of sickness, until there was a tremendous thunderstorm that signalled the end of a dry summer and filled the becks and rivers to overflowing. The well water became sweeter and the family’s health better, except for Old Alf, who continued to see the spirit lights, from time to time. During the storm, thirteen of Sir Eldred Fawdrell’s grazing cattle had been slain by a lightning strike on his Southern Tor Pasture. The following events I had already seen documented.
Locally dubbed, Alf’s Well, the hamlet gained a degree of notoriety and families started to leave the area, with only a few incomers taking their place. The local vicar, a year or two later, seeing his congregation depleting, decided to bless the hamlet and declared to all present, ‘It is all blessed: now all’s well,’ leading to the contraction Alswel.
An interesting story, I thought. If Ruth believed it and all the mystic nonsense, so be it. However, I put down Alfred’s visions down to being in the deep earth too long, probably without proper sustenance and definitely working in stale air. Who wouldn’t be pale after seven days in the dark; bubbling water suggested he’d hit some sort of gas pocket, probably noxious, and the head-spinning and coloured lights would most likely a be migraine – and after his personal fright, that might well persist on days he felt low.
Nevertheless, my white witch still bewitched me. After all she had fixed that smoke bomb of a wood burner and whether by magic or better practice in lighting fires, I wasn’t really worried. Even if it was beyond my belief, she certainly knew her subject. And she wasn’t married.
In another moment of perception, she had answered my question about that, without me voicing it. She explained that the runic symbols on one of her silver rings spelt out the positives of life and on the other one were the negatives. Her life was forever in balance and she had the dual guards against too much optimism and abject pessimism. The wedding ring was not given to her by any man. She was wedded to her craft: the one she practised outside of her work at the library.
She had slipped off the ring and asked me to hold it. It looked a good weight of gold, but felt light in my hand, yet I couldn’t imagine it hollow. I was right about the pentagrams on the outside, sitting between a twisted vine, but there were more markings on the inside of the ring, sharply engraved, with no sign of rubbing, as I would have expected for one permanently worn. Those markings, she told me, were apotropaic signs of protection and included, I noted, the daisy wheel she had pointed to on the cottage. Before replacing the ring on her finger, she took my hand and traced a pentagram on the palm, the five points reached in one continuous line, followed by her soft smooth touch tracing a surrounding circle, completing the pentacle. Should I have felt honoured? I don’t know, but my own thoughts were not on anything other-worldly: perhaps she really could read my mind and that’s why she hastened her exit.
The next couple of days seemed unusually peaceful. I replace the grubbed-up roses with old varieties, as befitted the others in the bed, laid a narrow gravel path up to the well top and noted that the everything was perfectly sealed, with no sign of escaping putridity – or disappearing soil. Work inside the cottage proceeded smoothly with none of the usual aggravations of spilled paint, lost screws, and splintering wood that normally plague my efforts. And so I settled into a quiet routine, while wondering when to make a visit to the library.
The day I chose was, by chance, Halloween. Ruth hadn’t seemed at all surprised to see me. Had she magically summoned me? It was close to lunch and, once she had dealt with a young student, asking about a biography of some artist I’d never heard of, she walked over and just said, ‘Yes, you can take me to lunch. I suggest ‘The White Swallow’. I’ll drive. You might not find it too easily, as it is half hidden by a roadside line of rowans, down a narrow lane in the valley. It used to be ‘The Black Bull’ until, one year, a rare albino swallow took up residence. They don’t normally survive to adulthood and nest. It was thought a good omen.’
By way of casual conversation, over game pie and chips for me and a prawn salad for her, I asked Ruth if her witchcraft services were much called upon on Halloween. In a slightly scolding tone, she told me not to make light of her craft, which was just as valid as any other; whether I was a believer or not. The power of good over evil may be easily dismissed in the current way of the world: that’s what lets the dark side in, which we see in the conflicts all around us. But it will never be beaten as long as there are those to light the flame of integrity and strike out against injustice and malpractice. Not by magic spells, although they do have their uses, but by righteous action.
By the time we set back, I felt much closer to Ruth, willing to accept her ways, her beliefs, but unsure of how she felt about me, even though she told me she wanted me always to stay safe and that we should always be there for each other. Then she gave her warning that she still felt an unsettling aura around the cottage and, because of it, especially that night, I should stay within its walls. She repeated what she had told me before, in slightly different words, ‘you’ll only suffer evil, if you take it in there yourself.' I joked that I wouldn’t let any trick-or-treat folk cross my threshold and she assured me again that there was no chance of that. No villager or townie would dare come up here on Halloween.
I had come to terms with living on my own, after losing Laura, though it took a long time, but when I arrived back at the cottage, a wave of loneliness passed over me. There was a longing for company. I felt adrift of the world, an emptiness in me as deep as Alfred Headbow’s well. Maybe Ruth could fill that void, in time, but my unease at that moment was more profound. A measure of loss compounded by the need to move forward without dishonouring Laura’s memory.
As evening drew its dark veil across the sky and mounds of grey cloud grew mountainous above the horizon, I lit the wood burner to fight the autumn chill. Soon flames flickered cheerily behind the glass door, casting dancing glints over the brass fire irons. My tensions subsided and I settled back into the moquette easy chair that had come with a few other furnishings that belonged to the cottage and I hadn’t the heart to replace. They lived there before I did and fitted in perfectly with my renovation ideas that were meant to combine modern convenience with old world charm.
I lived a life without television – I was on the wrong side of the hill for clear reception – but caught up with all I needed via the mostly good 4G Internet, on my smartphone and iPad. I had a radio and regularly restocked my several shelves of good books. And on the odd occasion I resorted to Kindle: good in its way, but there is nothing better than the tactile page turning of smooth paper between your fingers, as you trace the storyline, chapter by chapter, through the thickness held by its spine, to the thinness of those few, crucial, last pages.
That Halloween night, I didn’t get time to read. As I listened to the news on the radio and prepared a light meal of pan-roasted lamb fillet and green beans, to enjoy with the bottle of Pauillac I had bought, while in town, the light’s flickered and died. I hoped the power cut wasn’t going to last all night again and cursed myself for not getting an emergency generator, yet. The glow from the wood burner gave me enough light to move around, once my eyes adjusted to the low light, and I safely put the fillets to one side and turned off the gas burner. Finding one of the torches, I went outside and checked the cable that had come adrift before, but all seemed secure. As I came back in, I felt a chill of air rush through the kitchen door, making me shiver uncontrollably for a few moments.
I fetched half-a-dozen candles from one of the base cupboards in the kitchen and placed them around to spread some light. Just as I lit the last one, the power came back on. Panic over, I thought, but I left the candles burning in case the respite was temporary.
Sitting down in the easy chair, after eating my meal in the kitchen, I opened up the notebook that contained my plans for the cottage and turned to the page for the small orchard, where I had noted what fruit trees were worth saving. I was distracted by a flash of light like distant lightning, but there was no rumble of thunder. Then, as I turned my eyes back to the notebook there was an explosive crack so close to the cottage the walls shook and two pictures fell to the floor, sending shards of glass in all directions. I jumped and looked out of the window into the garden. My well top had exploded, bricks scattered everywhere and the stone top lay shattered in two pieces about six feet from a gaping hole from which shot a vicious tongue of flame that arced itself into a fireball, hovered for a moment then dispersed in a million tiny sparks, to leave the night black and dark. So dark, I realised the power had failed again, the wood burner had died down and, once I’d stumbled around to find the torch, I saw the candles had rapidly burnt down to leave just a sliver of wax and thin blue smoke curling up from the stub of each wick.
You don’t have to be a believer in things paranormal to be scared. I phoned Ruth. That’s when the old four branch light fitting fell from the ceiling catching my shoulder, followed by a gush of water. Running upstairs, I found all the taps in the bathroom turned fully on, the plugs rammed tight in the overflowing basin and bath. I turned them off and ran downstairs to the kitchen, to find the sink tap in full flow and then discovered the same in the downstairs cloakroom. I relayed this to Ruth and told her about the exploding well. I don’t know quite what I expected: just sympathy, or how to counter this strange magic around me. All I got was a curt ‘Where did you get those bricks from?’
‘Oh, don’t tell me: I’ve bought Satanic bricks,’ I countered in frustration. ‘Off a normal builder’s merchant, second-hand ones. Why?’
‘Then they may have come from a church. A building designed to save souls. You should have had them re-blessed by an exorcist. They will have weakened the bond that kept the well secure, for there might be wrongly adjudged souls down there amongst the many evils, deserving to be saved. That V. Rev. Huffton wasn’t too particular about the proof folk presented to him. Much of it was about as accurate as a ducking stool. Stay in the house. I’m coming over… and be prepared to, leave by the front door, if I say so.’
I was in two minds. Staying put meant shivering in the dark with an unknown force around me and making a run for it meant risking worse if evil really had escaped the well. But that was ridiculous. There must be a rational explanation I thought. And as much as I thought, I couldn’t find one. Then the wood burner sprang back into life, its vivid flame casting a flicker of light across walls and ceiling. Suddenly, the window began to glow, brighter and brighter until, with a mighty roar, two white eyes pierced the outer darkness: the headlights of Ruth’s Landy. She left them shining through, as I sighed with relief that I was no longer alone and my mobile screen flicked on at her call. She asked which room I was in and said she would first check out the garden.
Keeping the phone open, she walked around and said there was good and evil out there, telling me to leave by the front and jump straight in the Land Rover. As I went out, Ruth slipped inside and shut the door, behind me, locking me out. A few hasty paces and I was sitting in the passenger seat of her Landy. It looked as if the house itself was breathing, walls bowing then relaxing four or five times, before she came out again, a tense expression on her face as if in deep concentration. Finally, she smiled, walked over and jumped into the driver’s seat, saying ‘Let’s get the hell out of here and leave the souls and the spirits to fight it out without us. I’ve done all I can.’ She then held a finger to her lips to silence any questions from me.
I thought (and hoped) that she was driving me back to her house, but she drove right to the top of the hill and stopped. There she gave her mystical explanation of what I’d experienced.
I looked across at her. Her pallor was paler than parchment, virtually white, her brow furrowed, her eyes distant, her lips tight. I wanted to kiss them. ‘Don’t even try.’ She’d read my mind, again. ‘I don’t seek your consolation. Your kind is not enough. Though I truly welcome your good intentions to comfort me, embrace me and look after me, it can never be.’
After an hour of mostly silence, Ruth turned toward me, her eyes now wide and glowing, a blush of colour back in her face and she smiled. ‘It’s safe to go back now.’ She didn’t wait for me to speak again, but turned the ignition key to bring a rattling roar of life back to the Landy’s engine and then we set off back down the farm track from the very top of the hill, down to the road.
The moon was breaking through misty cloud as we arrived back at Shadowrose Cottage and there was a glint off still damp slates. A thin curl of white smoke from the chimney showed the wood burner was still alight and the lights were on, downstairs. The scene had a welcoming, chocolate box, serenity after the scare earlier. We walked through the garden and passed close to the well. There were bricks strewn about the rose bed, but the roses seemed undamaged and the cover back in place. Inspection the following morning showed no sign of where it had been split in two.
Once inside, all seemed normal except for the light fitting that had fallen from the ceiling and the two shattered pictures. The wood burner gave out a soft glow as one remaining, half consumed, log sat in a flicker of small flames. Ruth took my hands and leant in to give me a soft kiss on the lips, then turned away, a finger across her’s again. ‘Move the bricks away from the well. All is done that I can do. Your life here should remain charmed, but I must go back to where I belong. Where the spirits are calmed and I can restore myself. In time, you will understand.’
She left by the back door, in the usual way, and I watched through the front window as the old Landy rattled away back to the road and down to the town. There was a calm about the place that she had promised me, up on the hill, which transcended even the peace I had found when I first moved in.
It was the early hours of the morning. Now, All Saints Day, of course, and all the evil sent away. Did I really believe that? I had no sleep in me, so I put another couple of logs in the wood burner and sat back in the easy chair to think. Ruth’s theory had been simple: almost believable. When I first opened the gate to Hell, by removing the well cap, something had escaped and followed me into the cottage, causing the icy downdraught that dowsed the fire in the wood burner and filled the room with acrid black smoke. She had used her powers to expel the spirit into the charred log she had asked me to throw out. Or was it just an old sour log and a sudden eddy of wind that sent the flue into reverse?
Then there was the first sliding back of the well top, overnight. A property of the thrice blessed and pentacle protected ground or some natural vibration and a bit of luck in it settling back so evenly? The recent weather and sudden change from persistent rain to desert dry could account for some underground shrinkage and earth movement. Though I admit the stone top was precisely positioned and perfectly sealed.
My exploding well top. Was that really good and bad forces reacting? Ruth thought that my original interference had disturbed spirits and souls, some good, but mostly evil, way down in the depths, beyond sight and beyond where man or woman should venture. But which Alfred had reached. The bricks I had used held no blessed strength. Whatever lay down deep exploited that weakness to break free. Yet the evil was countered by the good souls, wrongly exorcised by the V. Rev. Huffton and after the initial turmoil of countering forces, she had arrived to add power to the good side and send evil spinning back down to its hellish domain. Except what I had let into the cottage, during that Halloween night, when I ventured out to see if the power cable had come adrift. She had expunged that, too, which is why she was left drained of energy. While we waited at the top of the hill, the thrice blessed cottage restored itself and the pentacle rose bed pulled back together the protective seal on Alf’s Well.
No, that was too much. I remembered the noxious aroma when I was working on the well top. Not especially pungent, but gas of some sort; maybe from decomposition or a leakage from a pocket of gas trapped for aeons at the bottom depth of the well. A sudden surge would blow out my brickwork and a chance spark as stone and metal corner ties collided would have set off the huge flame, sucked the oxygen from around it, dampened the fire in the wood burner and the force of the explosion would have rocked the cottage causing the weak ceiling lamp fixings to give way and the pictures to fall. Now, that was more rational. I felt happier with that – until I thought on, who turned on all those taps? Even an earthquake wouldn’t likely do that.
It was close on dawn when I finally lay on my bed to rest, my head still spinning with conflicting thoughts of mystic phenomena and reality. When I awoke, still dressed, it was mid-afternoon.
A bowl of oat cereal was all I could stomach, washed down with strong black coffee. Had it all been a nightmare? No. The light fitting was still on the floor, propped against a wall with the pictures, though I had swept up the shards of picture glass. The garden was orderly, but the bricks I had so carefully mortared together were arrayed haphazardly across the rose bed and lawn. I needed to see Ruth.
I drove down to the town and, feeling unnaturally nervous, walked into the library. Behind the desk was a little grey-haired lady, with a beaming smile, talking to a group of three children. When she had finished she beamed across at me. ‘If it was “The Gruffalo” you wanted, I’m afraid those children have just taken it out.’ Her brown eyes had an impish glow about them. I asked if Ruth was about. She told me there was no Ruth there. ‘Oh, that might have been the girl before me, I think. She left without notice last year. They had to close the library from the first of November for two weeks until I was able to start here. And I’ve been off sick for the last three weeks. That’s why it’s been closed again until we reopened today. Then, if you’re not local, you wouldn’t have known about that. How can I help you?’
I asked if she had any books on witchcraft.
She gave me two. I returned them, two days later, unread. I completed my renovations and built a barbecue in one of the plot’s five corners, using the re-salvaged bricks from my well top. The well and its cover I re-buried and placed a stone birdbath in the centre of the rose bed, above it. I hoped the pentacle will keep the birds safe from the two feral cats that frequently appear. Especially the evil looking black one that walks around the rose bed meowing, but never sets foot on it.
The tortoiseshell and white one seems much tamer and has unusual deep blue eyes. She comes up to be stroked and welcomes the handful of dry cat food I offer her. I keep some by all the time, now, and even buy that special cat milk, which she laps up delightedly, purring loudly, like an old diesel engine, when she’s finished. She’ll come into the cottage, but she’ll never stay long. That’s a shame, because I feel less lonely when she’s there. More at peace. My soft-furred soulmate. I don’t know where she goes at night.
That’s another mystery I’ll probably never solve.
The Boy Who Waved Bye-Bye (Short Story for Summer – August 2018)
The boy who waved bye-bye
Daniel had never seen the sea before and gazed in amazement at the wide expanse of aqua-blue water that spread out to join puffy white clouds rising from the horizon and dotting the otherwise seamless blue sky. One moment he had been looking out of the car windows at fields of jigsaw patterned, black and white cows; the next, his dad had turned down a narrow lane, lined by tall green hedgerows, bursting with cow parsley, nettles and dock, too dense to see through, until they suddenly broke the brow of a small hill and his dad had pulled to the side. The viewpoint looked down, from the top of the cliffs, across a long, broad, sand and shingle beach. This was the seaside.
White topped waves strode steadily forwards, sun glinting off their backs, merging into lace edged rollers that crashed on to the sands and crept steadily onwards in a foamy line that left brown and green curls of dredged seaweed, before seeping back as undertow. Daniel was mesmerised by the hypnotic rhythm. The largest expanse of water he had seen before was the shiny smooth waters of the park lake, five minutes from home.
This trip to the seaside was to celebrate his fifth birthday: his coming of age as a schoolchild. Time to say goodbye to nursery and start the steady trek of formal education. He had stood tear-eyed at the gate, on his last day, and waved bye-bye to his little friends, as though he would never see them again, even though most were due to join him at his new school.
Daniel was fractious for the week after. Trepidation of the unknown before him was unnerving. Having to be left with his miserable Aunty Jenny each day, until he set off on his holiday with his mum and dad, unsettling. And then there was the long journey to come, strapped into his car seat. But now all his worries cleared in a flash of wonderment: and, as much as he willed it, the car wouldn’t go fast enough down the twisting lane to the beachside carpark.
The car park was sheltered from the beach by a few low rocks and sand dunes. Mum released him from his straps while dad ferreted in the boot for the windbreak, beachball and a pirate faced, green plastic bucket and yellow plastic spade. His mum then had to gather up beach towels off the back seat and a bottle of sun screen from the glove box. Daniel could hear the roll of the sea and spied the many bare-toed footprints leading through a narrow path ahead of them. He wanted to run, but he was told to wait, as his dad handed him the bucket and spade, telling him they were going to build the biggest sandcastle on the beach. Daniel had never done more than up end his bucket in the sandpit at the play centre – and that always crumbled to a shapeless heap.
He started to edge away and was immediately hauled back by his mum, who took off his blue striped top with the orange anchor logo (that matched his orange shorts) and plastered him all over with sticky cream lotion, rubbing it in everywhere the sun could reach. He wriggled his resistance, to no avail. And then they were off, Daniel trotting ahead and paying little attention to his parents’ pleas to stay in sight, as he pushed past two elderly ladies in fluttering, curtain pattern dresses, wide brimmed straw hats and flip flops. He half turned and gave his mum and dad a bye-bye wave of his hand and plunged down the dune path onto the beach. The sudden side draught of a stiff breeze rocked him, but he ran forward, only to stop, suddenly, in horror. The sudden roar of shifting shingle had taken him by surprise and when he looked towards the sea, a towering roller, spitting wind whipped foam, was racing in, now looking more a bluey-grey than aqua. It landed with a loud slap that made him shudder in fright. He wanted to go home. Now.
In the car park, the sound of the sea had been muted by the dunes and the bluff of the cliff where it swept down to the beach. The susurration of the unseen incoming tide had excited him. The reality terrified him, as he watched yet another roller drive towards him, while still the shallow spread of the previous wave skittered through the shingles almost to his feet. He turned. He ran. He didn’t bother which way as long as it took him far from the wall of water that seemed intent on overtaking him. Up the dunes, feet slipping and sliding as he pumped his legs hard and fast, to get to the top, grabbing marram tussocks to help him forward; then he sped down the far side in a tumbling slide that upended him at the foot of the slope, eyes full of tears.
His mum and dad had lost sight of him as darted past the elderly ladies, much to his mum’s immediate panic, and when they came out on to the beach Daniel was nowhere in sight. It was their turn to be terrified. They scanned the length of the beach before them, they looked steadily along the shoreline’s sandy break above the shingle and finally they looked along the wavy edge of the sea itself. There were just a few swimmers, two with surf boards, all old enough to be safe out there. There was no little boy. No bobbing head with a shock of fair hair, no little figure running up and down the shingle or along the shallows, dipping feet into salty water. No Daniel. Only an abandoned, pirate faced, green plastic bucket and yellow plastic spade.
Both parents screamed out Daniel’s name, but the breeze whipped their voices away beyond where he would hear it. He had tucked himself face down at the bottom of the dune, hands over ears, eyes closed, wishing he was back in his own little bed at home, completely under the duvet, where he could shut out this horrible world.
Tears broke from his mum’s eyes, his dad’s throat closed so tight he felt he was choking and then they saw the two elderly ladies approaching them at a steady pace. They asked if it was a fair-haired little boy in orange shorts the parents were shouting after and they both gasped a yes. ‘He nearly knocked us over, darting onto the beach. We saw him run over to the dunes to play,’ said one of the ladies, not realising Daniel’s fear ‘You should teach him more manners’.
Daniel’s dad ran across the beach faster than he ever believed he could, puffed and blowed his way up one side of the dunes and stared down the other. There, a hundred yards to his right, he spied a small orange bottom, sticking into the air from a wedge of sand and a young woman in a pink sun dress leaning over its owner. As he ran straight towards him, the woman called out, ‘Is this one yours?’
‘Oh! My God! I thought I’d lost him. Daniel, Daniel, what are you doing down there?’
A little, frightened face looked slowly up and murmured just audibly, ‘Daddy. I want to go home.’
‘I just saw him tumbling down this side of the dune and then not moving,’ said the pink sundress lady, ‘but when I came over to see if he was alright, he kept telling me to go away. At least that’s what I thought, until I bent down and I heard better that he was telling the waves to go away, the noise to go away, the sea to go away and he was trembling, but I daren’t touch him, I thought it best to let him sob it out first, whatever was frightening him. I was about to phone the police when no one seemed to be coming for him and then I saw you: obviously the anxious father, standing up there, peering around.’
Daniel’s dad bent down and picked him up, to feel two little arms clasp him tightly around the neck, more sobs coming with the words ‘are we going home now?’
‘Thanks for staying beside him.’ Daniel’s dad thanked the young woman, who said it was no trouble, she had a little boy of her own, who was off with his uncle, playing on the swings in the play park at the back of the beach. Daniel’s mum, who had struggled up the dunes more slowly and spied the reunited pair now came down via some concrete steps and ran across to join them, taking her son off his dad and holding him tight, cooing relief before giving him a gentle scold for running off. When she learnt why, she was more forgiving than had first been in her mind, thinking at least he is not likely to run too far ahead again.
Daniel’s dad had to circle back around onto the beach to recover the windbreak and towels they had dropped and, of course, the pirate faced, green plastic bucket and yellow plastic spade. But Daniel did not want it and they were a towel short for the rest of the holiday. The beach ball had disappeared, too
The next day, Daniel screamed and shouted inconsolably when his parents said they were going to a different beach, a sandy one where he needn’t be frightened. They all ended up at an inland pleasure park, instead. The rest of the week was spent visiting little villages and looking at the sea from cliff tops, Daniel getting nervous when a cliff path seemed to head downwards to a beach. By the last day, his dad was fed up at not having had some fun time with Daniel on a beach and talked to him about how some beaches are really nice and not noisy and the sea is just like the lake in the park at home. And they have ice cream vans on the sand and little huts with fishing nets and beach balls and plastic surf boards. Daniel was still not impressed and reluctant to take a chance, but he didn’t moan when he was strapped into the back of the car, knowing that they must pass shops that sell ice cream and he wasn’t going to miss out on one of those. He’d been told he was a big brave boy so many times in the last few days he almost believed it. He definitely wanted to believe it. He would just have to see if his dad was telling the truth and be ready to run if he wasn’t.
This time, the approach to the beach was down a gently sloping road that gave a wide view of the bay. There was just a gentle breeze and the sea shimmered ahead, almost still. With no great rollers, like before, and a soft sandy beach where the ebbing tide gently lapped its way across. There were plenty of people already on the beach and most of them seemed to be young children. This seemed more promising. Perhaps he could just take a closer look, this time, but he wasn’t going to let go of his dad’s hand. He could see that other folk had parked their cars on the beach and was pleased when his dad did the same. He could watch the sea from the car, from a safe distance. Until his mum opened the back door to unstrap him. At first, he didn’t budge, but when she pointed out the ice cream van, on the sands, just like his dad had promised, he stepped carefully down. With little steps he walked towards it, one hand grasping his dad’s, one tight on his mum’s, one eye on the undulating sea and pleased there was no roar.
He had to let go of one hand, to eat his soft, swirly, ice cream cornet, with sprinkles, but he held on tight with the other, as they all walked slowly towards the gently breaking sea. They stopped halfway, sat down on the sand and, with his dad’s help, he built a big mound of a sand castle complete with moat. That’s when Daniel ventured to the water’s edge with his bucket, dragging it through the wavelets and running back to pour it around the castle – only to see it quickly dissolve in to the sand. He went back for more and soon was splashing about at the sea’s edge, going further and further in, to fetch water for the moat, watching it drain slowly drain away and trying to get another bucketful back before it had all disappeared. Daniel was having fun. On the beach. And he didn’t want to go home.
He didn’t want to go back to the holiday house they’d rented and said he wanted to stay on the beach all night. He was allowed extra time. Twice. Then he had to be dragged reluctantly back to the car after he had thrown his spade as far away as he could away from where they were sitting and then run down and thrown his bucket into the sea. His mum retrieved the spade. His dad waded out for the bucket. He whinged and whined as they drove back down the lanes, but he was fast asleep by the time they arrived and had to be carried into his bedroom. Hardly waking he was washed, put in pyjamas and tucked up for the night.
At three o’clock in the morning, Daniel woke to the soft, pre-dawn light that filtered through thin curtains. All was quiet in the holiday home, except for the sawing log of his dad’s snoring and a low whistle, as his mum breathed in and out. All his clothes, except for one set, had been packed in his own little case, ready for an early start on the family’s homeward journey. On the chair in his room was his favourite top, with the big green dinosaur face on the front, together with his blue shorts, underpants and socks. He slipped into them and threw his pyjamas onto the bed (he’d been scolded before for leaving them on the floor). Then he picked up his case and went to look in the other bedroom, where his dad and mum were still sound asleep. He peered at them for a good two minutes, but they didn’t stir, so he gave them each a little bye-bye wave and set off downstairs.
The key was in the front door; one of those big old keys that have an oval ‘O’ at one end, a long shaft and a wavy flag with notches at the other. The lock was quite stiff for his little hands, but with a grimace on his face, he managed to turn the key and heard the bolt click back. He could just reach the ornate, curved, lever handle and as he pulled it down the latch slipped from the striking plate and the door swung open. He picked up his case and set off down the gravel path that led to the small gate at the side of the main drive (which had a big, five-bar, farm gate), leaving the front door open. Daniel was off on an adventure.
The wind started to pick up about four in the morning and by five o’clock it was gusty enough to slam the front door of the holiday house shut, with a loud bang. That awoke Daniel’s dad. ‘Oh! God, that will wake Daniel up and it’s far too soon.’ He listened, and all seemed quiet. Turning to his wife he whispered, ‘I think we’re in luck. That day on the beach, yesterday, and the fright he had, must have really exhausted him.’
‘But what was the bang? It sounded as if it was inside the house. Could someone have broken in?’ she asked.
‘No, I locked up, last thing. But I suppose you want me to take a look, though I don’t see much point,’ he said, reluctantly.
‘Please. But be careful. Don’t go downstairs if you think someone is there.’
That was the last thing Daniel’s dad would do. He only intended going as far as the banister and looking over, down the stairs. Not a sound now, so he summoned the courage to creep down a couple of steps, listen again, and then a couple of steps at a time until he could see across the open plan living area and kitchen. Nobody there, so he crept back up, anxious not to disturb Daniel, and not noticing that, when the front door had banged shut, the key had dropped out of the lock, onto the floor. He didn’t check in Daniel’s room, for fear of waking him at the unearthly hour he’d noticed on the bedside clock of a quarter past five.
It proved to be that Daniel’s parent were the exhausted ones. They didn’t wake up again until nearly eight. That’s when his mum went to wake Daniel up for breakfast. And that’s when they discovered he had disappeared.
Once out of the gate, Daniel turned left. That’s the way his dad turned the car when they went to the last beach. The one he liked. The one he was going to again. He gave a little shiver, though whether it was from the nip in the early air morning air or a touch of nervousness, it was hard to say. Probably a little of both. The east sky was bright, striated with pale orangey-reds and yellows against streaks of grey cloud. To the west, the moon was still visible against a darker sky, but right above him was a big patch of cool blue. A few birds whistled away in the distance and a wood pigeon cooed in a nearby tree ‘what do you want cissy?’
‘I’m not a cissy,’ thought Daniel. ‘I’m a big brave boy. Mummy says so.’ He took one last look back at the holiday house and, pulling his case, which had little wheels on one end, set off down the lane. He felt quite chirpy and didn’t really think about his mum and dad being left in the holiday house. Anyway, they were going home today, because his dad had to go back to work and his mum had to do the housework and shopping, before his grandma arrived for her usual week’s stay: a week that always seemed like a whole year of being fussy and never seeming like she was going back to her home. He wasn’t going to miss that, while he stayed on his holiday, down by the sea. He had seen his mummy take picture cards from a rack in a shop – to send to his grandma, she said – and if he could find the shop he could do that, too.
Trundling his little case down the lane he was startled by a loud ‘moo-oo’ as he passed a big gate, set back from the road. He looked up and saw a huge, black and white jigsaw cow staring at him. ‘Hello cow,’ he said, ‘do you live in that field or are you on your holidays, like me?’ The cow just made a snuffling sound, as it sniffed at Daniel, then turned around and wandered away. ‘Bye-bye cow,’ said Daniel, giving a little wave, ‘I’m off to the beach,’ and carried on down to the road at the bottom of the hill. When he got there, he was in a quandary, because he couldn’t remember whether his dad had turned left or right. Then he had a bright idea. When he was on the beach, late in the afternoon, the sun was over the sea (which, by then, was in the west, of course): so, if he walked towards the sun (now rising in the east, but he didn’t think of that) he would find the sea. The sun, just creeping above the horizon was on his left, so that is the way he went.
The road was very quiet so early in the morning, as he wandered down it, keeping right into the kerbside, just as his mum always told him. The case wheels rattled behind him and he imagined he was a big train pulling loads of carriages, trat-a-da-dum, trat-a-da-dum, trat-a-da-dum and gave out a loud ‘bee-bah’ every few yards or so. A leather clad biker streaking past him at high speed made him jump, but the only other vehicle he saw was an ancient Morris Minor with a little old lady behind the wheel, who looked as if she couldn’t see much beyond the end of the bonnet, she was squinting so hard. She didn’t seem to notice him, anyway, as she progressed – sometimes down the crown of the road, then swinging to the left and out again and twice driving over the grass verge. This made Daniel nervous that he might be hit by the next car that passed, so he was pleased when he found a stile in the hedge on the same side as the sun. He knew that meant there was a footpath on the other side, because there was a little sign on a tall grey post that pointed to it. ‘I can go that way,’ he thought to himself. ‘Perhaps it goes to the beach.’
Daniel looked through the crossbars of the stile and could see the path stretching straight down the middle of a field of maize. That would do; and be safer than dodging that mad woman on the road… and that mad biker, if he came back… or one of those big, long lorries that are almost as wide as the road and have wheels that could squash you like a fly. He shuddered at the thought and, just for a moment, wondered if he should turn back. But no: his parents could go home, but he was going to stay on holiday. Maybe for ever.
Climbing between the middle and top bars of the stile, Daniel found himself in the field, with his little case still in the verge. He leant back through, but couldn’t reach it, so he had to climb back and push it through from the roadside, before clambering back and then tripping over it, so that he fell flat on his face. He felt the sobs rising and saw some blood on his knee, which he wiped off with the palm of his hand. It was only a light graze, but it stung a bit and he had to keep saying to himself, ‘I’m a big brave boy; I’m a big brave boy,’ before taking a big deep breath, wiping a tear from his eye and, grabbing the handle of his case, set off again, with tall stalks of maize towering over him.
After about fifty steps along the trodden earth path, he began to feel intimidated by the tall corn and turned to look back at the stile. He could still see it clearly, but there was nothing but maize ahead of him, as the path curved into the distance. He began to wonder if any small animals lived in the field, hidden amongst the tall stalks. Then he thought about big animals; even lions and tigers, or perhaps a giraffe that could see over the top of everything – or worse, monsters! Daniel quickened his pace, with the case bumping up and down behind him. He was so intent on watching the corn for signs of movement he didn’t realise how much the path had curved, so when he looked back to see the stile, for reassurance, it had vanished. There was just a path that disappeared into the corn behind him and also in front of him. He couldn’t think how far it was back and he didn’t know how far it was to the other end of the path. All he could do, he decided, was to walk towards the sun, increasingly worried that something might jump out at him. When a small rodent ran across the path ahead of him, he nearly fell over with fright and had the urgent need to empty his bladder. There was no one in sight so he stepped close to the corn and felt the relief of the steady stream.
Strangely, after that little fright, he felt much braver, though a little tired of pulling the case along. It was getting heavier, it seemed. He struggled on, hoping the path would open out on to the beach, and quite quickly found the path veered the other way, more directly towards the sun, and another stile came into view. Reaching it, his heart sank. On the other side was another long lane, with high hedges either side. And neither way ran towards the sun. He had to make a decision and he knew if he was wrong he would have to walk all the way back. Pulling the case along, back and forth, would be a pain, so he pushed it into the maize, where it couldn’t be seen from the road, thinking he could come back for it later.
He now had to decide which way to try first. He had no idea which would be best, so he picked up a stone from the side of the road and threw it as high as he could in the air. He would go whichever way the stone bounced when it landed. Which was to the right. The way, although he didn’t know it, that led up to a village that was nowhere near the sea.
Back at the holiday house, Daniel’s dad got all the blame, of course, for not locking the door. Even though he knew he had, he didn’t argue, because he remembered he had left the key in the lock.
‘That bang in the night: it could have been someone coming in and stealing him,’ said Daniel’s mum.
‘I don’t think so,’ said his dad. ‘I’d have heard anyone coming up the stairs, they creak if you put any weight on them.’
‘I doubt it, the way you were snoring, last night’
‘Well if you were awake enough to hear me snoring, you’d have heard someone come in. No: Danny let himself out I’m sure. An abductor wouldn’t have bothered to take his case and he wouldn’t have wasted time getting him dressed first, either. Danny can’t be far away.’
The first thing they both did was to look in all the possible hiding places around the house and in the garden. They looked up and down the road and in the chicken hutch belonging to the nearest neighbour. Then Daniel’s dad drove up and down the nearby lanes looking for him, while his mom knocked on the doors of three nearby houses. He drove down the same lane where Daniel had seen the jigsaw cow, he drove down the road that ran alongside the maize field and came back around the road on the other side of the maize field. No sign of Daniel.
One dotty old lady had told Daniel’s mum she’d seen a small man with a suitcase, she thought, when she popped down to the farm to pick up some fresh milk, which she bought unpasteurised because she thought it tasted better. ‘Tell the truth, my eyes aren’t so good these days: and I can’t remember whether I was going for the milk or coming back and so I can’t say for sure which way he was walking, up the hill or down the hill; or whether he was coming towards me or going away. Or whether his hair was fair or brown, but it wasn’t black. I’d have noticed that, because my grandson’s got black hair. Mind you he’s over six feet tall, so it couldn’t have been him. I’d have known.’ All of which was of little help to the distraught couple.
Daniel’s mum was beside herself; his dad fraught with worry; it was time to call the police, who said they would be there in half-an-hour. That meant a half-hour of agonising wait, constantly going in and out the holiday house, calling Daniel’s name, while half-a-dozen folk from neighbouring properties went out into the nearby fields. He wasn’t there; and if he had been he would have run a mile from any strange person shouting after him, anyway.
There was nothing more Daniel’s weeping mum and fretting dad could do, except wait for the police to arrive to arrange a proper search and have Daniel’s description circulated. That, of course, was much longer after he had set off on his journey than anyone realised.
By now Daniel had walked a half mile away from the maize field and found another road that went off in the direction of the sun, so he turned down it. This lane skirted the village and led to the church. His legs were getting tired and it was now beginning to get warm and humid. He could see the gate into the cemetery and wasn’t sure if he wanted to go that way, but it was daylight, so there wouldn’t be any ghosts and the sun, and the sea, beckoned. He closed his eyes a moment and said out loud, to himself, ‘I’m a big brave boy going to the beach.’ That brightened his resolve and he stepped determinedly forward, until another thought struck him. He hadn’t got his pirate faced, green plastic bucket and yellow plastic spade. It was too far to go back for it and he didn’t know how much further it was to the sea (nor that he was walking in the opposite direction). He felt deflated and once again tears welled up behind his eyes, before he suddenly thought that there had been a wooden hut by the beach that had buckets and spades… and beach balls… and ice-cream. A broad smile lit up his face. He just hoped it wasn’t too far away: it seemed as if he had been walking for a whole day.
The wrought iron gate, with all its curlicues, squealed when he opened it and again when its long coil spring shut it behind him, with a clank of the latch. A flagstone path led across to another gate, passing in front of the big oak church door, on the way. Just the other side of the doorway, there was a wooden bench, with an elderly man sitting on it. Keeping to the far edge of the path Daniel walked steadily across and just as he was level with bench the man looked across at him suspiciously and called out, ‘You’re up early, young scamp. You’re not on your own, I hope.’
Daniel had been told many times not to talk to strangers, but he’d also been told to be polite to adults who spoke to him, so now he was flustered as to whether he should ignore the man and walk by or be polite and answer him. He decided he would be polite and in his best, big brave boy voice. said, ‘I’m just off to the beach. Is it far from here? I’m going to get an ice-cream, but I can’t stop to speak to you because you’re a stranger. Bye-bye.’ Daniel gave a little wave and went to walk on.
‘Hold on there, m’lad, I don’t think you should be out on your own, is your mummy or daddy nearby?’ Daniel just stared, thinking what to do next, when the man continued. ‘It’s alright, I’m not a stranger, just a friend you haven’t met before. Shall we go and find your mummy and daddy?’
Now that sounded better. The man was really a friend he’d never met until now. ‘They’ve gone home and I’m staying on holiday. Can you tell me where to find the beach?’ Then remembering he must be polite added, ‘Please,’ and looked up, all hopeful that it was nearby.
‘Oh, it’s a long way to the beach from here and you are going the wrong way, m’lad. I don’t think you should be going on your own either.’ The man was thinking that he had better take the child somewhere safe and find out whether or not he was supposed to be out on his own. ‘They sell ice-creams at the village shop and it will be open in about ten minutes. Shall we go there and get one?’
That set alarm bells ringing. Daniel remembered being told to be particularly wary of strangers offering sweets and ice cream and he jumped away shouting ‘No, no you’re a bogeyman. I can see the whiskers in your nose and long hairs in your ears, go away from me.’ Daniel fled down to the next gate, without waving bye-bye, leaving the concerned gentleman startled and bemused. The poor man was only trying to make sure the boy was safe. He would go around to the vicarage. The vicar would know what to do.
Daniel sped down the lane, little legs pumping away, not looking where he was heading, just anxious to get away from the bogeyman. He didn’t notice the grey cloud spreading across the sky until he stopped for breath, looking behind him to make sure he had escaped and that the bogeyman wasn’t chasing him. He sighed and sat down on the grass verge, wiped his eyes with the backs of his hands and looked up. This was disaster. There was no sun in the sky any more, it had been hidden by the clouds. Which way was he to go? He daren’t go back the way he had come, for fear the bogeyman might be waiting. He looked ahead and saw a cross roads and fingerpost. He walked slowly up to it and stood in the middle of the cross roads, peering down each lane in turn. He couldn’t read the strange names on the fingerpost, they weren’t a bit like the words in his nursery reading book.
He felt lost. He was lost. He wanted his mummy. Then another bright idea came to him. He couldn’t see where the sun was, to guide him, but he remembered the beach had big cliffs behind it. One of the roads went downhill, but that was the one he’d just come up and two were fairly level, but the one to the right climbed steeply for a short way and then just disappeared. That will take me to the cliffs, he decided, and it’s not very far. I can climb down to the beach from the top.
His legs were tired, but Daniel’s heart, which had been pumping so vigorously only moments ago, had lifted and he made his weary way upwards. He was hungry and thirsty, by now, and was anxious to get to the ice cream hut, thinking of the coolness a big, soft, whippy cornet would bring, when he spied the blackberry bushes. He had been blackberry picking with his mum and knew the red ones weren’t ripe enough to eat, but there were plenty of black ones too. He stepped onto the grass verge and plucked one from the hedgerow, being careful to avoid the prickly stems. He popped it into his mouth and felt the juice squeeze out and trickle down his throat. He picked another and another and then a small handful (not many, in his small hand), stuffing them in like he was trying to finish a tube of Smarties, before his mum found out he had them. In no time, he felt buoyed by the sweet refreshment, sticky black fingers licked so as not to waste any of the juice and black smears and smudges all around his mouth, on his cheeks and even on his arms. It all added colour to the mud stains he’d picked up when he fell over his case getting into the field of maze.
The big brave boy in him made him march, now, to the sound of music in his head, then he started singing ‘The grand old Duke of York…,’ as he paced forward and ever upward. Coming to the brow of the hill, though, proved a great disappointment. He blinked twice, not believing what he could see. It was not what he expected. Just acres and acres of green, brown and golden-yellow fields stretching for miles and miles up to the horizon, with dots of sheep and jigsaw cows in some and a combine harvester cutting long lines in the gold of one of them. A shaft of sunlight picked it out sharply.
He sat down with a bump, in the middle of the road and realised he couldn’t go all that way today. Not without help, like a bus, or a train, or even a horse and cart, like in his story books… or his dad’s car, to take him. And not without his case. He sat for a moment with his chin in his hands, elbows on his knees, utterly dejected. Then he slowly got up and turned around, ready to make his way back the way he had come.
Daniel couldn’t believe his eyes, as he turned fully around. Where the sun broke through the clouds he could see the village and its church and beyond that, a long way away the glint of water and the straight line of sea meeting sky, a large freight ship sitting on the horizon. That’s when he realised he had been walking the wrong way, all the time. And that’s when the scudding shower hit him with ice cold rods of sharp rain.
Across the small field, next to him, Daniel spied a tin hut: a semicircle of corrugated steel, with some straw in it. The gate to the field was half open, so he ran across and dived inside for shelter. It was a bit smelly and damp, but it kept the rain off. He would wait until it stopped before he set out to find his case and go the other way to the beach. The rain drummed on the metal and, as Daniel huddled into a corner, his eyes became heavy and he drifted quickly off to sleep.
He dreamed of sandcastles and ice creams and splashing around in the waves. He dreamed of sunshine and beach balls and playing tag with his dad. He dreamed of rock pools and crabs and tiny silver fish that darted between fronds of coloured weed, until a huge wave came roaring in and washed everything away. He awoke with a start and peered outside. The rain had stopped and in front of the shelter stood a huge tractor and a covered trailer with a large, black and white, saddleback pig poking his nose out of the side slots, grunting noisily.
Daniel’s mum was red eyed and desperate for news. The police had arranged a local search and circulated his description. A radio appeal was to be made shortly and if he wasn’t found before, he would be featured on the regional TV news programme at lunchtime. Daniel’s dad wanted to join the search party, but he’d been told to stay at the holiday house for the time being, in case Daniel returned of his own accord.
That seemed less likely when a police car drew up outside and one of the police officers gave a tap on the front door, pushing it open. He showed them a small case with wheels that had been spotted just inside a field of corn. ‘Tucked back and hidden, by the look of it, but not very well.’ Daniel’s parents confirmed it looked like Daniel’s and his mum went to open it to make sure they were his clothes inside, but she was stopped. ‘Sorry, ma’am, but this is evidence and someone else might have handled it, so I’ll get an appropriate person to open it and check inside for you, so you’ll know.’ Both parents looked at each other, fearing the worst.
There was another police officer staying with them during the search and when her phone burbled a tinny tune the room went deathly quiet. She looked up and smiled. ‘He’s been sighted. An old gentleman saw him up by the village church, but he ran off when the gentleman offered to help him. He was on his own.’
‘Must have thought he was the bogeyman,’ muttered Daniel’s dad. ‘We’ve taught him not to speak to strangers.’
The most important part was that they now believed he was not heading for the sea, as they had first surmised, but walking inland. ‘But why on earth would he want to do that?’ questioned his mum. ‘Probably got totally lost,’ said the police officer. ‘All the lanes and footways must be very strange to him. Don’t worry, we’re on his trail, now. We should soon find him.’
Arriving at the top field of his farm, the farmer couldn’t believe his eyes. He’d parked his tractor and shut the gate and was walking to the back of the trailer to let out the pig when he was met by two wide eyes staring up from the pigsty.
‘Look likes we’ve got company, Betsy,’ said the farmer, winking at the pig. ‘Now young fella, what are you doing in my pigsty? Up to mischief, eh?’
Daniel gulped. Here was another stranger talking to him. In the quietest of voices, as if that made talking to a stranger not quite so bad, Daniel replied, ‘I was sheltering from the rain. I’m going to the beach to make a sandcastle.’
The farmer thought for a moment. ‘Now that’s a long way to go on your own.’ (Daniel got ready to run if he was offered ice cream again.) ‘Now I reckon you don’t really know how far or even the right way, seeing as you’re stuck up here, on this hill.’ (Daniel shook his head, not knowing what to say next.) Now where’s your mum – does she know you’re off to the sea?’
‘Mummy and daddy are going home and I’m going to stay on the beach. I left them in the holiday house.’
‘And can you tell me where that is?’ (Daniel shakes his head again.) ‘So, what if we strikes a bargain and you helps me get Betsy into her sty and I’ll give you a ride down the road on the tractor.’
Daniel thought that sounded great. He wasn’t being offered sweets or ice cream, so the farmer couldn’t be a bogeyman. And a ride on a real tractor. Wowee! That would be good. He’d only pedalled along on a blue and yellow plastic one, before, in a children’s amusement park. So, he said ‘Yes, please!’
Once Betsy the pig was safely in her sty, the farmer lifted Daniel into the tractor cab and, after the farmer had safely bolted the field gate behind them, they set off down the road. The tractor was noisy, but sitting up so high, Daniel didn’t mind. He was too busy looking over the hedges at the jigsaw cows and summer shorn sheep, with their fast-growing lambs. And waving bye-bye to them as they disappeared behind. The ride ended too soon, though, as after only a short way, it seemed, the farmer turned down a long farm track, leading up to the farmhouse. Daniel felt a bit worried. He had thought he was being taken to the sea.
‘Now, I bet you haven’t eaten for a while and the missus has plenty of fresh eggs. How about a boiled egg and toast soldiers…? and perhaps a drink of orange squash?’
‘Oh, yes please,’ said Daniel, feeling so hungry his stomach was starting to gurgle. Eggs and soldiers aren’t sweets or ice cream, so they’ll be alright.
On the way down, the farmer had phoned his wife, telling her that he’d found a stray child in the pigsty and he was bringing him back with him, so as to try and find out where he is staying. When she saw him, her face melted at the sight. ‘You poor boy, what a state you’re in. You look as if you’ve been dragged across a ploughed field and then through a blackberry bush. Can’t have your mum seeing you like that. Let’s get you in the bath first and then it’s fresh eggs and toasted soldiers.’ She hustled him upstairs into the bathroom and stripped of his clothes as she ran the bath water. Daniel was so taken aback by her attention, he didn’t resist. He felt really grubby and sticky and welcomed the idea of a bath.
When he came down again, wrapped in fluffy white towel, the farmer’s wife put his clothes in the washing machine on a quick wash and put eggs on to boil. Meanwhile the farmer was phoning around a few of his friends who had holiday houses, to no avail, so he finally decided to call the local police.
‘I think we’ve got him, for you. Found him in a pigsty,’ Daniel heard the farmer say.
Then he was given some faded blue shorts and a rather grey looking white tee shirt to put on. ‘Used to be our little lad’s, but he’s grown up, now,’ the farmer’s wife said. ‘They were in the draw with the cleaning rags, but they haven’t ever been used.’
Ten minutes later a police car arrived to fetch Daniel and when he was told he had to go with them, he ran into a corner of the kitchen and tried to squeeze behind a cupboard, saying ‘I don’t want to go to prison. I’m a good boy. I only want to go to the beach and build sandcastles.’
‘Don’t worry, you’re not in trouble. We’re just going to take you back to your mum and dad. And you get to ride in the police car with the blue lights flashing.’
At that, Daniel leaped forward shouting, ‘Wowee, woweeee! That’s even better than a tractor. Can we go now?’
‘Of course, but I think you had better thank the farmer for finding you.’
‘Thank you, Mr Farmer for finding me.’ He was anxious to get home after his disappointing attempt to find the beach. ‘And thank you Mrs Farmer for the eggs and soldiers… and the bath.’ He went to run out to get in the police car, as the farmer’s wife pulled his own clothes out of the washing machine and dropped them into a plastic carrier bag, when he remembered his manners, turned, and gave a little wave, saying ‘bye-bye’, as he sped out of the door.
Harris House (A very short Short Story – April 2018)
I had no real plans for my retirement, other than gaining freedom from the daily slog down into the town; the endless grind of a routine that saw me change into oily overalls and set up the lathes for the next batch of metal widgets assigned to me.
It used to be a skill, depending on long learned craftsmanship, but in those last years I just watched three machines under computer control. All I had to do was feed the auto loader from an adjacent bin, clear excess swarf from time to time and stand ready to press the big red stop button, if any of the machines faltered. And that was very rare, unless a rogue blemish in the stock caused a workpiece to sheer, or a cutting tool was losing its edge too fast.
I was lucky they kept me on. There are few enough jobs for the town’s youngsters and a monkey could do mine, at the end. Mind you, they do have two apprentices, now. I taught the first one the ropes for a couple of months, before I left. Nice enough lad, a bit dozy and I can’t see him staying there ’til he’s twenty, let alone reaching retirement. The second one, a young girl, who joined the same week I retired, had much more about her. Quick on the uptake was that one.
I was worried, with so much time to spare, that I would become stuck to the telly in the evenings, though I knew I would get out in the day. Thank God for TV magazines: by the time I‘ve read through what’s on the two hundred odd channels that feature on the big telly they gave me, as one of two retirement presents, there’s little time left to watch anything. I read a few books, too, getting them from the library, but don’t keep many in the house.
The house: ah, yes. That was the biggest thing. I’d paid off my mortgage. I was a true property owner at last. ‘Mr Harold J Francis, man of property.’ Sounds good, doesn’t it? Looks good, too, with the new name plate: All of the other two-up, two-down, terraced house on the estate just have numbers; only the big ones, just out of town, have the fancy names.
Perhaps I’ll attract the ladies now! Not much chance, though, seeing as I’ve never managed it in the last sixty odd years. Never seemed to have the pull, except for Becky, in my teens, and nobody wanted her back then. Round spotty face, spindly round lensed glasses, lank brown hair, neither long nor a bob, mostly in a pony tail, skinny as a rake and smelled to high heaven on a Saturday night after her part-time job down the fishmongers. She was all over me. I’d make sure I doused myself with after-shave before we went down the park; and that wasn’t for her benefit, either. Only lasted two weeks. I obviously upset her. when I said I was going to get a job down the chippy, so that we would make the perfect pair.
How was I to know that she was going to a metamorphosise into a beautiful butterfly in her early twenties? Lustrous blond streaked hair, contact lenses, filled out a treat (though I’m not sure it was all natural), wisp of musky perfume when ever she passed by; but too late. Nigel invited me to the wedding, but I didn’t go. I’m not much for socialising, especially after I overheard him say to his mum, ‘I suppose we’d could always ask Harry. It’ll stop us having an odd number on that table.’
But now is now. I stroll down to the river and skim a few stones, walk back up through the woods, take the winding lane back into the town and pass the old factory that was so good to me. No, I don’t long to be back, but I have good memories and I’m reminded of the good friends I made there, especially when I get back home and see the nameplate next to the bell push by the front door. Brass it is, screwed tightly to the stone wall.
Sounds quite grand, doesn’t it, for a little stone town house, in a street of lookalikes. I’ve got the folks at the factory to thank for that. Not quite what I expected though, although I had dropped a few hints. I told them I’d paid off the mortgage and the house was all mine; and that I felt like announcing it to the street, with a plaque on the wall.
It was the boss who presented it to me. Big chap, quite strict, but with a friendly smile and very fair to all the workers. Even came around to visit me the year I had the flu. Now he hands me this flat package done up with a red ribbon, after I’d had the TV from the staff, and beams. ‘I’ve heard you talking and I know you’re proud of your home, so here’s something to let every one know your place is special.’ The he added something I didn’t understand. ‘Do you have family connections with the Hebrides. I once went there on a holiday. Got myself a genuine Harris jacket.’
I untied the ribbon, unfolded three layers of tissue paper and then smiled as it sunk in. They’d made this in the works. Apprentice piece it was: done by that young lad. I could see him beaming out of the corner of my eye. I had to stifle a little chuckle, the daft ha’penny worth. He’d heard me say what I had in mind and done his best to make it look posh and all that: highly polished with crisp clear lettering ‘Harris House’. Not a bad job at all and I treasure it for that alone. But he needs to get his ears syringed. What I had really wanted was ‘Harry’s House’.
The Moon and Green Cheese, too. (Short Story – March 2018)
The Moon and Green Cheese, too.
I wait at the top of the hill, listening out for the rattle and clank of the old tram as it makes its way up from the village, where the shops nestle together in a tight regiment on one side of the road and only a grocers, a bike shop and funeral parlour sit on the other. Terraced houses, all for rent, intersperse those last three. Mind you, there’s a pub on one corner and a cinema, with its Saturday matinees, at the far end. I wasn’t allowed in the pub, but Mum gave me the nine pence for the matinee, every once in a while.
The road is wide and from where I stand it broadens further. Twin tracks of glistening tram rails head southwards down the middle of the grass shouldered dual carriageway to the next suburban ribbon of shops and then on to the terminus, tucked into the wooded hills that are an adventure ground for a boy, like me. A world of exploration and play that exists far beyond the parallel rows of industry-bred housing, thrown up to house the workers who toil in the heat and grime of the foundries and amid the clang, clang, clang of metal shop presses, under the acid reek from the battery factory – all overlaid by whiffs of cocoa, when the wind’s from the east.
It’s the days of wanting to have everything that’s new, but never having the money for it. I want to be like my uncle. He has money: and a leather pouch from which he’ll produce the magic sixpence. Magic, because it buys a thin wafer of ice cream for four pence and a couple of ha’penny sherbet dips, from the sweet shop next to the chemist, with a penny still for saving. Mum and Dad rarely by ice cream. Money is too tight.
Anyway, a few weeks back, after a long time saving up the few pennies I get in pocket money, or for running errands, I went down to the little gift shop that sells leather goods. I bought one of those purses that flip open so your coins slide out into a sort of curved tray, just like my uncle’s. It cost me every coin I had, including the tuppence I’d borrowed off my Dad, and so I walked around with it empty, for more than a week, pleased as punch and disappointed as hell, all at the same time.
Now it’s got a fistful of pennies in it, plus a thruppenny bit, a sixpence and a shilling, too. The most I’ve had for the last three weeks. That’s how long it took to save: I earned some from odd jobs for neighbours and from fetching Mrs Jenkins’s groceries for her, but I kept spending the odd tuppence or two on sherbet dabs, whenever I passed the sweetshop. Temptation was too great.
There’s a sizzling in the rails as the tram approaches: not as loud as the railway tracks, and soon drowned by the squeal of brakes as it draws to a stop. No one’s getting off, so I hop on to the open platform and go straight up the twisted stairs to the top deck. Great. Only three others up here and I can get to the front. Pretend to be the driver. Better still it’s an open top tram, with the wooden slatted seats that have those backs you can swing across, with a loud clang, so that you’re facing forward, whichever way the tram’s travelling. I swing a couple over and get an annoyed look from the other passengers. And a bellow of ‘stop that, up there,’ from the conductor, still collecting fares downstairs.
This is the steepest hill on the tram route and the distinctive whine of the motor, as it set off down it, is quickly replaced by the touch grinding of brakes, as we whizz down the incline. In winter, the trams often get stuck coming up and have to roll back for a second attempt or wait while the gravel crew scrape the ice off the rails. But not today: I’m in a short-sleeved shirt and shorts, with tennis shoes on my feet: a bit grey and worn, but what do you expect for second hand. I live near the bottom of the hill, in a semi, but I always walk up to the tram stop at the top to get this, the best bit of the whole ride.
It’s settled to a gentle rolling gait, between stops, now the tracks have levelled out. A few cars overtake on the road to the left, others sweep buy on the other side, in the other direction. I get out my purse and start sorting the pennies. Big copper coins of all ages back to a Victorian one, polished so smooth, so black and thin, it’s no good for me today. I separate it and one or two other manky ones, because I’m getting off at the penny arcade, just by the terminus, and the thin ones just slip out of the slots: the bent one amongst them would just stick. I’ll use my shilling when the conductor comes up to take my fare and get three more in change. I’ll keep the sixpence and the thruppenny bit for my fare home.
All the shops are left behind and the tram is on a gentle climb up to the terminus. Three more stops and I’ll be there. I hope I get some money back on those slot machines. I’m not supposed to play them, but the dozy lad in charge is not too fussy as long as people spend their money. He knows he’ll take more than ever goes out. But I need loads more than I can win, anyway. I want to get our telly back.
Everything was fine until a couple of weeks or so ago. The people opposite had bought a small telly, last Christmas, and invited me to watch it. And Mum, Dad and little sis, too. Over the road, in the bigger houses, they’re a bit posher than us. Dad doesn’t like to admit it though. So he saves up the deposit and goes and buys us a telly. A posher one, it was, in a polished oak cabinet with double doors on the front that you opened to reveal a huge twelve-inch screen. Most folk still had nine-inch sets. Took up a load of space in the corner of the lounge. But it was stylish and I saw things I never knew existed on some programmes and I had loads of laughs watching others. It was like having the moon and green cheese, too.
Anyway, I’d just got used to having it when Dad was laid off, down at the battery works and we couldn’t afford to keep up the payments. A right lardy fella came to take it away, looking right down his nose at me. Didn’t know I knew him from one of the council terraces, two doors from Mrs Jenkins. If he’s got our telly in his house, I’ll want to know why. I want it back and I reckon if I can do a few jobs and make a few winnings, I can give Dad something towards the payments. Once he’s off the dole.
The tram’s stopped just short of the terminus. It often does. The one before must have been running late. Mine has to wait while the driver swings the pole of the other tram around to the other end and switches track for the line into the city centre. Nobody’s allowed off between stops, either, so I’m sitting here, the arcade just in sight and dying to get some winnings. I’m feeling lucky. The conductor never came up to collect my fare. Could be an omen.
Good we’re moving again and I leap out the seat, and push past the only other passenger on the top deck – a short geezer, ginger haired, with open necked blue shirt and grey sports jacket, smoking a pipe – and shoot down the stairs, ready to jump off before the tram comes to a halt. That’s when my luck turns against me, after all. ‘OI! You. You haven’t got your ticket, yet. And I know where you got on.’ The conductor grabs my shoulder; pinches it quite hard, too. He makes me stand there while all the other passengers step off and then bends to put his face close to mine and holds out his hand. ‘Ninepence, laddie. No free rides, I’m not that slow you little squirt.’ I hand him the shilling. At least he gives me three good pennies, one of them almost new, still with its coppery shine. I might keep that one. Swop it with my little sis for a couple of her ha’pennies. She likes shiny things.
Off the tram now and I break into a trot down to the penny arcade and stand outside, gobsmacked. It’s shut. Not just for the day, either. There’s a big paper sign in the window saying “Closed” and a “For Sale” board fixed to the side away from the door.
How am I going to get the telly back? Not a chance of getting any money from those machines, now. Oh well: I might have just lost on them, anyway. So I’m off up the hill to where the bilberry bushes grow and then down to the edge of the golf course to see if I can find any lost balls around the edge. I can sell those, fourpence a time. No luck there, either. Thought I’d spotted one, but before I could pounce on it, this burly fella in a Pringle tank top and plus fours appears from ‘round a bush, shouting ‘Geroff, you little imp. That one’s mine. You know you shouldn’t be here, I’ve seen you before. Get back up that hill before I march you off to the clubhouse and send for the police! Get you for trespassing, they will.’
I don’t need a second asking and I scamper up faster than I came down. Tripping over a root of one of the bilberry bushes, I stumble onto the muddy track that leads across to the other hill with the dewponds. That’s when I see it. Half hidden in the grassy edge under a hawthorn is a ten bob note. Brown and crinkly – well not so crinkly seeing it’s been lying on damp grass – but real money. More than the two half crowns my uncle gave me one Christmas. Riches indeed: I pick it up and I think that’s been there all night. No way of finding who dropped it. And no way of anyone knowing I found it.
So, I know what you’re thinking, I’m not a bad lad and I’ll take it in to the police station and hope for a reward. You think I’m stupid? I’d get sixpence at most, if I was lucky and anyone who can let notes float around out of their pockets deserves to say goodbye to them. So it’s in my pocket, see. And, after a short scout ‘round the top of the hill, to see if anyone I know is up there, I’m heading home to give it to my Dad. For the telly.
One bit of luck and then it goes sour again: it’s the same conductor on the tram back. No chance of a free ride with him. I get off at my stop and run down the road to our house and can’t believe my eyes. That lardy chap is back again. Oh no; he’s taking something else, I think, but he goes off with nothing in his hands and I run around to the back door and let myself in the kitchen. Dad’s just brewing a cuppa and he looks at me with a big grin on his face. Not as big as mine as I wave the ten bob note under his nose. His face goes stern, asking where I got it and I tell him. He doesn’t seem too happy, but he says I can keep it this time, because of where I found it. Had it been near our street he would likely have made me hand it in.
It’s not for me, it’s for the telly, I say, but he just laughs. That won’t pay for a telly: not even two instalments he’s thinking and then he tells me to wash my hands and face, which had got a bit grubby up the hills, and go into the lounge.
I hear strange voices and I’m wondering who’s come over, so I open the door slowly. I think I must be dreaming. The first thing I see is little sis snuggled up on the settee, watching Muffin the Mule on our telly. It’s back. But how? Dad comes up behind me: tells me it’s a surprise for when Mum gets back from her cleaning job. The Battery want him back: as foreman: and that’s more pay. Do I believe him? Yes, about the job; but a surprise for Mum? More likely he’s rushed it back because they’re showing the England footie match, this Saturday.
Course, I’m delighted. I give little sis the shiny penny and don’t even ask for her ha’pennies. I tell her, having the telly back is like I’ve got the moon in my hands. And then tell her about the ten bob note, I’ve still got, too. ‘Green cheese,’ she says, both thumbs up and smiling.
Separated by Time … and Space (Short Story)
Separated by time … and space
It took five days to get a reply from Susan. Minimum. Even at the speed of light. And giving her time to actually send one. She was over on the man-made planet Urmaxion 40, an ovoid interplanetary staging point orbiting Proxima Centauri that’s used as a base for deep space exploration and military surveillance across the galaxy. It took twenty-eight years to build and it takes seventeen years to get there, even using the latest ultra-speed cruisers. I’m on one now.
It all started over twenty years ago. I’d just turned eighteen and was feeling lonely. Susan became my space buddy on FISC, the Friends In Space Cluster. All my mates had higher grades than me, in their GEMS FA – the Global Education and Mentoring System Final Assessment. All but two had transferred to GEMS HA – the High Achievement programmes in sciences, business and historical arts. Future highflyers, all of them, I thought at the time, but only one made it to the top. He proved to be useful, though, because his uncle was the top boffin at the largest manufacturer of interplanetary cruisers. That’s how I got my place aboard one.
Phil was a true boffin, like his uncle, and kept in touch throughout our disparate career paths. When his uncle needed a good second grade propulsions engineer on the maiden flight of a new super cruiser – an IGHSCS 3500 Class, Xenon-Cobalt Fusion Powered monster designed for 20-year non stop trajectories – Phil had a word in his uncle’s ear and I was taken on. And guess where it was headed? You got it: Urmaxion 40. My ticket to see Susan.
Yeah, I had taken the plunge. After three years of messaging and highly personal chitchat, I knew we had to meet up. Now that’s not like buzzing the girl down the street and fixing a date. She was seventeen years away and no place half way to share a film and popcorn. No just hopping on an aerial bus and tripping across country. And no making a quick, surprise visit, even though I knew her address. Yet, a surprise visit it was going to be. It had to be. You can’t just message a girl and say I’m coming over and expect her to wait the seventeen years it takes to get there. So I worked out a strategy to keep us both happy, I hoped.
From all her messages, I knew Susan was single and had had a couple of brief relationships that were never expected to be permanent. I knew the things she liked: music, theatre (she was an amateur actress) and powerful bikes. I learnt that she lived in her own apartment, in a semi-rural township that was self-sufficient from its own, surrounding, agricultural land and the chemical air generators that supplemented the natural biological atmosphere, produced from woodland tracts and beneficial algae filled lakes. She kept trim running around one of the local lakes and the images she had sent me confirmed how fit she was and how fit she looked. No one on Earth appealed to me in the way Susan Parminster did.
She seemed to be attracted to me, too. Was even quite flattering about my physique (I worked out regularly at a local gym), so I remained hopeful that our FISC friendship would one day become more physical than a keyboard and screen romance. I certainly wanted something more than cybersex, not that either of us had suggested that. We’d kept within the guidelines of FISC, which recommended maintaining a discreet distance in our online activity (not that there was much option when you’re over forty trillion kilometres apart).
For those of you that don’t know, FISC was originally set up to enable a cluster of small populations working on distant space projects to maintain friendship contacts back home. As space exploration grew, so did FISC and now there are thousands and thousands of space buddies in hundreds of individual friendship clusters. I joined partly out of a selfish whim to replace the friendships I was losing with my peers, who where moving out to GEMS HA institutions, but I also felt for those brave souls that had emigrated to distant locations, from which they were not likely to return, certainly not in their more youthful years. Now, of course, many of them don’t want to, whole families having grown up on some tin satellite or other; or in one of the vast habitation domes on cultured lumps of planetoid rock that wander about the galaxy. Even deep into the third millennia, they are the only ‘extra-terrestrials’ you’ll come across.
I was not going to be the first to bridge the gap, I was sure, but that didn’t mean I wasn’t just as determined. I was already working on the idea when Phil’s uncle came up trumps. There was only one snag. I knew I’d be welcome when I started the journey, but seventeen years, c’mon, that’s one hell of a journey and how would we both feel by the time I arrived. So I said nothing to Susan. I let her think I was plodding along as a second grade propulsions engineer working the small ships on Round the Moon cruises, so popular as short term holidays. You launch out of Earth’s atmosphere day one, get a live planetarium style presentation, day two, flip around the dark side and then land next to a Moondome in the sunlight. Next day, you get to jump around in low gravity recreation and choose between the Starlight Cabaret and tacky Green Cheese Diner for the evening.
The following morning you go on a moon trek, viewing acres of dry dust as you bump through a few craters, like a cheap fairground ride, and finally gather your goodies from the gift shop to take back home. Return journey is a bit of an anti-climax (though there’s on board karaoke for those who have seen all the videos on offer), except for a hover peep at one of the five space stations in Earth orbit. Not that you can see much more than a giant metal capsule with a glint of sun, if it’s not in the Earth’s shadow – or a vague shape and a few pinpoints of light, if it is.
To Susan, that was my working life and hers was no daydream job either. She was a data supervisor for a minerals extraction company, in charge of a small team of inputters and analysts, so rated middle management. And she had a similar education profile to me. That seemed good: certainly comforting that she was not a highflying executive, out of my league. Things between us were steady, with online comms once or twice a week, more if either of us got around to doing something interesting. Always hearing about it five or six days after the event, of course. Not quite a live commentary on our lives, but close. So to keep it this way I maintained my reply interval to Earth measures, during the voyage, even though I received her messages ever quicker as I passed through the comms zones closer and closer to her home.
Five years into the journey, however, I thought I’d blown it. I’d messaged an account of a theatre visit I said I’d been to, though I actually watched the play on video, in the ship. No reply. No Comment. Nothing for over six weeks. My heart sank. I was despondent and irritable, after all I had planned, but at least I had a steady job for another twelve years or more, I reckoned. It wasn’t all bad. Maybe I’d find a soul mate on board?
Then came a verbose apology. She had suffered a virus and only just recovered, she said. She’d got all my messages, though, and everything quickly returned to our normal messaging routine. I still did wonder if that was all it was or if she’d found some other buddy closer to her home, but that didn’t last long and somehow our online relationship remained strong, still more than hopeful, as the super cruiser docked, seventeen years and three days from departure. In the final couple of years, I did drop some veiled hints about how great it would be if we could walk out together in the same place, but I’d never disclosed my secret plan. Now. This was it. Surprise time.
I had three weeks leave to decide if I was to re-join the ship, stay on Urmaxion 40 or find another route home. With Susan? Without her? Well the next few days should provide the answer to that.
I caught a tunnel train to her hometown and came up to street level. I was surprised how Earthlike the general layout of streets and buildings looked. The chance to be really radical and the planners had just thrown up the old faithfuls: perhaps they were homesick when they populated this artificial world. One advantage, though, it meant getting around should be quite easy. I debated whether to message Susan to say where I was, but decided I’d take a look at her place first. Get a feel for what was going on in the locality. I wandered over to a taxi bay, climbed in a hover capsule and tapped in Susan’s address. Offered the choice of direct or visitor’s route, I punched in the latter. Might as well have a short, voice guide tour on the way and see some of the sights.
The direct route would have whisked me to Susan’s door in five minutes flat, but the scenic alternative took twenty minutes, allowing me to gather my thoughts. Would this sudden appearance be too much? What would I discover that she hadn’t told me? Would it all be too intrusive? It’s not often someone turns up on your doorstep from trillions of miles away, unannounced. I sent her a message, brief and to the point. I hadn’t been entirely honest in the last seventeen years. I had been travelling towards her all the time. I was in her hometown. Would she be free to see me? There was no reply. She might be at work or out somewhere – or, worse, with someone. Someone who doesn’t know about me and whom she doesn’t want me to know about.
The taxi pulled up and flashed my arrival on its screen. I looked out: something was wrong. This long building with its single entrance didn’t look like any other apartment block we had passed. All flat grey walls and no windows, just a massive row of air conditioning vents along the roofline. I stepped out and checked the name on the building. A large plastic nameplate proclaimed “The Farmhurst Building.” That’s the one, I thought, so I looked for entry buttons. There was only one, beneath which the words “Information” and “press for service” lit up as I approached. What a welcome, after seventeen years travelling. I pressed and heard two beeps and a synthesised voice politely ask ‘Can I help you. Sir?’ Something must have been seeing me or scanning me from somewhere, but looking around I saw nothing.
I explained I wanted to see Susan, gave her apartment number and waited. Two more beeps. ‘All deliveries for Susan Parminster should be placed in the bay on your right, sir. A receipt will be issued once it has been scanned as acceptable.’ A panel had opened next to me revealing a large cubic bay with a base of rollers. It was big, but not man sized, so I pressed the button again. Beep, beep, ‘Place your delivery in the bay, please, sir.’ In the hope that some AI was at work, if not a real person, I explained that it was me that wanted entry, not some package. The beeps and ‘Scan your pass on the red bar on the left, please, sir.’
I told this disembodied voice I had no pass. Four beeps this time. ‘Wait there, sir and hold your palm on the red bar for at least five seconds.’ A short silence. No beeps. ‘You are unknown sir. You are not of Urmaxion origin. Entry disallowed. A pass may be applied for at Farmhurst Incorporated. Good day, sir.’ I screamed at the wall in front of me that I’d travelled all the way from Earth and had no intention of going away without seeing someone. Maybe it was the pitch of my voice or me thumping the information button repeatedly, but it did the trick. Beep, beep. ‘Security will be with you in a moment, sir,’ was annunciated in an infuriatingly even monotone.
By now the hover taxi had taken the huff and, because I had ignored it and not tapped wait on its screen, it had sidled of to the nearest charge point. Luckily I had noted the operator’s code sign, so I could call another and not be completely isolated. Security, on the other hand, did not seem to be on its toes and it was a full ten minutes before the doorway opened and a uniformed guard stood in the aperture eying me up and down.
I explained what I wanted. Just to visit a friend. He tapped Susan’s name and number into his data watch. No beeps this time just a shrug of the shoulders and ‘I can’t help you sir. She doesn’t have an apartment here and she doesn’t work here, I’m sorry. You’ve wasted your time. Then with a sly smirk, ‘All seventeen years of it, sir.’
I started to protest, reasserting that we’d been messaging for all that time. We’d even exchanged gifts, using each other’s local supply services. I think he thought I was joking, winding him up, and asked if I’d really come all the way from Earth just to meet up on spec and I said yes: it was supposed to be a big surprise.
‘You should have asked her first. It would have saved all this. She would have refused to meet you,’ he said, but I said that was poppycock, how would he know? We had a good relationship going. Even if it went no further, I was sure she would have met up with me.’
‘Not possible sir.’ His demeanour was more consoling, now. ‘Follow me and I’ll explain,’ he said.
The security man was a fit and healthy sixty-year old and not someone to mess with, so I let him lead me forward in to an enclosed hallway and then into a scanning bay. He told me to put my hands on a green panel and look straight towards a soft glowing blue line. I knew the process; we had similar devices on the super cruiser. I was being bio-scanned – fingerprints, palm, iris and retina recognition factors for a visitor pass. I then followed him down two long corridors and up two floors to another, where we stopped halfway down by a smoked glass door. This was no apartment block, unless they were very spacious apartments. There were only four doors per long corridor.
‘This is the one you want,’ he said, pointing at the door, but don’t get you hopes up. Which I had.
‘You found FISC rewarding, obviously,’ he continued. ‘I understand it was a godsend when it was inaugurated. Trouble was so many people responded that they had to turn down some of the Earthside applicants, which led to a bit of a hoo-hah on the selection process. So good old Farmhurst Incorporated came up with a plan that solved the crisis and enhanced the fee income for initial introductions.
With that, he had swung open the glass door and pointed to the rack of server modules. ‘From her key number, sir, Susan is somewhere in the twenty-third server from the right, on level fourteen. That’s as close as I can get you.’
My expression went blank with shock and disappointment.
‘Once they’d paired off the real folk, Farmhurst developed an AI auto-reply system, using data ported from names and personal details randomly re-matched with a mix of information extrapolated from historic genetic and physical databases. In short, they started making people who would never really exist. The AI system handled all messaging, replying to Earthside buddies, usually delayed a day to give greater credibility. Mind you it nearly went belly up when a virus got into the system a few years back. If gifts were sent, the system contrived a suitable return gift, from information on the original sender’s database. Your gifts to your Susan would have been sold off in the company shop.’
I’m now two years into my journey back, having re-joined the super cruiser after a few days moping around Urmaxion 40 and finding little new or interesting. Only good thing is I’ve been promoted to first grade and with little to spend my extra pay on, I’ll be quite a rich man when I tread Earth’s soil again. As a respectable man in my fifties, maybe I can think about playing the field: perhaps become some young girl’s sugar daddy. Who knows what surprises might await me.
Seven Pills Younger (Short Story)
Seven Pills Younger
It was when I was clearing out Mum’s things, that I found it. An old classified advertisement torn out of a newspaper, yellowed with age. At first, I thought it was a picture of King George V at some official engagement that she’d saved, but the image was torn through. When I turned the paper remnant over I spotted it, circled in blue crayon.
It was three weeks ago mum passed away. She reached her 90th last year, but missed her 91st by a month. The decline had been quite sudden. She had just run out of steam, she had said, and from the stories my uncle had told me (he’d died at only 72, still a good age in the 1920’s), she been quite a steamy character in her youth. You would certainly never have guessed her age until those last few weeks. She was energetic, bright as a button, always in touch with what was going on in the world. She would hold long and meaningful conversations with folk of all ages and she got the better of most disputes, though there were few serious enough to fall out over. I miss her. I miss her wit and I miss her inborn vivacity, but most of all I miss the comfort of knowing she was always there.
“Look and feel 10 years younger in just 7 days!” the advert promised. “One course is all you need.” Had that been her secret, I mused, smiling at the ridiculousness of the thought, as I finished emptying the drawer in her bedside cabinet. Then when I took the drawer right out to brush out the dust, stuck in the groove where the base met the back was a small square flat packet, empty now, but with slight indentations where it had once held seven round pills. In tiny, faded, handwriting was her name and a date: “Mrs L. Jeavons ~ 30th Aug. 1932.” On the reverse was written “Take one daily for seven days only.” I looked back at the scrap of newsprint, a ripped off corner carrying the date: August 27, 1932. Could there be a connection?
It was then that I was jolted back to reality, when the sirens sounded the approach of another bombing raid. Three years into the war and London was getting a pounding. Making haste down the stairs I grabbed my overcoat and walked smartly up the garden to the Anderson shelter I shared with my neighbours. There being only me and my Mum on one side of our pair of semi-detached houses and only the three of them on the other, we had decided to build one shelter across the two narrow gardens to save space for more vegetable growing on my side and the pig sty on their plot. They had the entrance on their side and I’d fitted a small gate in the fence at the top of the garden for our access. We were lucky. We got on well with the neighbours on that side. The aggravation from those on the other side is a story for another day. Let’s just say that their garden was an immaculate lawn and flowerbeds, all-year-around, even a planted rockery disguising their shelter. They despised our meagre horticultural attempts and hated the pig grunting away, only one garden width from theirs: they thought it lowered the tone. Then they had the only detached house at the end of the run of semis on our side.
Much as I was often tempted, I had always refrained from pointing out that the detached houses over the road were much grander, with bigger gardens; and that theirs was like the little bits of chocolate put in boxes to make up the weight: there wasn’t enough space on their plot for another pair of semi-detached to be built and they had effectively just built half one.
I digress. I looked up at the sky, as I passed through the gate. The evening light was almost gone, but the scudding clouds had cleared exposing the hugeness of the city as a clear target for the Luftwaffe: pray God our Spitfire and Hurricane boys would get amongst them, I thought. I automatically stood back a moment to let my mother in first, then, with a sad beat of my heart, realised, of course, she was no longer with us. The neighbours had already scrambled in. Fred and Jenny, with their seven-year old son Micky, were always prepared and sat with blankets around their knees, several flasks of soup and tea, bread and a packet of butter, all of which they prepared every evening in expectation. If there was no raid, the bread made toast for breakfast and the soup was re-warmed for lunch the next day.
Micky came and sat on my lap, asking for a story. It helped to while away the time in the dim light and I usually managed a pirate adventure or a tale of mystery and magic in which the hero was always named Michael. It took my mind of graver thoughts and sadder memories of recent weeks.
The only downside to sharing the shelter was my neighbours’ dog. He was a lively mongrel who romped and rolled around the park and gathered the detritus of every other creature in his shaggy coat. In the tight, enclosed space during an air raid, the stench that his owners seemed not to notice became increasingly nauseous. Especially after rain.
The air raid lasted well over the hour and we could hear muted thuds as bombs landed close by. I looked at the boy whose innocence of the true horror of war kept him smiling still and once I’d finished the story of a little chap saving an elephant from African hunters, we all played a game of snakes and ladders on the floor of the shelter. The all-clear sounded and I returned to my new loneliness, once I’d taken in some deep breaths of fresh air – well away from the dog and the pigsty. Back in my kitchen, my thoughts returned to the youthfulness my Mum had always shown, her affinity with people much younger than her years and constant good health.
It was late, now, and the kitchen door was sill unlocked, so I put my hand in my pocket to pull out my keys. That newfound scrap of newspaper came out with them. I must have shoved it in, in my haste to get to the shelter. I looked at the advert again and saw that it had an address only a few streets away, preceded by an “Apply here in person.”
It was a silly thought, but could my Mum have taken the course – perhaps more than once? She’d certainly outlived all her peers by a good fifteen years and she’d remained very active right until the last few weeks of her long life. And what was the course: just pills or something more? I could certainly do with some of it at my age. Sixty-one and still a bachelor, I’d happily devoted my life to looking after my Mum, not expecting her to reach many years beyond the recognised three score and ten. Not many belonging to her era did. In the outcome, she seemed to have ended up looking after me, for most of those years.
So here I was, beyond the age of attraction, I thought, destined to a solitary life in the same house I was born in. In four years time, I would be retired, with a little pension and not much else to show for my years at the chocolate factory, supervising the girls decorating the delicacies and packing them into pound and half pound boxes; and, now, watching those same lines produce bandages and sticking plasters for the war effort. Would all that be over before I retired? Or would the war still be on? Or would we all be learning German?
I took those last thoughts to bed and dreamt first of living under a military regime, watching my every step, my every word and presiding over a production line spewing out Iron Crosses, all packed into silk lined, velvet boxes. Then my dreams turned to playing out on the nearby hills as a young boy again, flying a model glider, then a kite, which was so big it carried me into the air with it; and finally I was back on the ground watching Diana – the girl I gave up to stay with Mum during those six months she was ill, in 1931 – being driven off in a confetti covered jeep by a lean, handsome SS officer. What chance would I ever have to enjoy the fruits of youth in any form?
There had been a sharp and heavy shower of rain in the early morning and when I awoke the sun was glinting off shiny wet roofs, the grass glowed with a verdant green and, slightly to my shame, I admit, I smiled at the tall, delicate flowers in the detached house garden, bent double on their split stems. Not so pristine, now: not as sturdily upright as my sprouts and broad beans.
Breakfast was a scrambled egg, one of six that a chap up the road, who kept chickens, had exchanged with me for a savoy cabbage and two large carrots. Fresh food and no coupons needed, when we all pull together. I often tended to carry half-a-dozen carrots and a couple of onions around with me, for a bit of quick bartering – usually for a quart of beef stew from somebody else’s meat ration. Not that there would be much actual beef in it, probably more of my veg back than that. This morning, though, my mind was more on me possibly vegetating than my vegetables. I needed to start a new order in my life.
It was Saturday and I had this weekend off, although the production lines would be steadily churning out their wares throughout the factory – even a few chocolate bars for the troops, from our limited supplies of cocoa, with very little going on general sale. That scrap of paper was haunting me. It was still on the kitchen table from the night before, the little advertisement drawing my eye to it like a magnet draws iron.
“Look and feel 10 years younger in just 7 days! One course is all you need.”
I couldn’t help it. I knew it was nonsense, but I was intrigued. Apart from a bit of tidying up and deciding what to do with Mum’s things, all now neatly packed into a large cardboard box given to me by Sally at the Co-op, I had no plans for the day. That address was tantalisingly near. Would there still be someone there who knew about the ad? Would the product, or whatever it was, still be available? Would it be silly for me to go and find out? I couldn’t answer the first two but the third answer was definitely a yes. But what if …? So you can guess what comes next.
It was quite mild, as I set out in just a sports jacket and flannels, blue shirt open at the neck. I could smell the destruction before I could see it and as I walked the half-mile or so to Engerman Street the rows of houses seemed to slowly fall away before my eyes. At Adelaide Road, I asked a fire warden if I could get through to my destination and he told me the road was blocked off at this end, but try via King Street. ‘Don’t expect to find much there. We had a hell of a night, the night before last: worse than last night. Wiped out three streets completely. If you’re looking for a relative or someone, best go down to the school or the hospital. Most of them ended up at the one or the other.’ Cheery fellow, he was, but I took his first advice and traipsed the extra quarter mile around and down King Street.
What little was left of Engerman Street was on the left and I turned in looking for a house number to guide me. Trouble was there were few house fronts still standing, but a short way up I found a number 18. I was looking for 107, so that meant a trek up the other side of the road, almost to the end. At what must have been around the numbers 60/61 mark, there were barriers around a great crater in the middle of the road, “KEEP OUT – GAS – DO NOT SMOKE” signs and a huge pile of bricks, mashed up joists and roof timbers, tiles and crippled furniture on either side. I gave a sigh. I’d been stupid to come here, on a whim. I might as well just turn around and wander back home.
I didn’t. Something inside of me made me go on. I don’t give up easily on problems, though I’ve been lucky enough not to have too many, and I was wearing a stout pair of brogues, which were not my best, so, if the rubble scuffed them a bit, it wouldn’t matter. As luck would have it, the easiest path was on the far side of the road and took me about 100 yards out of my way and across the back gardens of two evacuated properties that still stood proudly facing the carnage around them. By the time I had found my way back onto the odd number side I knew I was nearing my goal, though why I actually carried on I shall never truly know. I passed three more complete looking terraced properties, jagged brickwork and exposed interiors bookending them. I noted the numbers 91, 93 and 95, and then came a desert of destruction. Every house laid to waste and the irony of just one complete doorway, but no house, just a little way ahead.
I’d come this far, I thought, so just to pander to my curiosity I walked on to look at the number on that isolated door. It was 107. The frame and a few bricks surrounded it and it was about two inches ajar. I stood in reflection, thinking what and who may have resided there.
That’s when I heard the man’s smoker-gruff voice.
‘Come on in. The door’s open. It catches a bit, so give it a good shove.’
Like a fool, as if in a trance, I did and felt the door grate against the cracked and uneven cardinal red floor tiles, as I stepped through into a hallway open to the sky. I don’t know what I expected. I suppose it was to see someone standing there, but all that was there was calf high broken brick and flapping woodchip wallpaper. To one side the ground was level and clear in what must have been the living room and where the far wall had once stood was a small-tiled, beige coloured fireplace and dark oak mantelpiece, with an unlit coal fire laid in the grate.
‘Over there: on your right: on the mantelpiece,’ the voice called out again. I looked all around but could see no one.
‘Where are you? Who are you?’ I called out. There was just silence, except for a distant rumble from distant salvage work: the excavators and other machines, making safe last night’s bomb damage.
I called again. ‘Who are you? What am I supposed to do?’ All the time I was peering about me looking for the source of that gravelly voice.
‘On the mantelpiece: what you’ve come for. Your Mum said you should have some.’
Very slowly, I stepped towards the fireplace and, as I drew closer, I saw a small piece of notepaper and two small packets on the top, held down against the light breeze by a shard of red brick. I picked them up and looked at the note. It was from my mother and simply said “Please look after my son, Jeremy, now I am gone.” It was signed in a shaky hand, “Leanne Jeavons (Mrs)”. I turned to the packets and both were neatly inscribed “Mr J. Jeavons ~ 14th Sep. 1943. Take one daily for seven days only.” On one packet there were the additional words “Do not take until 10 years after first course.”
I just stood still, for a moment, emotion welling within me as I thought, first of my Mum and her care for me right to the end and then at the strangeness of being directed to this barren landscape of destruction and, stranger still, the past tense of my mother’s note “… now I am gone.” It was as if she had written it after she died. Yet that was impossible and, even if she knew her days were nearly over, how would she arrange to send it. She was never out on her own in the last few weeks. Was it something the purveyor of the pills had been keeping ready for the day? Who was he or she? And how could they know I’d be coming, when I’d never been told about them and my discovery of that advertisement was pure chance? Or was it? Mum knew I’d have to clear out that drawer. She knew, too, that I would be inquisitive about what I found.
‘Who are you? Where are you?’ I shouted loudly.
The voice came back, ‘I am the life-giver, I have the knowledge to extend your years, but not forever – and now I have come to the end of mine I’m passing the last of my discovery on to you.’ There was a slight pause, but before I could speak again, there was a gravelly chuckle. ‘Sounds a bit pompous, doesn’t it, but the old ladies like it! I’m just a wheezy old man who’s been peddling pills for years. They do work though.’
The voice seemed to come up from below me. I felt a nervous fear that my treatment of the supernatural as superstitious nonsense was being disproved.
‘Just at the moment you are standing on my head, more or less. Go back to the hallway and walk to the far end and you’ll see stairs going downwards. You might need to move a few bricks and stuff to get down, but if you want to brave the gates of hell, come on down.’
Hesitating at first and looking all around again to see if there was life above ground, playing tricks with my mind, I picked my way across charred timber and broken bricks diagonally to where the stair head should be, if I believed the voice. Less likely to get trapped that way, I thought, though I didn’t really know what I was doing. Clambering a stub of partition wall I saw it: an old cellar staircase, charred walls and a dim, flickering light coming up from below. My mind did a double take: an old man in a cellar or the Devil in his lair. Was I brave enough to find out? Or should I make a quick exit?
Half an hour later I came back up those stairs a relieved, if bemused, man.
I was now anxious to get back home and chose, against the warden’s earlier advice, to take the short way back. This saved having to scramble over all the bomb carnage I’d clambered across earlier. It wasn’t that much easier, but once I’d heaved myself over the red and white trestle barriers across the end of the street, it was quicker and I arrived just in time to greet the undertaker, with his bill. He said there was no need to settle up now, he knew I must still be grieving, but if I didn’t feel like coming down to the funeral parlour in the next few days, he’d pop back next week. He was sure it would be one less worry, once I’d dispensed with the matter. One less worry for him, more likely, once he had the cash in his hands.
Back inside the house I went straight to the kitchen, stuck on the kettle and made a strong brew of tea. My brief venture into that cellar in Engerman Street had given me plenty to think about. I’ll tell you what I found later, but for the moment let’s just say it was mind stretching.
For the moment, I had a decision to make. Do I take the pills or age gracefully? I only had the one chance, if I believed the old man, of going back ten years in fitness and appearance and I couldn’t take another course before the next ten years were up. An obvious theory in that is that I’d soon end up back in nappies; but the truth was even more horrific. That much I had learned. Even sticking to the prescribed seven pills could have side effects, in those first seven days, that weren’t that pleasant in the older person. And I was an older person: a person sceptical of rejuvenating pills and potions. So do you think was I going to take those seven little pills in the packet in my hand?
You’ve already guessed the answer. That night there was no air raid, but my sleep was just as troubled, waiting for the sirens that never sounded, as it was racing down to the shelter. At least I didn’t have the extra discomfort of a dog’s bad breath and reeking coat, never more than an arm’s length away. Instead, I had the anxiety of what would happen after the first dose of my rather dramatic sounding anti-ageing course. I soon found out, having swallowed the first of the little pills before making my breakfast of toast and Mrs Smith’s (from up the road) homemade blackberry jam. There had been an abundant crop of wild blackberries in the hedgerows, last summer. Everybody made tarts and jam to supplement their rations, while also diminishing their meagre stocks of sugar. Mrs Smith’s jam certainly lacked quite its usual sweetness.
After that first pill, I was a little deflated. Nothing changed. A slight nauseous attack about seven or eight in the evening, but that could have been too thick a layer of jam in the morning or the custard I’d made with slightly sour milk, for my evening meal.
The next day, I felt the same, I looked the same and I ached in all the same joints that were beginning to niggle with age. The second pill made no difference.
On the third day, the course kicked in. I woke up with a jolt of sharp pain that shot briefly from head to toe, then slowly spiralled back up again as a dull ache. Day four I awoke with my skin itching all over, which lasted for about three hours and no amount of scratching would ease it. Then, like the flick of a switch, it was gone. I looked in the mirror in the hall, that day and the brown age spots that had appeared on my receding hairline had disappeared. No hair had grown back, but what I had left had taken on more of a soft sheen. Something was definitely changing.
The old man had warned me about the fifth day. ‘That’s the one that can be bad if you’re sixtyish or more and not too fit.’ He had said. He could obviously see my slightly corpulent figure was not too fit, still showing the signs of the many canteen lunches of fried food and sticky puddings and an unhealthy frequency of beer drinking with workmates, before venturing home to Mum’s three course dinners. Almost to the end she insisted on a full meal in the evening, even though she only pecked at hers. ‘You’re a big man, with a big job, we’ve got to keep you fed,’ she always said, as she served five or six roast potatoes onto my plate and placed just the last one, from the pan, on hers. Although rationing had curbed my consumption of chocolate and similar delights, my body still seemed reluctant to shrink by any appreciable degree.
So it was in the still dark, early hours of the morning that I found out what the old man had meant. Cramp. Hard, sharp, mind numbing cramp. In my calves, in my thighs, in my arms and in finger curling pain that pulled me into a tight ball against my effort to stretch out and which, thankfully only lasted a few minutes – though it seemed an age each time – on three separate bursts of nauseous discomfort and sweaty heat. It drained me of energy and, in the relief following the last bout, I drifted back to sleep, waking late at half past ten in the morning. I couldn’t quite put my finger on it, but I felt altogether different.
I slid myself carefully over the side of the bed, expecting the next surge of pain and was surprised by the ease of movement as I stood up. My body felt relaxed, yet firm, I was standing up straight with none of the stoop I had been developing and, for the first time in years I dared to look at my naked body in the full length mirror of the wardrobe, in the bedroom my Mum used to sleep in. My shoulders were squarer, my abdomen had lost much of its curve and I glimpsed the figure of my younger days, when I used to swim regularly and posed, at the side of the pool, confident of my trim fitness.
I only had tea and toast for breakfast, afraid that my last rasher of bacon and two fried eggs might undo all the good of the night. I was refreshed, ready to take on the world again, after days of grieving and general despondency. Two more doses to come. The old man had emphasised I must take them both, however I felt each day.
I never got around to telling you about my meeting with the old man, did I? Well, it was a very strange experience. I’d found the stairway down to the basement of number 107 and had expected to find a cellar full of rubbish and destruction and probably some old chap sitting there, bemoaning the loss of his bombed out house. It wasn’t the case. Nervously pushing open the door at the bottom of the stairs I was met with a clean, spacious room, filled with low light from three paraffin lamps. There was a kitchen table, an oak dresser, three cream painted wall cupboards with fluted glass doors, a small gas stove and an unlit open fire grate. Beyond them were two red moquette armchairs and, half shielded by a pair of dark green velvet curtains, a single bed. There seemed something familiar about the curtains.
‘Come and sit down.’ It was the gravelly voice again, but now clearer. ‘You’re safe down here. My son fixed it and he’s a good builder, if you ever need one.’
I hesitated, peering at the uncracked ceiling, with just a couple of repaired patches, and fresh looking floral papered walls, before walking across to the chairs, which had their backs towards me. A wrinkled hand to the side of one and waved me forward. ‘Don’t take all day, I’ve little enough time left as it is.’
As I came around the chair back to sit down, I saw this wizened, bald headed, but immaculately dressed old man, with a clean white shirt, ironed and pressed, the collar loose around his scrawny neck, a plain blue tie, a multi coloured tank top and sharply creased grey flannel trousers. His eyes were wistful and pale blue around deep, dark pupils, but his smile was an impish, denture filled grin. ‘You look like your mother. I miss her, you know. She was like a little sister to me, at times.’
For a moment I couldn’t speak. Who was this man? How did he come to know Mum so well? Why had I never heard of him? Then I simply said, ‘Why am I here?’
‘For the pills, of course. That’s why. She told you what they had done for her and so you couldn’t resist some of the same.’
‘Not true,’ I replied. ‘She never told me about them. I found an advert and an empty packet in a drawer and I was intrigued. I was also very sceptical about it all, but somehow I needed to know more, especially as Mum had always seemed younger than her years.’
‘Oh. She should have told you. Then you would understand. It’s strange she didn’t: perhaps she knew the pills I’ve given you were my last. I can’t make them any more. She was kind like that: she wanted me to have them. When she knew I wouldn’t take them she left me a little envelope and made me promise not to open it while she was still alive. She knew her time was coming, too.’
‘Well you can, if you wish: if they are better for you than me, for I don’t see how seven little pills can do me much good, despite what the advert says. Who are you, anyway, and what are these pills and how come my mother came to you for them? And how come you have this cosy space all to yourself when all around here is flattened by bombs? How did you know I had arrived?' The words rushed out in exasperation.
‘Let me explain,’ he said and then he told me the whole tale.
He said his name was George – ‘Old George’ to most folk around here – and he started off with the story of his luxurious bomb shelter. It had originally been converted from a bare brick cellar, so that he could live there, after his wife died (she’d never taken a single pill in her whole life, not even when her head throbbed like a sledgehammer). It was his son’s house and the family had welcomed him in, knowing that he would also provide a ready-made babysitter.
By the outbreak of war, the children had grown and his son had moved to a more affluent district, befitting his success as a builder and businessman, and George then had the run of the house to himself. The idea was that he remain there until his son converted the property into flats to rent, a plan delayed by wartime circumstances. Conscious of what might happen, if he left the property empty, the son had had some steel beams installed to strengthen the ground floor and make the basement into a bomb shelter for his dad, who was becoming less mobile and eschewed the nearest public shelter. His foresight had proved fortuitous, the basement having survived when the house collapsed, like most others in the street, on a night of heavy bombing aimed at the factories just two blocks away. There had been some dust and a couple of holes in the ceiling, but nothing his son and daughter-in-law couldn’t quickly clean and patch up.
So there he was, comfortably protected, so he decided to stay, despite many pleas for him to move out to a safer district.
He pointed out that he had a little daylight, on a good day, from two small windows, high on the walls, one facing the garden and one long thin one, of pebble glass, at street level, now half hidden by rubble. That’s how he saw me arrive. He wasn’t expecting his son and no one else was likely to call.
‘Your mother liked to come down here, you know. Said it was a little capsule of calm away from the hustle and bustle surrounding her life at home. She used to sit in the chair where you are now and talk about your father. Wished he could have gone on as long as her. She helped me tidy the place up, too. She gave me those curtains, so I didn’t have to look at the bed all day, when I was up. I normally draw them right across during the day. Helps me divide the last of my short days and long nights.’
I knew I’d seen those curtains before. They had stretched across our back room wall and French windows until a few years ago, when the room had been partially refurnished and redecorated in creams and browns.
George continued, telling me how Mum had found out about the pills from the advert and come around to fetch them, finding him in a state of agitation on that day, with his mother slowly dying in an upstairs room. He had regarded her as immortal, not quite sure of her actual age, but knowing he was well into his eighties, thought his mother was most likely well past the century mark.
‘She was a witch, you see.’ His voice sounded proud and his eyes momentarily sparkled. ‘Not one of them with a broomstick and black cat, mind you. She was a white witch: she knew all the herbal remedies, all the balms and poultices, the felicitous fungi and the stuff to avoid, ways to heal wounds, cure aches and pains; she’d get seized up old cronies tap dancing in the street, almost, and she dabbled in the odd incantation, too: though I reckon that was just to impress the superstitious biddies who wanted more than a pot of hazel and honey linctus for their wheezy chests.’
He went on to explain how his mother had been really inquisitive, trying to find how traditional remedies had originated and if there was anything in her particular brand of wizardry that could be used more widely, even scientifically proved. The alchemists of old had intrigued her. They may have been portrayed as fruitless seekers of ways to turn base metals into gold, but some searched just as avidly for the elixir of youth. She pored over historic tomes at the libraries, questioned present-day chemists and came up with her own formulae based on different mixes of ancient remedies. Then, one day, she found an old book that had belonged to an acknowledged wizard in the early centuries and saw a formula that half matched one of her own. It suggested to her a different recipe of natural substances that might react with the body in a strange way. If it worked it would have a beneficial affect on ageing ¬ maybe slow it down. That was when she made her great experiment and those little pills you now have in your hand were born.
She belonged to a small coven of like-minded well doers, some more into incantation and paranormal forces, some like her, trusting in the natural world of plants and animal extracts. To them, she introduced her new concoction and the promise of longer lives. None of the witches thought themselves immortal, but most believed they would remain on this earth in longevity and be able to ward off the many simpler causes of death. In truth, few actually survived more than the average lifespan, so all were interested in the latest magic formula and agreed, in turns to sample the dark blue powder George’s mother produced, a little over dramatically, from the sleeve of her gown.
To each she gave a different course: some for three days, some for five, one of them seven and the oldest one ten. The coven reconvened two weeks later. Less one member. Not because of the medication, he hastened to add. She fell from a tree, trying to find a cuckoo’s egg for a powerful remedy for her own arthritis.
Those who had been given the three-day course said they felt a few tinglings and a sharp pain on the last day, but otherwise they felt much the same, with no visible signs of change, though they felt somehow refreshed. The five-day guinea-pigs had suffered sever cramps and extreme tiredness afterwards, but said their skin felt softer, their hair more full and bouncy and they had an inner feeling of optimism and happiness.
The witch who had taken the largest dose, over ten days had felt similar awakenings of her body, but had then become violently sick and was losing weight at an alarming rate. Luckily, George’s mother, knowing the ingredients in her concoction, had a remedy that would counter the effects of it and no lasting damage was done.
It was the one who had taken the powder over seven days that surprised them all. She’d had the same reactions as the others, but when she came to the coven she looked visibly younger than her 49 years and felt considerably more energetic. A few months later, when the rest of the coven had regressed to their former selves, this one witch still believed she was ten years younger and behaved more like a forty-year old than a middle aged mother of two, soon to become three, children.
That was it. Six month’s after her fist preparation, George’s mother brewed up a new batch, with a few small changes, and tried it on herself. She felt the changes, suffered a few small pains and smiled. Next she had to find a better way of dispensing it than loose powders, so coming across a chemist who was shutting down his small pharmacy, she managed to acquire an ancient, but still working pill press. That proved the answer and gathering her ingredients mainly from the hedgerows and local woods, she went into small time production. It was only distributed by word of mouth, as it was only possible to produce small quantities at a time. Many of the ingredients were seasonal, but a small stockpile was slowly built up. That’s when ‘Old George’ thought it was time to advertise. There was no response the first couple of times, but then a couple of ageing ladies tried the 7-day course and told their friends. The stockpile was soon exhausted, but the local dance hall was doing exceptionally well out of a revival of couples, of which at least one had been thoroughly rejuvenated.
Everything was fine, for a good few years and then George’s mother began to visibly age again. So she took another course of pills. They worked, but not quite as well and from what she had learnt, from some of the people she had sold the pills to, it looked that anything more than two courses might prove fatal. She revisited the tome of the old alchemist and deduced that what she was doing was extremely dangerous if not left for at least ten years between courses. She was tinkering with the body clock and it needed to recycle very slowly. That was it then – for anyone else it was a once every ten years remedy – and she knew she had problems ahead. They didn’t prove fatal, but tore her body apart in pain, in near blindness and complete loss of hair, before she recovered to a near normal state for her real age. If anything was a warning to me, that was.
I was still sceptical, despite his story, so asked George, quite pointedly, ‘If these pills really do work, why are you seemingly so old?’
‘Second course, tenth year gone, now reverting to my real age: mortality catches up eventually, but you enjoy a younger lifestyle on the journey. Besides, since my mother died, no one knows the formula any more. She was taken sudden at the end and too frail to write it down: probably couldn’t remember it anyway, in those final days. So those two little packets you’ve got are the last ones. I offered one to my son, but like his mother, he doesn’t believe in pills and he never believed in any of his grandmother’s remedies, so he refused them.
‘I had a sisterly love for your mother – no one could ever replace my missus after she’d gone – and I’ve no truck with selling them, anymore. I won’t be around long enough to enjoy the money I’ve got, as it is. So they are yours. If you believe – and you should – take them. If not, toss them in the rubble a long way from here. I don’t want a plague of youthful rats invading the cellar.’
With that he gave a little chuckle, told me to leave and made me promise not to tell anyone he was there. His son would come around and see to his final needs and he wanted to slip away in peace if he could. He had a remedy for that, he said, that would ease his way to another world. His final words stressed that life was challenging and that I should make the most of my final chances.
Well, as you already know, I was seizing the opportunity and, as the seven days of pill taking progressed, I dreamt of being a younger man again. Day six rocked the boat a bit, though. I was sick as a dog in the morning, steadied up during the day and, as George had warned me, had violent diarrhoea for three hours in the night. That, I had been told, was my body clearing out the detritus of age. All I noted was the return of my fish supper from the previous evening and the foul smell of liquid brown pooh.
Still, with only one pill to go, it was a case of in for a penny, in for a pound: or, more accurately, a pounding headache when I awoke, which cleared about ten in the morning. By the evening I was feeling on top of the world, my face had taken on a healthy bloom, my joints felt silky smooth and the world seemed a happier place. I had come through a week plagued with a few torments, but that was in the past. I had a new life before me and my mind was clear where I was going. I could get a modern chemist to analyse the second packet of pills and possibly make a fortune. Happy in mind and body, I stopped to finish my celebratory bottle of pale ale, as the air raid sirens wailed and carefully placed the empty glass in the washing up bowl. I couldn’t resist one more look at myself in the hall mirror and ran a comb through my hair, all the grey ones gone, before I strode up the garden, with a spring in my step, towards the shelter. That was when, with a whistle of parting air, the bomb dropped.
No more to rhyme (Poem)
No more to rhyme
Those little poems I first new,
Did always seem to rhyme,
But looking at today’s fine works,
That’s something lost in time.
It is more common, now,
to find evocative, descriptive, emotional pictures,
light projecting shadows across each page,
as they climb down blank white walls
with a climber’s agility, roped fast,
descending a sheer rock face,
harnessing an inner energy,
alerting the reader to every crevice,
every hand or toe hold,
eyes held steady
on contour tracing paths,
tracks observed and recorded in the mind,
some gently sloping back to the summit,
others tortuous in downward steepness,
or, fraught with the dangers of haste,
foot-sliding rapidly to level ground.
There, gentle rivers meander,
delicately hinted with reflections
from pastoral meadows
and coloured skies, bright with sunshine.
Turn the page,
adjective on adverb cascade forth
to flood the snowy plain
with blackened crags,
conjuring dark forces, sorrow, despair,
embracing the reader
with heavy heart or tender understanding,
history and foresight uneasy partners,
the poet’s art creating
new found emotions, heightened senses,
a totality beyond our mortal sphere.
But has poetry become another prose,
sliced into bite sized fragments
that meet phonetic perambulation
and cast aside the simple music of genres past?
Or do great symphonies arise
from the very trash and treasure
strewn where our souls tread?
Seen, felt, heard, experienced,
moulded and spoken with sybaritic verve,
sibylline honesty or just simple expression,
for the pleasure of those who hear, who read.
Words of gentleness and purity,
harsh tales or bawdy song,
prophetic stanzas or imaginative tomes,
reflective impressions of timeless beauty
or the wave like slip slapping
of phrase upon phrase,
characterising or caricaturing in crescendo,
at the writers whim,
until exhausted, drained to a conclusion.
But will the pendulum swing once more,
The poet seek new challenges to climb,
Look back on youth,
And once more write a melody of rhyme?
Turvey Tops (Nonsense Rhyme)
The sun shines bright
in the middle of the night
and the moon stays up all day.
The clock strikes one
at half past three
as the chickens
start to bray.
In a time before now,
but well after then,
the flowers pushed their roots
to the sky.
And the kitchen maid
stood for hours on her head
putting beetroot in apple pie.
Large oranges grew
on the crab apple tree
and the river ran back
up the hill.
The tide stayed out
for two days at a time,
the clouds in the sky stood still.
Now the grass grows tall
with a bright hue of blue,
the trees taste of Cheshire cheese.
Houses are built
With their roofs on the ground
and huge aeroplanes
sail the seas.
If all this seems strange
and you don’t think it true
take a new look, yourself, at the day.
By closing your eyes
when looking around
you may see this old world
the same way.
Tormented (Short Story)
‘He has no desire to kill me. He knows that, every time he has taken a life, it’s like twisting the knife in my stomach, tearing out my heart. The suffering he inflicts goes way beyond the simple act of killing. He does it to hurt, to torment, yes, but beyond each murder, who is his real victim? Who knows how his mind works or whom he’ll choose next? Or how close to us he is?’
It is three days since the death of Matthew’s brother. Not much over six weeks from the first murder, it represented a chilling repetition of earlier events.
‘It’s all your family in his sights: More than that: the pattern leads right to you’. Diana has tears in her eyes. ‘First your uncle, then your cousin and now your brother. All male. So if not you, who else? Your sister? Me? Your father is in hospital, so at least he should be protected. But us? We have to get away from here. Go somewhere safe.’
In the background, the BBC news channel was still on, but muted, just the scrolling banner at the bottom of the screen displaying the most significant events of the day, relentlessly repeated. No more on the triple murders, although, in an earlier interview, a haggard looking detective inspector had promised they were following new leads, which they believed would be significant. Reality or bravado; a move forward or just a ruse to unsettle the murderer; a breakthrough or another dead end; who can be sure?
There was a low hum from the fan oven, slowly warming up for the evening meal and a stockpot of chicken bones simmering away on the hob. Matthew stopped chopping the casserole vegetables and turned towards her. Slim, brunette with scared blue eyes looking hopefully into his.
‘Di, be real. Running away won’t solve the problem. Newspapers, TV, Internet: another murder and we’ll still hear about it – and I will still suffer the same torment: the torture of another loss. I can’t escape that.’
‘But, Matt, if he doesn’t know where we’ve gone, he can’t find us, then it will give the police more time to catch him. To put him behind bars. I’m so scared; I keep thinking I might be his next target, if he’s out to scare you before he comes for you. I want to go. With you, or without you, I have to go. Now.’
‘So you’re leaving me, then?’
‘It’s not like that – it’s just not safe here. You saw that news interview, a few minutes ago. They said they’ve got new leads: some clues that must have been left behind in the carnage. I don’t know what, they didn’t say, but it gives us hope that this might soon be over.’
‘And you believe that?’
‘Why must you be so obstinate, so selfish, when you must clearly see it’s not right to stay. It’s like waving a flag to say come and get me – you or me.’
‘Or my sister.’ His voice was flat, his tone annoyingly calm, as he continued, ‘I’m staying. I’m not running. And, anyway, wherever you go, he’ll find you, if he really wants. With more torment piled on me until, … and when, he does. So who’s the one really being selfish?’
Diana steadied herself on the back of a dining chair and looked deeply, appealingly, into Matthew’s eyes. ‘I can’t take any more. I’ve tried to stay positive for you, knowing how much each loss must have hurt. The grilling by police, the search through personal possessions, that detective and his routine procedures, the useless, young liaison officer, full of theoretical concern, but no life experience. I’ve suffered, too, more than you seem to realise.’
She drew a deep breath, letting it out with a sigh. ‘You must see the danger; you just can’t ignore it any longer. I can’t: I have to go and go tonight. If you won’t come, you’re on your own … and don’t expect me back until all this is over. Really over.’
‘So you are leaving me,’ his tone still measured, ‘I knew that would happen, one day. No need to worry about me though, Di, stuck here all alone. Waiting. I know the killer. I glimpsed him in the hall mirror, as he left my brother’s house. Yes, the brother you slept with after that thirtieth birthday bash my uncle so kindly arranged for me, in his plush hotel. All those swanky rooms; and you slept in two of them.’
It wasn’t just the chopped onions that glazed Matthew’s eyes, as sunlight glinted off the cook’s knife, still in his hand.
‘So it is time for you to go.’ With that he plunged the knife deep into her chest, then her stomach, before slicing it across her throat as she fell, blood spurting across his shirt, spattering his face and arms, to writhe in temporary spasms on the floor; floating, it seemed, on a pool of ever spreading red.
Matthew dropped to his knees, drew her limp body up towards him, whispering ‘One step too far, my darling, it would have stopped with my brother. He was the target. I just needed to build up his fear, first. As long as you never left me, the killings would have stopped. But you chose to leave.’
Now cradling her in his arms, tearful eyes draining away the hatred, the bloodied cook’s knife still in his hand, he was surprised at the dead weight of so slight a figure, as he eased himself upright and walked towards the balcony of their seventh floor apartment. Stumbling over the threshold of the wide glass door, as he shouldered it wider open, he looked out onto late summer clouds, tinged with pinks and purpled greys, as the sun started its final descent below the skyline.
‘It’s all gone; all those years together; all that we built together: all the love that passed between us. You destroyed it all in one night of frivolous abandon, leaving nothing behind but empty air. That was the real torment.’ Moving forward one step he slowly let her body roll off his arms into free space. For a moment he watched her floral cotton skirt flare out, as if a wing, her loose arms waving a last goodbye, before launching himself forward over the rail, pressing the point of the knife to his chest, to be driven home as he crushed against the cold, hard, rain shower wet paving below.
More mist than rain,
there’s softness in this autumn shower
that closes about me,
as I walk in uneasy company
with swishing tyres.
White lights approaching
red rushing away,
all just passing glimmers
as I think back on summer days,
to ease my journey through
these dreary, fume choked passageways.
Pebbles roll in susurration
heralding aqua tints and deeper blues
splish-splashing into sandy coves
trickling around ragged rocks.
Foam flecked sea runs over sandy bars,
the ebb and flow of eternity
catching unwary feet
that tread the water’s edge.
Diamonds glint, in sun’s new light
climbing slowly above the Nare,
washing last shadows from the night.
Footsteps along glistening sand
to the sweeping curve of low cliffs,
green topped in gentle slopes
dashed with white houses, dotted with sheep
stretching out beneath the blue.
Across the rippling stream,
sandy channel snaking to the sea,
pass the derelict kiln to iron gates
and pink hotel, alas no more,
to breakfast by the window,
looking out along the shore.
Days spent ambling coastal paths
or criss-crossing between rivers,
walking over soft, open pasture
or being dwarfed by maize,
an endless blue to the horizon
peppered with drifting cumulus.
Watching tall ships from Charlestown,
tankers from Falmouth,
sailboats from St Mawes,
riding chain clanking King Harry,
to explore further shores.
Twisty lanes pass mill and castle,
revealing local wines and cider brews,
narrow ways through tiny harbours
to the bright hued boats of Mevagissey,
a clamour of tourist delights
and the obligatory fish and chips.
Then back to quieter moments
St Anthony’s, the church, the head,
St Just’s real peace and views,
before returning home to city life,
back to puddle-splashed shoes.
Lost love? (Poem)
I thought I’d lost my love
as I set to leave the shore
aboard the channel ferry
new countries to explore.
I’d hurried to the port rail
and looked down at the Quay
but my loved one wasn’t standing
in the place that he should be.
I searched the smiling faces
hands waving their goodbyes
and nowhere in amongst them
could I find his smiling eyes.
A tear slid down my cheek
my heartbeat slowed in pain
I feared that I would never see
my dearest one again.
We’d parted on a quarrel
He said I should not go
Now to lose him altogether
was indeed a bitter blow.
I could not turn back time
as the ferry left the dock
the only way was forward
now I’d lost my former rock.
I wiped away the dampness
that tears left on my face
and turned to step back inwards
when I felt a soft embrace
as loving arms surround me,
lower me gently to a seat
the soft words whispered in my ear
made my heart skip a beat.
A soft voice with compassion
erased my greatest fear
as I turned my head towards him
not believing he was here.
With eyes upon each other
he said in softest tone
'you did not wait to hear me say
you must not leave alone.'
'Your harsh words hurt
that much is true
but they don’t
stop me loving you
and as we set out upon this voyage
with every ebb and flow of tide
I’ll remain forever more
Your anchor: always at your side.'
Warped Off (Short Story)
The trouble with warp speed is that you don’t get much chance to view the scenery. Except when something blows up. Like the warp speed controller that’s just done a splendid impression of a four slot toaster and fried two technicians to boot. Luckily they weren’t sentient engineers, just two old XKB37 five-limbed maintenance droids that would’ve been chucked out as space trash at the end of this voyage, anyway.
So, here we are. Becalmed, as you might say. Come to a dead stop somewhere between a little known minor planet, Kershaw 1720, apparently – but known to it’s native population as Ierdslonod (as far as I can pronounce it’s translation from the native language, Ierdslonodic) – and, far, far away, Aeodinus. A space explorer, named Kershaw, discovered the former – now who would have guessed that? Not the first one of his, either, judging by the number. The latter was named after some Greek mathematician, who predicted where it should be several millennia before anyone got there. Mind you, he still insisted the Earth was round when everyone then knew it was flat and was exiled to an island almost as remote as his distant planet.
So what do we do now, you wonder. So do I actually. We can gaze out at the view, which is mostly black from where I’m seated in the lower control deck, with just a couple of small ports to the universe outside. It’ll be better from the upper control deck, if you want to go there. Should be a wide panorama of pinpoints of light, mainly, and four or five glows of star clusters not too far distant, and, if my coordinates are right a large green orb, directly above us. If it’s not there, we’re in the brown stuff.
Ah! Looks like something’s coming up on my screen. Beautiful. A big green orange, if you get my drift. A green cloud covered orb that sits out on the very limits of space travel and is used to slingshot warp speed ships in a graceful, parabolic arc to their destinations. And it supports life.
Even better. We’re getting a tow. Saves starting up our secondary power and risking another mishap, if that’s been affected. We don’t know yet what caused the warp controller to blow or if the fault is linked elsewhere. Better not be, or we’ll be stuck here a standard year or two. There won’t likely be any spares down on this greenball that’s sending out the tug. Not that I don’t welcome their help. We need to get this ship down to use some external power, if we want to be sure we’re not going to blow the whole caboodle. Very unstable things warp drives. That’s why the controls are so complex. Just a few buttons on the face panel, but beneath that there’s a while lot of error management and stabilising technology to stop everything blowing up. Like it just has.
Looks like another message popping up. Tug will be with us at 07:26:42.47 GMT. That always amazes me. Not the preciseness, but with a whole Universe to travel around, why the heck do we still use good old Greenwich Mean Time. I’m on standby now until PSST-C-hl 24-2 draws alongside. Now there’s a name to conjure with! It actually stands for Planetary Service Space Tug, Calbofrel, high load from district 24, number 2 (they only have 3, apparently and a few low powered loaders that serve the passenger ferries).
Calbofrel is the name of the big green ball above us, where we shall end up for awhile. Not too bad a place, as it has oxygen in its atmosphere, so it’s breathable. Nitrogen content is low, but it has some strange mixture that our lungs can cope with, but you end up wheezing like and old granny, if you spend more than a couple of days there. So I’ll still take my auxiliary respirator when we leave ship.
By now, you’re probably wondering who I am, waffling on to pass the time, as we sit in the middle of nowhere, with nowhere to go until that tug arrives. Well, you asked to sit with the captain and that’s me. I’m Second Engineer Jack Jackson, Interplanetary Population Movement Auxiliary (IPMA for short). I’m a sort of peripatetic spaceship driver, assigned to the big ships of the Intergalactic Population Balance Migrant Transfer Shipment and Distribution Agency. Now there’s a mouthful. No one ever uses the title, can’t even get a decent acronym out of it, so they are usually just called the Pop Shippers.
Pop Shippers came about around two millennia ago, when we had just about circumnavigated the inner sphere of the universe, to the limits of our technology and staying power, (and, boy, we still have more than half of the ‘Big U’ to get out and see). Some bright guys, looking at all the inhabited planets, decided there were too many people in too few places and plenty of spare globes that could be made quite comfortable to live on. Obvious answer, shuffle the pack and redistribute. So on finding supposed compatibilities between both different races and some of the stranger forms of life out there, the order went out to ship whole communities of them to new ground. If there was a bit of unrest, it didn’t worry the Pop Shippers: the chosen migrants just had to go where they were taken and learn how to get on with each other, once the dust settled.
Took a good deal of technology to make some of the new places fully habitable, mind you; most were old rocky planets worth mining, but with not much of an atmosphere on some. Law and order had to be more than strict, positively draconian at first, but a millennia into the programme, it all seems to have settled down. The new communities thrive, with no overcrowding, homes and security for all, jobs for those who want them and support for those who don’t. No scroungers mind; if you don’t have a job, you are placed on social task teams, so you still earn your keep.
My current secondment is transporting three thousand eight hundred Ierdslonodians to Aeodinus in this old hulk names Minerva V, one of the earliest Minerva class, fifteen tiered, people movers. There are forty-two others still in use, all built to a budget from de-armed Class 7X7QB battle cruisers that had been decommissioned and structurally morphed into something less aggressive looking. It’s my sixth trip, so far, and I’ve another nine to go. Then this old girl goes in for a major refit, the paperwork says, or more likely, it’ll be scrapped and it’s working bits and base materials recycled once again. There are four other ships on the same mission, so none of the migrants need feel lonely when they get dropped off. Seven other communities from different planets are already based on Aeodinus and this on-going top up of Ierdslonodians will just about fill the planet’s quota. The organisation behind all this movement of human and alien resources, The Universal Council for Population Redistribution, has chosen their migration because of their dual breathing capability. They can work under sea without the restraints of oxygen bottles. And they are strong swimmers able to lift heavy loads. Just give them a weighted belt and they’ll work all day beneath the little planet’s salt free waves.
You’d think they’d use robots down there, but the sea bed has a strange mixture of materials that send out electromagnetic wave forms that tend to fry any android’s brain and send robot arms into a windmill waving frenzy. Not good for picking up the goods. However, there’s a stack of minerals and rare metal ores in the sea bed and it’s been calculated that mining just ten per cent of what’s available will be enough to meet the demand of all the habitable planets for the next 500 years or more. That’s because each plant’s recycling regime ensures minimum use of new material, so once it’s got the stuff it’s just a matter of topping it up in small amounts. So, that was it: back to good old-fashioned manual labour and we can dig out what we want without totally destroying the natural habitats around Aeodinus. Now, I’ve got a feeling it’s just one of those recently discovered rare metals that’s wanted for our warp controller, but we certainly can’t go and fetch it. Let’s hope Calbofrel has had its quota: plus some technicians who know what to do with it.
Now if you are as bored as I am at waiting around for a tow (and don’t take that personally, I’m glad of your company), you might want to go and stretch your legs, get a coffee or something. One of those chemical blends they push nowadays or one of those strange fruits from unpronounceable planets with equally unpronounceable names. I’ll stick with the Earth stuff, if you don’t mind. Like paper, you know what’s in it. And to think they even thought of a paperless world, down there. They tried it, you know: almost got there, then someone pressed the wrong button in a multimillion document archive and half destroyed it before anyone noticed. They said it couldn’t happen, but it did and luckily some minion in the Civil Service had been squirreling away years and years of paper stuff, because he was so lowly, no one thought to tell him to stop. Saved the day. Became a hero. Given a medal. Shame the fame killed him: died eighteen standard Earth months later. His heart couldn’t stand it.
Happened on another planet, too. Huge electromagnetic storm wiped thousands of stored hard disks, caused massive fires all over the place, consuming whole libraries of laser engraved material. Now, every planet has at least three underground caverns, humidity and temperature controlled, of course, fitted out to sore all the important stuff – on paper. For your personal stuff, you’re on your own, of course, but then you probably only need it for one lifetime, a couple of hundred years at the most. Cloud storage is OK for that, or personal memory banks.
I used to lap up all the Sci-Fi stories in the old books of eons back. Failed predictions most of them, especially those that promised implant surgery and potions to give you nigh on immortal life. Who’d want that anyway? By then you’d have been everywhere, seen everything, done everything. What boredom would lie beyond that?
But I’m on the waffle again. I can’t leave my station, but go get yourself a walk around before it’s me boring the pants of you.
Ah! You’re back. Nice timing. The tug’s just about to take us down onto Calbofrel. You see it arrive, from up top, did you? Ugly looking box of a thing, isn’t it? Just a big power unit really that senses our power systems and we leach off it. No tow ropes out here. Their pilot takes control and gently guides us down to a repair pier in some desert area. Then if we blow up we can’t do too much lasting damage to the local habitation. Not that we will. When a warp speed controller fries itself, it’s usually an easy refit. I’m surprised a spare one isn’t carried on board; then that’s budget cuts for you. They do cost a bit, I admit, because they are so complex, but 0a repair is possible if you have the right materials to hand and Calbofrel techies say they have.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got to monitor the tug pilot’s commands and make sure he keeps everything cool. That’s why I’m down here with not much of a view and not up top, though that’s where I sit for the long runs on auto and sometimes at docking speeds, when on semi-manual. The rest is all done via the screens and I need to concentrate on those and not stop to admire the view, so I stay down in this belly side pod with its two small ports. Stay and watch though, if you want. I’ll talk you through what’s happening.
I’ve got the first screen message, basically just a ‘Hello’ – we rarely speak one to one; saves translation from each other’s language and the on-screen comms use a universal binary notation that addresses your own screen in whatever language you understand. Even got good old British English, not just that misspelt jargon they use across the water from my home island. I‘m told that what was once the UK was a great place a few millennia ago; powerful enough to hold Europe to ransom and able to nudge the USA in the right direction on a few things. Fifty-eight US states now; took a long battle to bring in Mexico, especially after one joke of a President tried to cut it off with a wall.
As for poor little England, it’s on it’s own, now, stuck in it’s time warp of sovereignty, but a great place to live. The Welsh joined up with a united Ireland as a viable economic unit, while Scotland chose its independence eons ago, then went on to slide into such a large economic deficit, it chose to swallowed up by Russia, rather than renew ties with its closest neighbour. Even though over half the natural born Scots had already crossed the border to a more compatible and stable regime. Never could make sense of any of it, but it’s all in the history clouds, if you want to tap in a quick search, sometime.
Ah! Here we go. Power links verified. Testing retro drive pulsators. They’re the brakes of this monster. Always make sure you can stop, before you set off.
Docking probes active. They align us and guide us so that we land softly in the dock.
Forward power units set: aft power units set: warp speed power locked off: hazard beacons on: communication channel clear: dock signal verified: captain’s clearance awaited.
That means we’re already to go. I‘ve just one check to make this end.
Tug virtual link secured: passenger list verified: passenger bays shuttered. There’s no physical link to the tug, so we are not likely to bump into it, or anything else, but we drop corridor shutters to stop anyone wandering about, except approved personnel with auto-passes – just in case of a problem. If we know where everyone is, we can keep them all safe.
Right. We’re clear to go. I’d let you tap the screen, but it’s fingerprint sensitive so only I can do it. Captain’s clearance: affirmative.
The screen now tells us our distance away, ETA for docking (14:27:06.33 GMT). It’s all on auto at the end and you won’t even feel the bump, control is so subtle. But you’re stuck with me until then.
So, if you’ve got any funny stories to tell, tell me them now. Can’t promise to laugh in all the right places: I’ll be watching my screens mostly, looking out for any deviations. I don’t expect any. It only happens when some rogue ship has gone off the comms net and looks like it might transverse our path. I don’t think there will be any pirate ships this close to Calbofrel; but you do get the odd personnel carrier that’s not signed in.
Uh, oh! Looks like I might have spoken too soon. Or jinxed the system. That red dot, top right corner with the letters PCC: Potential Collision Course. Give it five and if it doesn’t change course it doesn’t know were here and, as we are unscheduled, we have to get out of the way. IGTC should have known though and flagged it up. That’s Inter-Galactic Traffic Control. No message, so maybe it will slide off, but we’ll send out an all craft warning, just in case, before we start shifting this beast off path. Let’s see if it’s willing to move; data shows small, unidentified, Protoplasma-Xeon powered craft. Basically sucks in the free floating, rarefied space gas molecules and spews them out in a jet. Not that fast, unless on short burst supercharge, when it can almost reach warp speed for about fifteen seconds.
Ummm. Hasn’t acknowledged. Data update: unmanned, unclassified craft, 400 TK (that’s TerraKnots) PCI 8:02.22. It should still call back on autorespond. No. Keeping course. PCI means Potential Collision Impact. That means we move. We let the computers work out how far we deviate, usually, but this time it’s the tug that’s in control, so we’ll message it. The tug may not have picked up the interloper yet, its systems aren’t that sophisticated, as it never strays far from its base, not like the Intergalactic Rescue Supertugs. Now there’s a meaty beast. An IRS can go anywhere and see way beyond even our surveillance systems. It needs to, to find a lost box of metals and ceramics floating around goodness knows where, with a total power loss and a scared crew and passengers or payload.
I’ve fed the coordinates over to the tug. It can make up its own mind now, which way to go. Ah! It’s put us on a three-minute detour that will take us well out of the way. No problem.
Protoplasma-Xeon ships are small packet cruisers usually. They port hop, a bit like the pedal bike couriers of the twenty-first century. It’s in the history cloud if you look back far enough. Imagine. Some bod pushing pedals around to turn a wheel that propels him forward. Otherwise no power at all, while we can swop planets in the time he would take to go two blocks across an apartment grid. Stupid. But that’s what it was, then.
Some of the little cruisers are private transport, too. Trouble is they have to stop and recharge their supplementary pressure tanks at quite short intervals. That’s essential for deep space where molecular matter is too thin for the ship to maintain thrust. The only other use is by the militia on short-range missiles, precharged. Those are cold, quiet and lethal at short range, in battle.
That’s better; we’re swinging away from our little friend’s course. PCI now zero. Should pass us about 200k away. Take a look out the port side port in a couple of minutes. Only it won’t be red, like the dot. Probably just a dirty grey tube with an annular bulge about a third the way down it, a few side markings and a colour flash insignia for its owner.
Hey up? What’s this? What’s going on here? It’s swinging in, heading straight towards us and … cripes! It’s accelerating. PCI 1:32.18 minutes. Explosive capacity detected: Lucaquatrin Biodin > fuel load: masked: not able to measure.
That’ll be enough to blow our while caboodle into eternity, I guess. Strap yourself in while I sound alert. No one, but no one upstairs moves until I give the all clear. See that red handle above you? Grab it and pull. That’s your G force shield. It will weld your body to the seat, near enough. This pod has another trick, courtesy of its battleship origins. We’re leaving you mother; we’re going to shake hands with our antagonist. As acting captain, my role is to be first greeter of any incoming vessel and first defender if it seems to be on the offensive.
Don’t mind the drop, that’s nothing to when we get going. Thirty seconds out we use our light weapons. If it doesn’t swerve, we go in for the kill. Right, hold yourself tight while I do a 180, only about 7G, and it’ll be right in front. There’s the boy. Got you, one across its path. Decoy flare. Not going to follow? Five-degree correction, heavy round – got you, two. Right on the tail, spinning you. Next one gets your throat. Wow! That one rocked us out here. Power out, but still spinning too close to mother. Rolling out: might make you feel a bit sick on the tight turn, about 12G, but I’ve got to duck away from target, pretty sharpish. Only choice now: the Deflector. Coordinates in. Release. This comes from mother. Too big for the pod to carry. Should clear the hog like a giant scoop and send it tumbling away from both the ship and the planet, hopefully without an explosion. Sorry, with a big, big explosion. That must have been something mighty sensitive, there. The Deflector is fast, but has a soft touch gas cushion. Shouldn’t have blown like that. It’s pushed us out a kilometre. Won’t be using that one again: biggest part left, about the size of a tin can, by the look of it. There’ll be some collateral damage to mother, but only surface wounds, I guess. No leaks on us anyway. Just two comms channels down. Tug might have suffered though. Lets put this thing back in the hutch.
OK. I’ll release your G shield. We’re locking back in. Comms link on main-ship channel, fine. Tug dead. Hope it’s just the comms. Scanning. Big tear, starboard flank. Something else to be fixed when we dock. One crew missing. All others registered. Their e-tags show locations as expected. A few injuries. Doesn’t look like anything we can’t fix. Trying to raise tug.
You OK. Not quite the joy ride you expected on this trip, eh? Look likes the tug’s had it. Found a weak comms signal. And a distress signal. Seems the tug’s about to become a fireball. We are now drifting, untethered. Still on course for Calbofrel, but not where we intended to dock. Trajectory correction needed, before we come down in the middle of a city. And we are going tail first, that whizz-band must have spun us.
Our main power is shutting down. See that row of red lights, flashing like it’s Christmas. That’s serious. We’ve lost all power from the tug and we’ve got damage to the starboard power controls for ours. We might be able to limp in on the port power system, but that’s makes manoeuvring this great hunk more than difficult.
Stand by. I’m going to risk our own power and pray it doesn’t blow anything more. Only the retros, though, just so we can steer away from our present course. I’ll work out how we are going to stop once we’ve stabilised our progress.
Interesting. Look at this news item on the side screen. Military say a test missile has gone rogue. Haven’t declared whether or not it’s armed. Warning all vessels over a wide sector to give any unidentified craft a wide berth. Apparently they lost navigational contact first and all tracking comms 48 hours ago, so don’t really know where it’s heading. Well we have news for them. We know it’s whereabouts, or rather the bits of it that are left and can verify it was armed. I’ll broadcast the news, that’ll upset them. Apparently, it’s from that exiled planet regime run by a dynasty of military style nutcases on StrataJongun K26. That’s a fabricated moon structure orbiting a barely habitable planet that has the right temperature, but no natural oxygen, just a few multi-domed biospheres with gas conversion plants. Perfect for missile target practice – provided they’ve mapped all the domes. Typical, though, that they wait until it’s too late to tell everybody. Probably hoping to find their buzzing bee with its sting still intact and cover up the failure in their development programme. Stupid. Could have cost some four thousand sentient lives and the few tonnes of androids, robots and tech equipment on board this ship. Never mind wasting the ship.
More flashing red lights: seems there’s some concussive damage inside the ship. Retros only on half power, but should be enough to ease us into a better trajectory. Not enough to put us into orbit around this green hunk, though. Its gravitational pull is 2G. The only way is down. Can’t promise a soft landing, but desert here we come. Unless … Scanning. What’s under that green mist? That might be some sort of lake. Asking permission to land there. It looks a bit softer than rock. Good. Affirmative. Only one problem, if we go in too steep, we’ll probably end up with the fishes – if they have fishes. I don’t know what natural aquatic life the place has. Only ever seen the city aquariums and there’s some vicious looking, ugly stuff in those tanks. Makes you shudder, thinking of sharing a pond with them.
So, if that’s cheered you up, just hope I make the right moves with this hunk of recycled scrap. Not that you can do much about it. Not even a mutiny aboard can change our fate, now. I’ve got five engineers upstairs working with me, that’s what all this screen chatter is for: all the digital info between us. It all helps, but this is the one time my role is god. Sit tight and don’t say a word.
We’re going through the green stuff in twenty seconds; we’ll be in it for thirty. Look out port and you should see a shimmer, a rough oval amongst the expanse of rocks. That’s what I’m aiming for, but seems strange steering this lump backwards. You got it? Good. Easing off on the port retro. Planet comms have given me a clear run. CSTC have moved every flight away from my corridor. Calling Calbofrel Space Transport Control, Second Engineer Jack Jackson, Acting Captain, Minerva V. Calling Calbofrel Space Transport Control, I’m making final descent to Laqus Amarris, cannot abort, repeat, cannot abort.
This is it fellas. Panel has green lights for upthrusters fore and aft. Powering up aft thrusters to half power. Levelling, levelling, twenty-five seconds to splashdown. Red handle G protection now, eighteen – seventeen – sixteen, all upthrusters full power, twelve – eleven – ten ¬– nine – too high, too high, cut thrusters, – five – we’re tipping, jammed thruster, OUCH! What the hell have I done? We’re still moving, were deep in something and it doesn’t feel like water, we’re slowing too quickly. It’s something more viscous and it’s bright green through both ports. Now why don’t I find that surprising. OW! That ricked my neck; we’ve jammed on something. You OK? Oh, your stomach’s in your throat and your knees and ankle feel like they’ve changed places. That’s me, sorry, choosing a big bowl of creamy soup and landing you on the only chicken bone in it. And that smell, it’s coming through my nasal receptors. You won’t get it under that G force blanket. Might as well release it. That more comfortable? Thought so, but keep you visor closed, we’re leaking, so we need to evacuate as soon as I’ve transferred control upstairs. I just hope we are still firmly attached to mother, or were in for a deluge when I open the overhead airlock.
Boy, was that close. We got every one off the ship before it started to keel over and drop off the shelf I’d hit, just below the surface of that pungent green treacle. The cargo folk are now all corralled in a holding area west of the main city. You were lucky to be found with me, stuck in the bottom tier of the Minerva as we were, trapped behind that warped bulkhead. That’s why you’re enjoying the hospitality of the security suite, awaiting clearance. Should be just a formality.
There’s no chance of salvaging the Minerva, but at least we lost no lives. Even found the lost crewmember, trapped in the original starboard wreckage. He must have had a bumpy ride down. The Calbrofel crowd are delighted. They get salvage rights and as there is no likelihood of another Minerva class ship being available inside three standard years, they’ve increased their tourist count by around four thousand – all of them, including you, funded for the duration by the Pop Movers.
So, while I’ll have to conduct all the official business, you can just sit back, relax and enjoy your stay. Excuse me now, though, I’ve been summoned to a debrief. I’ll give you a call later.
As a consequence, all three lives are threatened by Mark Tynesdale and a malicious Mr Grace, whose legitimate concerns hide an underworld of intrigue, murder, and human misery. Mark, having taken over a family business that he had greatly expanded, has his own dark secret: one known to Mr Grace, who secretly takes advantage of Mark by using Mark's covert courier service for his own nefarious deeds. After sending Paul on a clandestine errand, Giules, is forced to expose the truth of her activities: but not to the police. DI Robert Brown would have to find Paul’s assailants the hard way.
After a tortuous chase that ends in another death, Mark's secret is revealed, while Mr Grace, his illicit operations discovered, plans an escape: but there are those who hope to thwart him - if there’s still time.
Whichever your point of view, this book provides a varied collection of prose, poetry and rhyme to match many a mood.
Originally written for my own amusement, reflection or especially for my family – be they adult or child – this eclectic compilation is a short volume that that is designed to be dipped into when you just want to fill a few moments with a quiet read.
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Hearing how Anne had found the son she thought was lost to her forever, appealed to Edna's inquisitiveness - and other residents of Arden Ash, too - but it might have been wiser had the full story not been told. A light read, laced with a little humour, tragedy, mystery and intrigue.