The Magic Roundabout


roundabout 1918-20

(500 words)

Lambda could see the lights of the supermarket through the shrubbery and across the canal, but here, on the pathway to the road, it was sparsely lit, and the adjoining children’s play area was dark and desolate. He looked around, then, with no one in sight, leapt over the six-foot fence and sat on the roundabout. He took a key ring out and played with the cold metals, toying with ideas. Finally, randomly flicking through them, ‘Fuck it,’ he thought. Holding one tight he began to kick the ground, the roundabout spinning in response. “Make the connection. Make the connection!”
Round and round. Round and round, then … he was in a colossal room with stone walls. The floor was earthen and there were gigantic wooden benches and tables. Huge logs blazed in an enormous fireplace, throwing out sparks like twinkling fireflies.
The floor began to vibrate, and something began to approach. Thud … thud … thud. A deep voice began to boom out. “Fee Fi Fo Fum.”
Lambda quickly flicked through the key ring to the glowing silver ‘home’ key. Gripping it tightly, he began the mantra, “Make the connection …”
Wham, he was back on the roundabout, which was now slowly coming to a halt. He breathed a sigh of relief. Why waste precious energy fighting an evil giant?
But at the back of his mind whirled thoughts of Jack and the Golden Goose. No, he must help elsewhere. Once more he selected a key, this time a tiny brass one. “Make the connection …”
He found himself on a vast concrete walkway, surrounded by skyscrapers. Around him were beings, they looked human, all walking the same way as him, but engrossed with small silver screens. Reflected in a ground floor window he could see himself in a red leather jacket, the others, intent on their anonymous journeys, clad in sombre blacks and browns. Then the sky went dark. Lambda looked up to see an enormous black disc above, blotting out the sky. Surprisingly, no one around him seemed to take any notice!
With one giant leap for mankind, he flew to the top of a skyscraper. There he could look directly into a lens at the bottom of the craft. Some kind of device was being readied. The kind of device that would vaporise the ‘zombies’ below, he surmised. He reached into his jacket for a small metal sphere, then into another pocket for a launcher. With practised precision he launched the nuclear seed right into the centre of the lens.
Without waiting for the fallout, literally, he once again grasped the home key. “Make the connection …”

Back on the roundabout, he noticed an approaching couple and quickly turned on his invisibility shield, hearing them laughing and swearing as they passed. He looked over at the supermarket lights. Life could be exciting as a Super Hero but he needed to eat, after all. Deciding to leave the worlds to their problems he headed to the hot chicken counter.

 


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The Cat Will Mew …


ginger-cat-3607364_960_720

(850 words)

Gregory padded along outside our patio doors, a young rabbit, obviously alive, suspended obscenely from his jaws. It hung there, almost touching the ground, petrified and staring blankly ahead as it swung from side to side, its silky brown fur ruffled by the breeze.
Like a little girl abducted from outside her school by a ghoul lusting for fresh lean meat, or a shrieking schoolboy plucked from his bed through an open window by the enormous hand of a ravenous giant, the rabbit was doubtless heading for the same fate.
“Oh my god, Paul, not another!” exclaimed Amanda, coming into the sun room. “He had one yesterday and I saw him with another one a couple of days ago. That poor little rabbit.”
“It’s nature. That’s what predators do, catch and kill their prey.”
“Maybe it is, but I don’t want to see it.” There was a wobble in her voice.
Still carrying the rabbit, Gregory jumped four feet onto a fence at the end of the patio and disappeared into our neighbour’s extensive property. You had to admit that was one powerful creature.
Gregory was the name that my niece, Alicia, had come up with for the ginger cat that lived next door. “That cat looks like a Gregory!” she’d exclaimed. It was a rich orange colour with golden swirls, rather like a Catherine Wheel, and, on closer inspection, its eyes were huge and yellow. A handsome animal, though whether male or female we knew not. At a later date our neighbour had informed us of its name, the far more prosaic “Ginger” and that it was female. But to us it was always Gregory and a ‘he.’
“It’s funny,” I said, “people are glued to the telly, watching wildlife programs where animals are always tearing each other to pieces, left, right and centre, but they don’t like it when it’s on their own doorstep.”
“I’ll put some more netting across behind the summerhouse.”
I doubted that would do much good, cats were very good at finding ways into properties and a bit of netting would only provide them with a temporary challenge, a kind of feline IQ test. “OK, good idea,” I said.
Just then there was a high-pitched keening, almost like a human scream. Amanda clapped her hands over her ears. “Oh, God.”
It only lasted a few seconds but it seemed like an age. That was the end of the rabbit. Soon it’d be chomping on Heaven’s pastures.
“I’m going to speak to Norman about this,” she said, with tears in her eyes.
Norman was our neighbour, a Scotsman of dour disposition and someone whom Amanda considered bore a strong resemblance to Sean Connery, not that I could see it; he looked more like Donald Duck to me. But an architect, apparently renowned for his unique design of the chancery of the Gambian embassy, an eye-catching monstrosity, in line with the extravagant comportment of that country’s natives. Hence his huge house that dominated our cul-de-sac.
“It’s hardly his fault is it? Anyway, Gregory must be going over the road to get them … maybe he’ll get hit by a car?”
Over the road was a large area of wasteland where some development work was ongoing. There were piles of bricks and breeze blocks, but they seemed to have been there for ages with nothing happening.
Well, blow me, the exact same thing happened that evening. Gregory must have fancied a bedtime snack. I suppose you could hardly blame him. The excitement of the hunt and, after carrying the prey back, the pleasure of the torture and eventual kill. That, versus a tin of Whiskers. Fortunately, Amanda was out at Judo. Well there was no shortage of rabbits over there, I mulled. They must be breeding like, well, er, rabbits.
I’d had a text from Amanda to say she’d be late back. She didn’t say why, so I was surprised at the sound of the door opening and a loud barking. Don’t tell me she’d volunteered to look after someone’s wretched dog!
There she stood with the lead of a stocky black animal held in her hand. “Hello Darling, meet our new pet, Charlie! He’s a Labrador cross.” Its bulging, bloodshot eyes regarded me menacingly.
“What?” I stood, incapable of further speech.
Just then, Gregory came past our patio window, this time rabbit-less, but ambling along as if he owned the place. Maybe he’d eaten them all, I surmised, or maybe they’d grown more wary. Suddenly, Charlie pulled the lead from Amanda’s hand and rushed to the glass, barking furiously. Gregory took one look and his composure vanished. He was gone ‘quicker than you can say Jack Robinson,’ as my old dad used to say, jumping up at a higher section of fence and scrabbling frantically over the top.
Amanda laughed. “I don’t think we’ll be seeing so much of Gregory now!”
Charlie had his paws against the glass, slobbering on it and barking furiously. I decided I’d had enough of screeching rabbits and barking dogs. I felt a sudden urge to go to the pub.

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Labradorescence


labradorite (2)

(750 words)

Debonair, that was how Susan, my friend from Pilates, had always described my husband, Peter – before his accident. Now his blue eyes, roman nose, square chin and neatly cut jet-black hair – dyed, of course – stared back from the life-size photograph propped on the windowsill by the television. How I longed to smash it.
I tried to remember when Peter and I had last felt love for each other? Probably back on that Caribbean cruise eight years ago. Even then, he’d disappeared for two hours one evening, swearing that he’d accidentally got locked in an empty cabin. And then he’d excused himself from our usual love-making session, saying he had stomach ache. As if.
Anyway, then there was Anthea, his secretary, and Mildred, a lady ten years older than him, but ‘wearing well,’ at the golf club. But then Matthew, my Pilates instructor, had begun to show an interest in me. Knowing Peter was ‘playing away,’ I saw no reason to resist and over the years our efforts to pretend we weren’t seeing our lovers grew less and less, until we couldn’t be bothered any more. Peter moved to a guest bedroom and we only made love on birthdays and anniversaries, if then.
We made an effort for appearances’ sake when our children visited. Alistair, 25, worked for a large accountancy firm in Glasgow, and June, 23, taught History and English in Sussex. They had their own lives so it wasn’t often necessary, thankfully.
Then came the fateful day when Ellen, our cleaner, had come running, screaming that my husband was floating in the pool, face down. The autopsy had shown a haemorrhage of the brain. It was assumed that whilst raking leaves from the pool, he’d slipped in a moment of carelessness, banged his head and fallen in, drowning whilst unconscious.
The funeral had been a sad affair, our rural church full to the gills with mourners in black. Many were unknown to me, friends and acquaintances of Peter, I supposed. Of course, one has no real control over who may turn up. Alistair and June took it very badly, June in particular pressing tissues to her eyes for most of the service.
Then, three weeks later, June had presented me with a gift. It felt like a picture and I unwrapped it with eager anticipation, shocked instead to find a life-size portrait of my husband.
“What’s the matter, mum, don’t you like it?” she asked with sadness in her hazel eyes.
“Oh, sorry, dear. Of course, I’m thrilled. I think it just reminded me, er, how much I miss the old rascal.”
“Will you put it by the television, so it’s like he’s still here.”
“Er, yes, of course, it’s a lovely photograph, sweetheart.”
June hugged me tight. “I miss dad so much.”
I hugged her in return, not knowing what to say.
Now I knocked back a glass of Pinot Grigio, cursing Matthew and Peter simultaneously. Mathew and I were supposed to be going out for a meal to celebrate five years of our relationship but Matt had phoned, claiming a bad cold. True, he didn’t sound good, but I remembered the old ‘pepper trick’ that I’d used on more than one occasion myself.
Maybe it was the alcohol but I could have sworn I saw one of Peter’s eyes blink. I longed to turn the photograph face down but June was staying. She’d gone out to the cinema with her boyfriend, Robert. I didn’t know if they would go for a meal afterwards or come straight home, in which case they could be here any minute.
I picked the photograph up and looked at my husband’s handsome features. “You slimeball!” Just as I said it, a log shifted noisily in the fire and simultaneously a petal fell from a tulip in a vase.
I replaced the photograph, feeling spooked. I went to my desk and picked up a labradorite crystal ball, about two inches in diameter, feeling its heaviness in my palm, and watching the grey and black ball sparkle blue, turquoise and orange under the light. It looked like a fairy was shining a torch around inside it, an effect that I’d learnt was called labradorescence.
Then my mind went to a pair of beige Aran-wool socks, of which only one remained, in a drawer of Peter’s socks and underwear. If Matthew was messing me around, maybe I might just find a similar use for the other one.

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Uncle Ambrose


Fritz

(850 words)

Debonair and mysterious, without being especially handsome, that was my uncle – Ambrose Walton, the painter – and the luminary of the family. In the eighties he’d held sway over a morning television audience of would-be artists and doting grandmothers with his black cloak and beret.
“How’s young Sammy?” Uncle Ambrose would ask, on infrequent visits from his current abode in Paris, ruffling my hair with long bony fingers that hurt my scalp. His appearance always seemed to coincide with unspecified absences of my father, I noticed.
A moment later, he’d be unpacking his trunk. I would watch in awe as he unfolded his clothes and hung them in a huge wardrobe made of polished walnut. Green corduroy trousers, burgundy waistcoats, huge knitted sweaters in royal blue, and cloaks of crimson. He was no shrinking violet!
I’d seen some of the old TV programs. Wielding a hand-held palette, Uncle Ambrose would attack a canvas with flamboyant strokes, somehow instantly suggesting the recognisable profile of a film star or celebrity. With bold stabs of red, blue, green and white, the features would be filled in with prowess, to adulation from an audience bedazzled by his technicolour interpretations.
“What does Uncle Ambrose do nowadays, mother?” I’d asked.
“Well, he works for a theatre, painting scenery. And he still paints pictures and sells them through an important gallery. His work is much in demand.”
Well, how much in demand I never did find out, but as for the theatre, I was given an insight when he pulled out from the bottom of his trunk a bundle of brown and green pieces of wood, connected together with black string. I saw what looked like a maroon jester’s hat with a bell on either end, and with a snap of his wrists the whole assembled into a marionette. The mouth was wide and the upper lip almost a beak. The eyes were bright blue and stared into mine, giving me the creeps.
“This is Fritz,” he said, pulling the strings so that the puppet made a little bow. He unfolded a large black-painted board and stood behind it so that the marionette dangled in front, it’s blackened strings hard to discern.
“He loves to dance!” Uncle Ambrose exclaimed, pulling the strings and whistling The Skater’s Waltz, so that the little jester appeared to be dancing with an invisible partner, whilst Uncle jiggled the puppet’s head from side to side such that the bells rang in time to the tune Smiling a smile of self-indulgence, he manipulated the little man through a number of antics – walking in a drunken manner, crawling, dancing a jig, and even doing a handstand.
I clapped enthusiastically.
“You like?”
“Very good, so lifelike!”
“Well, you keep him. A gift for Sammy!”
I looked at the bright blue eyes and the bright blue eyes stared back at me. “Er, thank you.”
That night, I awoke from a dreamless sleep. There was a new moon and the room was pitch black. Why had I awoken? Then I heard it and froze, the quiet jingle of tiny bells. I’d laid Fritz on a sofa at the other side of the room and I had a thought. “Poppy, Poppy?” I called softly, but there was no answering miaow. Instead, I heard what sounded like the quiet tap of little wooden feet on the linoleum and, again, the tinkling sound.
The light switch was on the other side of the room. I fumbled around in vain for the torch that had guided me to bed.
Tap-tap-tap. A little louder now.
I lay there in the blackness, feeling icy cold and breathing fast.
Jingle-jingle.
I started to pray. “Our Father, who art in Heaven, hallowed be thy name …. “
Then something jumped onto my bed with a loud jangle. I felt the weight on my legs, not heavy but abhorrent, then rattling and tinkling towards my chest. “Get off!” I screamed.
Suddenly, I found myself awake with the rising sun lightening the room. Fritz still lay on the sofa where I’d left him.
There was a quiet knock on the door. “It’s uncle Ambrose.”
“Come in.”
He entered, wearing a purple dressing gown; his hair ruffled up like Stan Laurel. “Are you OK, Sammy? I heard you, er, shouting.”
“I had a bad dream. About … Fritz.” I looked towards the puppet and my blood froze. The head had turned and the blue eyes seemed to be staring directly into mine.
The door opened again. “What’s happening?” It was mother in a nightie and dressing gown.
“Oh, Sammy here had a bad dream, that’s all.”
I gestured towards Fritz. “Mother, don’t leave me alone with … that.”
She looked at me with an odd expression. “Go back to sleep Sam, don’t be a baby.”
She smiled at Uncle and took his arm. “Let’s go back to bed.”
Uncle Ambrose turned towards me and nodded towards Fritz. “He’s a rascal that one, but I’m sure you’ll grow to be good friends!”
They left and I swear I heard the sound of quiet laughter from the sofa.

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Daydream Believer


iron lungs

(700 words)

My earliest memory is visiting grandma in a terraced house in a grimy northern town. We’d enter through a glass porch, where cacti and succulents sunbathed under dusty panes, their greenery a stark contrast to the blackened stone walls. In those days there were few cars, the roads largely empty save for the odd Humber Super Snipe, Vauxhall Victor or early versions of the Mini.
We’d sit in the kitchen or lounge. “Come and sit by the stove, Martin, I’ll put the kettle on.” The front room was darkened and almost never used. A photograph of an airman, killed in the war, stood on a dark mahogany sideboard. I was told he was a great uncle but the name meant nothing. It might have been John or Jack. Or Jim even.
I was a sickly child, suffering for years from repeated episodes of nausea and vomiting. Now they call it Cyclical Vomiting Syndrome, CVS, but in those days, they didn’t know what was wrong with me.
We’d listen to the radio whilst Grandma brought us tea and biscuits. She always gave me and my brother presents suitable for children two or three years younger than us, so puzzles took minutes for us to solve, books, an hour or so to read from cover to cover. The Monkees would be on the radio.
Cheer up sleepy Jean
Oh, what can it mean to a
Daydream believer and a
Homecoming queen?
We used to laugh, because grandma’s name was Jean. I never understood what a Homecoming Queen meant, I guess it’d have different connotations now.
It was never mentioned, but upstairs lay a terrible secret. I’d seen it but once. A long metal cylinder, like a mini submarine, standing on a sturdy metal trestle. And something I’ll never forget as long as I live, a man’s head sticking out of the end, the face white, the lips blue and the eyes closed. Grandad.
Oh, I could hide ‘neath the wings
Of the bluebird as she sings
The six-o’clock alarm would never ring
But today, grandma was saying for me to go up and see him. She didn’t say why. I felt scared as I trod the faded carpet up the stairs and along the landing to a room at the end, a room I never went near if I could help it.
I opened the door with trembling hands, closed my eyes and went in. I could hear a sound like bellows. Then a whisper, “Come over here, Martin.”
I walked across the carpet with my eyes still tightly closed, afraid of what I might see.
The voice whispered again, “Open your eyes, Martin, don’t be scared.”
I did so and saw grandad’s face, pale and drawn, and covered in lines. But beneath the bald head his eyes were open and a chartreuse green.
“Hello Grandad,” I found myself whispering back. “Why are you in that … thing?”
“Polio, son, it breathes for me, otherwise ….”
I didn’t know then what that terrible disease did, nor had I heard of an Iron Lung.
“Martin, touch my face, son.”
I stretched out a hand and touched my grandad’s cheeks, they felt rough, stubbled, and cold as death itself.
But six rings and I rise
Wipe the sleep out of my eyes
The shaving razor’s cold and it stings
Then something amazing happened. I felt a sudden warmth in his face, then in my hand and up my arm, infusing into my body, across my chest, and into my other arm, down into my legs and up into my head, my whole being filled with all-encompassing warmth. I looked down at grandad. A smile lay on his thin blue lips but his eyes looked at me unseeing and I was frightened. I’d never seen death before, nor knew what it meant. I ran downstairs to grandma and hugged her whilst she wiped the tears from my eyes.
But from then on, I started to feel better and the vomiting and sickness stopped soon after. I never suffered from it again. To this day I believe that granddad gave me his energy and was able to heal me, his ultimate kindly action on this Earth.

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Billy Bunter’s Christmas Surprise


billy bunter 2

[A tribute to ‘Frank Richards.’]

(2000 words)

Harry Wharton looked at the letter in disbelief. His hopes for Christmas had been shattered.
My dear Harry, we most deeply regret to inform you that we are currently undergoing extensive renovations at Wharton Lodge, and that they will not be completed in time for Christmas. So, your dear mother and I shall have to spend Christmas on a cruise to the tropics. Alas, funds do not allow for you to accompany us, dear boy, so, unfortunately you will have to spend Christmas at Greyfriars School.
Mr. Quelch has kindly agreed to stay on over the holidays to look after you and give you extra Latin tuition, very good of him, I’m sure you’ll agree.
We realise this may be somewhat disappointing and have sent you a substantial postal order and a Fortnum and Mason’s hamper, in the hope that some of your friends may be able to visit you over the Christmas hols.
A Very Merry Christmas from your loving pater and mater.
Harry felt his eyes wet with disappointment. Stuck here on his own with Quelch! And as for extra Latin drills, they were something he needed like a hole in the head!
Just then there was a knock at the door, and before he’d had time to answer, it crashed open, revealing the person who was presently least welcome – Bunter!
“I say old chap,” Bunter blinked furiously, “I’m starving, you know. I was expecting a postal order from my pater but … but it must have been delayed. I haven’t any food, old man. Could you … I mean, could you spare a bit of nosh, I mean, just a few, I mean quite a few, slices of ham perhaps, a loaf … or two, maybe a few cans of beans?”
Just then Hurree Jamset Ram Singh and Frank Nugent popped their heads in. “Hello Harry, is Bunter getting on your nerves?” Then, seeing the distress on Harry’s face. “I say, old man, are you OK?”
Harry’s face was red with rage. “Clear off, Bunter, I’ve got more important things to think about than feeding your fat face!”
“Oh, I say, Wharton, that’s not very generous of you, old chap!”
“The generousfulness is not terrific!” laughed Hurree Jamset Ram Singh.
“I’ll give you three seconds to get out, Bunter. One.”
“I say, Wharton.”
“Two.”
“Just a pork pie … or two, perhaps?”
“Three!”
“I could manage them without mustard. Yarooh!”
A patent-leather shoe tip connected with Bunter’s customary yellow pants, stretched to the limit by his fatness. “Ow, wow, I say, ow, Yarooh!”
“Kick Bunter!” encouraged Frank Nugent.
“The kickfulness is terrific,” laughed the dusky-faced Nabob of Bhanipur, as Bunter was pursued down the corridor by the combined shoe tips of Harry Wharton, Frank Nugent and Hurree Jamset Ram Singh.
“Hic, hec, hoc, hunc, hanc, hoc,” intoned Mr. Quelch, whilst the other half of his mind was preoccupied with ecstatic thoughts of the marvellous works – as he thought – of Virgil, Horace and Ovid.
Harry Wharton stared through the window at the eddying snowflakes, trying to stay awake. What had he done to deserve this? He’d always been decent to the other fellows, perhaps not so much to Bunter, but then the Fat Owl had deserved it, but whilst the other fellows were at home with their loved ones, the Christmas crackers, roast turkey, gift-crammed stockings hung above roaring fires, and presents stacked high beneath sparkling Christmas trees, here he was, being drilled in Latin, in isolation, by probably the least popular master at Greyfriars; Mr. Horace Henry Samuel Quelch!
“Possim, possis, possit, possimus, possitis, possint …”
Harry felt his eyes begin to close. It seemed frightfully warm. His pen ground to a halt.
“Wharton!”
Harry jerked awake, “Oh, y-yes s-sir?”
Mr. Quelch’s tone changed to a more sympathetic one. After all, he’d been young once. Or had he? He couldn’t remember happy school days any more than he could remember not being a master at Greyfriars. “Look, Wharton, I know it’s not your idea of fun being stuck on your own here at Greyfriars, but your father’s a friend of mine. It’s not so long ago he was where you are now, swotting up on his Latin conjugations and declensions, and bending over for ‘six of the best’ on more than one occasion too, I can tell you!”
“Sir?”
“And I’ve given my word to look after you and give you a boost in Latin. I daresay Matron will be doing something special for us on Christmas Day too!”
“Y-yes sir, th-thank you.”
“Now, I want you to write out every tense of habeo, video and venio whilst I attend to matters in my study. All right, boy?”
“Yes, sir.” Harry resolved to do his best.
When Mr. Quelch had gone, he put down his pen and went to the arched, leaded windows, looking out at the snowflakes swirling in the quad. There was an outside light and Harry was reminded of a snow globe he’d had when younger. He smiled at the thought of his former childish pleasure, shaking it and watching the snow falling onto a little Christmas scene – Santa and a reindeer standing outside a lighted cottage amongst pine trees.
Suddenly he gasped and rubbed his eyes. Outside, a procession of monks was heading across the quad! What the dickens were they doing in Greyfriars?
Although he didn’t remember how he got there, Harry found himself outside. All was completely silent. It had stopped snowing and a heavy layer covered the ground. He realised he was wearing no shoes or socks, he could feel the soft, cold snow between his toes, hear it squeaking. In front of him, the line of monks proceeded, whilst his breath blew out like steam in the chilly night air.
Harry shivered and looked around. There were no lights on anywhere now, but a bright half-moon in the sky above, shining down on the crisp snow, gave an eerie light to the scene. He looked around at the dark, empty windows of the ancient school buildings. Nowhere was there any sign of life. Now he became aware of a soft chanting. He listened attentively, feeling a tear in his eye at the emotive words.
Salve festa dies toto venerabilis aevo
Qua Deus infernum vicit et astra tenet ….’
 –
The last monks were passing now and Harry felt emboldened. “Hey, excuse me.” He approached the last monk. “Where are you from?”
But the monk ignored him, continuing to intone the chant until he disappeared from sight, seemingly headed for the ruined chapel beyond the cloisters. Harry stopped and stared in amazement. The snow ahead was pristine, no footprints anywhere!
“Harry, Harry?” It was the soft, friendly voice of matron. The room swam into view.
“H-hello matron, what … what’s going on?” It seemed an effort to speak.
“Mr. Quelch found you outside in the snow! You’d fainted. Thank goodness you hadn’t been out there long, you could have frozen to death! You’ve been suffering from a fever. You’ve been in the infirmary for two days!”
Harry gazed down to see he was wearing pyjamas. “But … but I don’t remember. Just, just the … monks.”
“Monks?” Matron looked surprised, then looked up at Mr. Quelch who had entered the room with someone very familiar.
“Harry my boy! How are you?”
“Hello father, I’m OK, tired.”
“Yes, you will be. You’ve been quite ill, my boy. Matron tells me that you must have been suffering from fever when you went outside, to take your shoes and socks off like that! Thank Heavens Mr. Quelch here found you when he did!”
“Yes, you had a lucky escape, Wharton,” said Mr. Quelch, “and I don’t mean from conjugating those verbs I set you!” He smiled a rare smile.
Harry’s father continued. “Anyway, I’ve got some good news, Harry. The reparations at Wharton Lodge were finished much sooner than expected, so your mother and I have cancelled our cruise and we’ve come to take you home!”
Harry smiled for the first time in a week and a weight lifted from his young shoulders.
The sound of laughter filled the drawing room at Wharton Lodge. A roaring fire blazed in the hearth and the mantlepiece was covered with Christmas cards. In a corner, a Christmas tree towered to the ceiling. It was covered in gold and silver baubles, tinsel, and twinkling lights. Underneath, lay an untidy pile of presents, wrapped in red, green, gold and silver, and with the names of the recipients inscribed on small gift tags.
“I say, Wharton, tell us that story about the monks again!” laughed Robert Cherry, his cheeks living up to his surname.
Harry’s mother entered. “Come on, Robert, I think Harry’s told all there is to tell already! And he’s still not completely recovered from that fever, remember. Anyway, boys, the cook has just told me that dinner will be served in half an hour. There’s a huge turkey, sausages, stuffing, roast potatoes, roast parsnips and … what else? Oh, yes, lots of vegetables!”
There was a groan from Frank Nugent.
“You need to eat your greens, you’re growing lads!” laughed Mrs. Wharton.
Frank Nugent, Robert Cherry, and Hurree Jamset Ram Singh had been invited to join the Whartons for Christmas and now sat at a table playing cards, drinking lemonade and waiting for the much-anticipated call to dinner.
Outside a motor car door slammed and the doorbell rang.
“That’s odd, we’re not expecting anyone else, are we mother?” said Harry.
“Not as far as I know.”
“I’ll go.” He walked down the long hallway and past the grandfather clock, opening the door to a scene reminiscent of his snow globe, but the figure standing in the billowing snow wasn’t Father Christmas but … Bunter!
“I, I say Wharton, old chap. I mean, can … can I come in?”
“What, which, why?” Harry laughed.
“Don’t be a beast, Wharton! It’s snowing for one thing. Look, Wharton, Bunter Court’s flooded. Some pipes froze and burst. Mother and father have gone on a walking holiday in Africa and I’m stuck on my own!” Fallen snow now covered Bunter’s short wiry black hair, making him look like an albino.
“Well, thanks for calling and letting me know, Bunter, I’m sure you’ll find something to eat in the pantry at Bunter Court. Merry Christmas!” He went to shut the door to find it wouldn’t close. Bunter’s fat foot was in the way!
“I say, H-Harry, old man, you … you wouldn’t shove an old school chum out into the snow at Christmas?”
Harry thought of his own narrow escape. At this very moment he could be eating Christmas dinner with Quelch and Matron in Greyfriars refectory, listening to Quelch telling boring stories of ex-pupils, and quoting Virgil! “Oh, all right, come on in, Bunter, I daresay we can find you some Christmas grub!”
Bunter came in, wiping his wig of snow off onto the hall carpet. “Oh, I say, that … that’s good of you, Wharton. I wouldn’t want much, just a slice or two of turkey, well maybe three or five, and some roast spuds wouldn’t go amiss, and …”
“Don’t worry Bunter, I think cook’s done enough to feed the five thousand!”
Just then a car hooted.
“Oh, sorry, Wharton, old chap, you couldn’t lend me a few shillings for the taxi fare could you, old man, well perhaps a quid or two?”

“The cheekfulness is terrific,” laughed The Nabob of Bhanipur, who had just appeared. He handed Bunter a five-pound note. “Give this to the taxi driver, all of it, mind! Wish him a Very Merry Christmas from us all!” He stood at the door watching to make sure Bunter did as instructed, as the Fat Owl trudged back to the cab in the whirling snow, whilst Harry joined the rest of his chums and family in the warmth and laughter of the drawing room. Even with the unanticipated presence of one William George Bunter, it looked like it was going to be a happy Christmas after all!

 


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Fried Onions


Down-and-out

(800 words)

“Just because my father is a Classics professor at Oxford, doesn’t mean I want to wear Guarinos lilies in my hair and retire to the tents of Persia!” exclaimed Helena.
Her husband, Stephen, sighed. “I know, darling, but surely you could aim higher than doling out food to tramps!”
Helena would go out every Friday night to meet Tom, a man who lived in an old railway signal box. He’d collect provisions from supermarkets, stuff that was beyond their sell-by date, and that they daren’t re-date. Let the tramps and ‘down-and-outs’ take the risk. Tom, Helena and sometimes a companion or two would drive a converted van out to a railway bridge and, beneath it, give out cups of soup, burgers, and re-heated chips to the down-and-outs who existed there. She felt a rising anger. “Aim higher than helping those in need, you mean?”
“Why don’t they want to work, then?”
“They’re human beings, Stephen, like you and me, just that they’ve fallen on hard times.”
“Hard times, pfft! Let them get a nine to five job like everyone else!”
“Everyone I know works ten-hour night shifts or they’re self-employed and work every hour God sends.”
“You know some odd people then.”
“Yeah, nurses and restaurateurs. Weirdos.”
Stephen turned back to his Daily Telegraph; Helena’s sarcasm lost to the editorial column.
It was almost dark when the van pulled up beside a blackened arch under a railway bridge. Tonight, there were just Helena and Tom. Helena cut the engine. There was the sound of a distant train, clattering into the distance, and a murmur of traffic, then … silence. Outside, she lowered a flap in the side of the van to form a counter, whilst Tom went around inside, checking urns, griddles, and hot plates. Light from the interior spilled out to form a benevolent yellow pool, nullifying a glaring spotlight above on the bridge.
Tom tipped a basinful of fried onions onto a hotplate and soon the smell and sizzling filled the chilly autumn air. The odour began to radiate outwards, and like drops of magical essence on the breeze, began to draw shadows, blackened and shuffling, out of the darkness.
“You know this could be our last month,” he said.
Helena nodded as figures approached, heads down, hands stuffed into pockets of heavy black coats. The van needed a thorough overhaul, refitting and repairs. They’d been quoted nearly eight thousand pounds. She knew that she and Stephen could afford it. She’d mentioned it in passing, to a shrug and a change of subject. Paying with her own money wasn’t an option either. Stephen would find out and go ballistic. It could even mean the end of their marriage. Maybe that wouldn’t be such a bad thing, she thought, but with two young children, it didn’t seem an option right now.
She looked up into a pair of translucent grey eyes in a lined face, framed by a straggly grey beard. She recognized the man. They said his name was Andy and that he was once a musician in a band, a household name in the dim and distant past. “Hello.”
He grimaced, showing yellow and blackened teeth. “No soup, just burger and chips.”
“Would you like onions?”
“Yup.”
Behind her, Tom began shovelling steaming chips into a carton. She noticed a strange look in the tramp’s pale eyes, as if he wanted to say more, then he turned away, standing to one side to let the next ghost come forward.
“Stephen, I know you’re not going to like this, but I have to ask a favour. You might want to sit down.”
Stephen gave Helena a quizzical look and plumped himself down onto the emerald green leather of a sumptuous armchair.
The phone rang and Helena answered.
“Helena, it’s Tom, look, can you speak?” Tom had met Stephen once and decided once was probably enough.
“Er, I’m with Stephen, we’re just about to discuss it.”
Her husband looked at her with an expression she didn’t recognise.
“Look Helena, there’s no need. Someone sent a banker’s draft for eight grand this morning!”
“What! Who?”
“I don’t know, but it’s kosher. There’s just a printed note. It says, ‘Not everything is as it seems, yours, A. Downandout.’”
Helena felt like she wanted to jump in the air and punch the lampshade with joy. “I’ve got to go, Tom, thanks for letting me know. Thanks so much.” She turned to her husband.
He raised his eyebrows.
“That was Tom.”
“So I gathered.”
“Er, he wanted to discuss going out on Saturdays instead of Fridays, that’s all I wanted to talk to you about.”
To her surprise, Stephen got up, came over and hugged her, kissing her cheek. “That’s fine darling, whatever you want.”
.

 


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Fire Words


fireworks 5

(1000 words)

“There you go, Jack, be careful with it for Heaven’s sake.”
I took the proffered Terminator 50 Shot Barrage, with trembling hands. “Thank you, uncle Stan!” I ran with it towards the bonfire and into my dad’s arms. “Look what uncle Stan gave me!”
“Be careful with that thing, for God’s sake!” Dad gestured towards a far corner of our garden where several dark shapes moved, torches flashing mysteriously. “Look, take it over to your cousin Mark, he’ll check if it’s suitable and help to light it.”
One tall, lanky shape was the loathed silhouette of Mark. Whenever no one was looking, he’d say, “How’re you going, Jack,” and either punch me on the upper arm or pinch the skin on my forearm. I swear, sometimes after an evening with Mark, my arms were literally black and blue. I’d complained to mum and dad but they just said, “Don’t make a fuss, he’s only playing. Don’t be a softie.”
Softie! My arms really hurt!
I took the firework to the opposite corner instead, and with my own torch, stolen from the Scouts, read the label. WARNING. I ignored the rest, spotting the fuse. It was only a firework after all.
Five earth-shattering minutes later, I was in the dog house, along with all the local dogs. Now I had a vague idea what it must have been like to have fought on the Somme.
“Jack, come here!” It was Dad beckoning me indoors. He was unfastening his belt. It wasn’t Remembrance Day, but it was a day my backside wouldn’t forget in a hurry!

Benny was a man in trouble. Open prison meant a chance to escape, a chance to break free in the hope that the police wouldn’t be that bothered. He hadn’t killed or raped anyone at the end of the day. But to his astonishment, there was his mugshot on local news, and not a pleasant one at that either. They’d told him not to smile, but he looked positively evil!
A knock came at the apartment door. Benny looked through a spy hole and saw Julie’s toad-like face, distorted by the lens. He opened the door.
She gave him a peck on the lips, admiring his athletic physique. “Hiya, Ben, I hope these’ll be OK?” She handed him a holdall.
Inside, he unwrapped a package and took the lid off. Mmm. The delicious smell of gunpowder. “Sweet, Jules, thank you.”
“You will be careful, won’t you?”
Benny laughed. “Course I will.”
Julie left and he began to cut the fireworks up, extracting the precious black powder and tipping it into a large glass jar. Using skills he’d learned in prison, he attached some wires and a battery. He noticed his hands were shaking and sweaty. He put the jar on a windowsill, by a partially open window, and reached for his cigarettes. He sat in an armchair and lit one, sucking the smoke in and going over his plan of extortion one more time.
He heard a miaow and a door pushed open. Julie’s cat, Hans. It jumped onto his lap and began to massage his thigh, drooling onto his trousers. Its claws passed easily through the thin material. “Hey, get off!” Benny stood up, sending the cat flying. It jumped onto the windowsill, knocking the glass jar off onto a low marble-topped table.
As if in slow motion, Benny watched as the glass shattered and wires that weren’t supposed to connect, connected. There was a quiet ‘whump’ and the carpet became a sea of fire, the curtains two blazing pillars.
Outside, flames from the open window began to lick the building’s cladding.

A van pulled up and I took delivery of several large brown boxes, covered in stickers. Danger – Fireworks. I took them out onto the patio. Rebecca was there, unpacking crates of streamers, banners and lights. “Put those in the shed, Jack, out of the way.”
“What d’you think I’m doing?” I piled them in the shed, and closed the door. I felt safe in the confined space. I looked through the window at Rebecca faffing around with a long stream of coloured light bulbs. Fortunately, Roland, my future father in law – in theory – would be arriving later to help set everything up. In the other direction was a long lawn, and beyond it, a copse and a small lake. Well, if our marriage didn’t go ahead, I could kiss this little lot goodbye.
Back on the patio, I pecked Rebecca on the cheek. “Well, a grand spent on fireworks, money down the drain.”
She laughed, bright blue eyes and dimpled cheeks reminding me that I was getting betrothed to a special lady.
“Or up in smoke! Don’t be miserable, Jack, it’s a special occasion, a very special occasion.”
“I remember when I was a kid, my uncle Stan played a trick on me. Gave me a display firework at a family bonfire night. There must have been a hundred bangs – scared half the dogs in the district to death!”
“Well, there aren’t many dogs around here, and all the neighbours will either be here with us or hunkering down with their sedated pooches!”
I thought of the news the other night. “Did you hear any more about that tower block fire?”
“Yes, it took a couple of days to put out. A lot of people stayed in their flats and got burned to death.”
“That’s a pity.”
Rebecca grimaced. “Some stupid idiot playing with fireworks, they said.”
“There’s always one, isn’t there?”
“Seems the cladding on the building was flammable.”
“What crazy idiot thought of that!”
A car hooted and a blue Mercedes appeared. A slim man with a lean, handsome face got out, grinning like a Cheshire Cat.
I gasped in astonishment. “Benny, you Son of a Gun, glad you could make it, we thought you were ‘on holiday’!”
“Not anymore, I’m a free man!”
Rebecca laughed. “Come on, Jack, let’s all have a little drink to celebrate Benny’s release!”
.

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Great Aunt Delilah’s Blanket


kid in blanket

(700 words)

Papers – newspapers and magazines – were deposited onto the kitchen table by my ten-year-old granddaughter, Madeleine. “Granny, I got your things from the shop!”
I looked up. “That was sweet of you, dear. Come and sit by the fire.”
“Granny, tell me the story about Great Aunt Delilah’s Blanket!”
“I’ve already told you.”
“That was ages ago, I can’t remember!”
We both sat by the fireside in my farm cottage. “Well, my grandmother, that would be your great-great-grandmother, had a sister called Delilah. So that was my Great Aunt, you see. Anyway, it was said she had healing powers and many sick people would go to her house and come away feeling well again.”
“Could she have healed Daddy d’you think?”
“I don’t know sweetheart, maybe. Anyway, it got out that she had a special blanket. It was made of wool and it had a large diamond shape in the middle. The blanket was white and the diamond was blue and there were two lines, very close together. Well, they said that if you were wrapped in the blanket, then you’d become well again.”
“How long did you have to sit wrapped in it?”
I laughed. “You’ll grow up to be a scientist, Maddie! I don’t know, five minutes, ten minutes, half an hour, all night. Who knows? All I know is that people were cured. It was in the local papers of the time, and in Great Aunt Delilah’s diary too.”
“What happened to it?”
“Well, that’s the strange thing. When Great Aunt Delilah died, she left it in her will to my mother, along with all her linen – sheets, blankets, bedcovers, that sort of thing. Well, my mother – your great-grandmother – just put it in a cupboard along with the rest of the stuff and I don’t know if was used much, certainly not for healing anyway.”
“Did she know it could heal people?”
“I don’t think she believed in any of that and likely didn’t want to try in case it did.”
“But what about all the people who could have been healed?”
“Some people are strange, Maddie, not like other folk. You’ll find out for yourself.
Anyway, when my mother died, it was left to me, along with some other bits and pieces. So, one day I was looking through some old chests and there it was – the Healing Blanket! And it still looked new, no marks on it at all! Look, let me make some tea and I’ll tell you the rest of the story.”
“Can I have orange squash please, granny?”
“Of course you can, dear.”
When I came back to the fireside with a tray of tea, orange squash and biscuits, Madeleine was writing in a small book. “What are you writing, sweetheart?”
“I’m writing a prayer to Jesus, that daddy can be made well again.”
“Put it under your pillow, dear, and I’m sure your prayers will be answered.”
Madeleine nodded and closed the book. She reached out for her orange squash and looked up expectantly. “So, what happened with the blanket?”
“Well, I realized what it was, so whenever any of my children had a cold or a cough or a pain somewhere, I would wrap them in the blanket when they went to bed, and the next morning they’d wake up as right as rain!”
Madeleine’s bright eyes widened.
“Anyway, I took to carrying it around in my car, in case I met anyone who needed healing.”
Madeleine spoke excitedly. “Do you still have it then – for daddy?”
“No, one day my car was stolen, and that was it. I never saw the blanket ever again.”
“Granny, do you know where the blanket came from?”
“No, I don’t, sweetheart, but I want to show you something.” I went to a bookcase and took out a large leather-bound bible and brought it back to the fireplace. I turned to a colour plate of a watercolour. “Look at this, sweetheart.”
The picture showed Jesus and some disciples around a table. In the background was a large fire, and hanging nearby, as if to dry, a white blanket with a double-lined blue diamond shape clearly visible upon it.

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Letters from Reuben


Love LettersBox_large-story

(700 words)

Papers, papers, papers. Help, I’m drowning in a sea of papers! I really must do something about it!
Following advice from a critical but well-meaning friend, I make up a dozen archive boxes and number them with a large chisel-nibbed marker pen. OK, I can now identify a box at twenty paces.
I start to go around my apartment, dumping papers and associated junk unceremoniously into the boxes. Box one, a stack of writing magazines that have been cluttering my desk for months. Why don’t I read them? Or write, for that matter? Oh, I don’t have time, of course. Well I guess I could quit watching endless re-runs of Seinfeld, but, well, I wouldn’t want to break the habit of a lifetime. Anyway, out of sight, out of mind!
Into box two goes the rubbish off my kitchen table, ‘to do’ lists, piles of receipts – why don’t I just throw them? Oh, I know, I want to get the points put on my loyalty card. Except that I don’t have one. So, they’re sitting there waiting for me to go back to the supermarket, queue at the customer service desk, ask for an application form, send it off, then phone to have the points retrospectively added. All for a few measly bucks. Into the box! I can throw them out when the allowed time has expired, barring the miracle of me actually getting one of their goddamned cards. In the meantime, I don’t have to feel guilty.
Box three is stuff off the top of my filing cabinet, piles of unopened letters and bank statements. Why don’t I request paperless statements? Well, do you know anyone who’s had a computer not blow a resistor or whatever? Exactly! Then, how do you access your statements? You’re stuffed. Like a piglet in a chestnut factory.
The phone rings. “Hello? … yes, I’m doing it right now, Shelina! Whaddya mean, voice recorder, card index file! … look, I’m going to the ballet with my mother tonight, I haven’t got time for anything like that … look sorry, I gotta go, hun, speak to you later!”
I open a draw and the contents go into box number four. Letters from Reuben. I’m not brave enough to put them in the shredder. But I didn’t see a future for us. Call me weird but I didn’t like the things he asked me to do. I didn’t like the taste or the smell. Of those blue cheese and sauerkraut pretzels he was always eating, I mean.
Then there’s something else in that draw that goes into box number four too. Something I won’t mention here but something that makes me go “oooooOOOOOHHHH!!” But, well, I’m a spiritual girl now and I don’t like the idea of angels and spirit guides and what have you, seeing me do ‘that.’ I can live without it. Well, for a week or two. Maybe. We’ll see.”
My computer beeps. A friend from over the pond, a crummy little country, but, hey, they’ve got stuff we haven’t. Congratulating themselves over their queen and beef heaters and the Beatles. And, they invented football too, though a weird kind where you can’t pick the ball up! I’ll reply tomorrow. Like I say, I’ve gotta meet mom soon and those tickets weren’t cheap!
Into box number six I throw stuff from my dressing table and bedside cabinet, I’ve got more makeup than Emmett Kelly, for Chrissakes!
Finally, I gaze in awe at two neat stacks of six boxes, discretely tucked away in a corner. Maybe I could make up another three or four boxes? I look out of the window, down onto apartments below and feel a glow of pride. I’ll bet theirs are all cluttered, not like mine!
The phone goes again. “Hi Mom, yes, I’m just about to have a quick shower and get ready … yeah, I’m excited, really looking forward to it … yeah, of course I’ve got the ticket! … it’s right here … well, it was right here … hold on.”
My eyes flick from the empty surfaces to the pile of boxes and I feel a sick feeling in my stomach. “You say you’re picking me up in thirty minutes, Mom?”
.

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To purchase the stories on To Cut a Short Story Short up to December 2018 in paperback, Kindle, eBook, and audio-book form, and for news on new titles, please see Shop.

If you are interested in joining a fortnightly 600 word story group please contact me and I’ll send details.

Don’t forget to check out some of the other stories on this blog. There are over 280!