The Diogenes Syndrome


(750 words)

Saunders – no one seemed to know his Christian name, or even if he had one – lived in our village, and was reasonably infamous. They said that when sober he was intelligent, well spoken, and witty. He came from a very wealthy family, a household name indeed. When drunk, however, he didn’t wash or shave, was without principles of any kind and would shout vile insults at innocent passersby, whether he knew them or not.
Unfortunately, he was nearly always drunk.
Well, I’d heard stories about him – hurling abuse in the local pub (before being banned), somehow storing a large boat in his back garden which squeezed through his neighbour’s gates with just millimetres to spare, keeping rubbish in sacks in the garden, and barging into his neighbour’s house, dressed only in underpants, when the neighbour was entertaining guests. I’d heard other stories, even more outrageous, but had no way of knowing how true they were. I rather hoped they weren’t. Despite all this, I’d never clapped eyes on the man, even though he lived but a stone’s throw from my house!
“Saunders lives in the left-hand cottage of the two semi-detached cottages, to the right of the archway houses,” my neighbour had said, referring to an archway between two tiny houses, both of which extended above the archway.
“There aren’t any semi-detached cottages!” I’d exclaimed.
He explained, to my utter amazement, that a small house was, in fact, two very small, semi-detached residences, although not discernible from the front, as they were largely obscured by high, unkempt hedges. The right-hand cottage had a drive, a gate, and a rear extension, whereas Saunders’ half had no discernible place of ingress. Hence my bewilderment.
Well, it so happened that the house on the right of the archway was inhabited by a blind lady, Mary, and I’d promised to drop an audiobook on CD round for her. Knowing that she didn’t like to answer the door, I simply posted them through her letter box, assuming she would open the envelope, put a CD on and realise what it was and who it was from. But as I heard the CDs hit the floor I turned to my left and stared, then stared some more. Mary seemed to have no garden at all and the lady on the opposite side of the arch had a neat little patio garden with a gravel area and shrubs in pots.
But the garden that extended in front of my eyes, as far as I could see, I now realised belonged to Saunders’ tiny semi-detached cottage!
I took a few steps through the archway and past the patio garden. I could now see the back of Saunders’ house. The door was open and I didn’t have to go any nearer to realise it opened onto an extremely uninviting kitchen. I could see piles of washing up and a bucket of scraps propping open the door, where flies were busy buzzing around, laying eggs no doubt, for their broods of squirming white maggots.
Emboldened, I walked further. This man had the Diogenes Syndrome – a compulsion to hoard rubbish, no concern about personal appearance, and an anti-social attitude – in spades!
The garden was perhaps two hundred feet long, stretching down to the back of a neat lawn belonging to a brand new six-bedroom house in a swanky cul-de-sac. Every square foot of it seemed to be covered in bags and yet more bags of rubbish, old plastic piping, broken garden chairs, metal poles, old car tyres, bits of car engine, exhaust pipes, a rainbow in a pool of oil. A sea of the most incredible junk, hidden, unsuspected, in our otherwise picturesque village.
I noticed some buildings amongst the rubbish. I had an urge to look inside them, but Saunders’ wrath wasn’t something I wanted to entertain. Not hard to imagine what they contained though!
As I headed back through the archway, a middle-aged man with jowl-length grey hair, a large grey moustache and matching stubble was coming the other way. He was swinging a Tesco bag. Judging from the clinking and shape of the contents they were of the drinkable and intoxicating kind. As we passed, he stopped and stared at me. “Good morning, do I know you?” he asked in a posh, BBC-announcer-type voice.
Reeling from the whisky on his breath, I kept walking. “No!” I called, without looking back. There was no response. Saunders was already on his second bottle of the day.

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Opportunity Knocked

(800 words)

It was hot, the hottest day Benjamin Bannister could remember. He wiped his brow yet again with a dirty rag, wet through from previous wipings. The sun streamed through the cab windscreen and the air blowing in through the open windows was oven hot. It wasn’t helped by the fact he’d been shunting goods along the dock all morning without a break and the engine had been running non-stop. He felt sweat crawling down his back as he began yet another run down to the loading dock. Christ, how big were the holds on this goddamn ship, The Orion? He crossed himself. Jesus, let this be the last run before lunch!
Suddenly, he slammed the brakes on. There, lying on the track about a hundred metres away was what appeared to be a young woman, wearing a white dress and hat. The shunter ground to a halt and he jumped out. A blast of roasting summer air hit him in the face. Man, was it hot!
He approached the woman. Her eyes were open. He thought she was the prettiest thing he’d ever seen. Early twenties, huge blue eyes, high cheekbones and full lips.
She gave a weak smile, showing pearly white teeth. Her dazed vision took in a hulk of a man, wearing shorts and a fluorescent yellow jacket, beads of sweat glistening on a bare, muscled chest. His face wasn’t young, but kind-looking. “Hi,” she murmured.
“Hi, I’m Benjamin, you can call me Ben. Let me help you. This heat’s somethin’ else ain’t it?” He bent down and picked her up under the knees and behind her neck, recoiling from the burning concrete beneath her. He could smell a faint floral perfume on the hot air. To a man who spent his days driving a shunter and lifting heavy boxes, she felt like a leaf. A young, vibrant, yearning leaf. He carried her across the dockside to a restroom, stumbling on a coil of rope lying there for no reason but to trip him up.
Inside it was cool. Thank God! The air-con at the limit and a ceiling fan whirling around like a chopper on a deadly mission in ‘Nam.
“Hiya, Ben, who’ve you got there?” said Koby, a workmate, a man in his thirties and blacker than the ace of Spades. He looked concerned. “She OK?”
“She’ll be fine. Guess she fainted cos of this damned heat, though she shouldn’t have been where she was. Guess she was taking a shortcut.”
“Hang on, I know this gal. It’s Ellie-Rose Medina! The gal from Gangland Grafters on TV!”
The girl smiled weakly. “Do you have some water please?”
Benjamin deposited the young woman in an armchair, transfixed by the sight of the moist outline through her lemon-coloured panties, before she crossed her legs, whether aware of his gaze or not, he couldn’t tell.
He felt his body reacting. Get a grip for Christ’s sake! It was this goddamn incessant heat, he told himself, going to the tap and pouring a glass. “Will you be OK; do you want me to call a doctor?”
She gave a weak laugh, “I’ll be OK, I was just trying to avoid the autograph hunters and fans, I wasn’t in the mood. That doesn’t sound too good, I guess.”
Koby laughed, “It ain’t somethin’ me and Ben have a problem with! But I guess I can understan’”
They sat and chatted as Ellie-Rose recovered, telling them stories of filming Gangland Grafters and the creeps who tried to molest her on a daily basis.
Suddenly, the door crashed open, letting in a blast of baking hot air, and there stood Marvin Haltermeir, the loading-master. He was chomping on a cigar like he wanted to eat it and his eyes were almost popping out of his head. They took in the sight of a pretty, young, giggling woman and the two dock-hands, semi-naked in their shorts and open vests. “What the flying fuck are you two morons playing at? The Orion’s sailing in thirty minutes and that last load’s sitting at the back of your fucking shunter!”
Benjamin answered. “I’m sorry, sir, this young woman had fainted and ….”
“Listen I don’t give a fuck about her – sorry ma’am, no offence. You’d better beat the record for this last load, Bannister, or you can pick up your papers!” He exited, slamming the door behind him.
Ellie-Rose smiled. “He seems a bit upset. Well, you can bust a gut for him or I can get you a job as an extra on Gangland Grafters. Your call.” She winked at Benjamin.
Without a word, Koby hurried from the room, heading for the abandoned shunter, leaving the two of them alone together.

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Just One Little Crumb

witch 2

(1700 words)

Little Oswald Cobley was heading home through the woods from his school in the village of Ballykenny. He whistled happily and swung his school bag, looking forward to telling his mother how he and his classmates had formed a ‘band’ in the music lesson, playing on pots and pans from the kitchens, whilst their teacher, Mr. Dumderry, had accompanied them on the bagpipes, to the squawking of the school parrot, Spike.
Suddenly, he was startled by the appearance of an old lady dressed in black. She had a long beaky nose with a conspicuous wart on the end and several long hairs growing from her chin. She held a plate containing a cake and gave a smile, showing two large gaps among her crooked teeth. “Hello, young man, I expect you’re hungry after a long day at school. Try a piece of my cake, freshly baked today!”
Oswald remembered his mother’s advice. “Never accept food from strangers.”
“Why not mother?” he’d asked.
“Well, if you buy it from Mr. Barmwell, the baker, you know he will have checked the ingredients and made sure they were all tip-top and wholesome. If you buy food from a shop, well they have important people who will have made sure the food is healthy and safe to eat.”
“Yes, mother.”
“But a stranger, well, they could have put poison in it, or worse!”
Oswald scratched his head. “What’s worse than poison!”
“Ah, well, there are potions that would turn you into a giant cockroach, or make your arms shrink to nothing, or turn everything you say into a scream of pain, or ….”
“No, I won’t mother,” Oswald interrupted hastily, not wishing to hear further horrors.
But now the wicked witch, for such was she, held out a crumb from the most delicious-looking cake Oswald had ever seen.
“My mother said I mustn’t accept food from strangers.”
“Ah, one little crumb can’t do any harm, surely?”
Oswald, hesitated, then took the crumb from the old woman’s wrinkled hand and popped it into his mouth. “Mmm. This is gorgeous!”
“Here, have some more, young sir.” The witch handed over a slice which Oswald snatched from her hand, quickly stuffing as much of it into his mouth as he could.

The following morning, Oswald’s mother let out a scream when she went to wake her son. For sticking out some distance beyond the bottom of the bed were Oswald’s feet!
“What’s the matter, mother?” cried Oswald, springing out of bed and knocking his head on the ceiling.
“Oh, my son, you have turned into a giant in the night! Did you take food from a stranger?”
Oswald looked down on his mother, feeling sheepish. “Just a slice of cake, mother. A very delicious cake!” His mouth watered at the memory.
“Wait, I will fetch the priest, he will know what to do!”

But the priest didn’t know what to do and after a few days Oswald was as tall as his parent’s house. He could no longer go to school or read books so the teachers rigged up a projector and a giant screen on which they projected his homework.
But Oswald grew and grew. Soon he was the height of two houses, then three houses, then four.
To eat, Oswald had to lie down in the meadow and large quantities of cooked food were dropped into his mouth by helicopter. But before long, he couldn’t lie in the meadow without crushing nearby houses with his enormous feet. He could no longer wear shoes or normal clothes, just a robe made from huge sheets.
So, he would feel cold and this made him angry. He would stamp around, crushing cars and buildings with his bare feet, and shouting so loudly it would burst people’s eardrums.

“What shall we do, sir?” The Head of the Army asked the Prime Minister.
“Well, I’m sorry to say, Oswald has become a menace. Even when he’s in a good mood he’s accidentally squashing people and knocking buildings down. There aren’t many places left in England where he can go without destroying things.”
“Well, how about sending him to Scotland, sir?”
“Yes, that would be good, there are miles and miles of moors and mountains and it wouldn’t matter if he crushed a few sheep with those gigantic feet.”
But getting him there was the problem. Oswald had grown to the size of a small skyscraper and a fleet of helicopters was now required to bring cooked animal carcasses, truckloads of vegetables and barrels of water to his mouth.

However, Oswald had other ideas. He had grown and grown until, at the age of eight, and a height of half a mile, he was the tallest, naughtiest, and most destructive child in the world – and then some!
Although gigantic, he still had a child’s sense of humour, so took pleasure in squatting and depositing steaming, smelly turds, a block long, onto roads, causing major tailbacks around the country.
Likewise, he enjoyed spraying huge showers of urine, which cascaded down onto shops, houses and office blocks alike, soaking unlucky passersby.
He was too big to wear clothes and although only a child, his penis was now forty feet long which caused embarrassment and amusement in equal proportions as he strode around the country, causing minor earthquakes wherever he went.

“It’s too risky to feed Oswald any more, sir,” said the Head of the Army to the Prime Minister at a hastily-called emergency meeting. “Oswald sneezed and caused two transport choppers to crash, with the loss of twenty soldiers!”
“Hmm. Yes, Oswald is a problem all right. I’d like to use the nuclear option but it wouldn’t be fair on the public who got vaporised or burned beyond recognition.”
“Listen, sir, I’ve an idea that might just do the trick.”
The Head of the Army continued and the Prime Minister began to smile.
And so, it was decided. A giant PA aboard a transplant plane was flown close to Oswald’s head and a message was broadcast, giving him an ultimatum. Go to Africa or be attacked by the Royal Air Force!
So, the very next afternoon, Oswald began his trek to Africa. He waded across the English Channel in five minutes, causing a mini-tsunami along the coasts, and was soon striding down through France, Spain and some other unimportant countries.
He would snack on herds of sheep and cattle, popping them into his mouth and munching on them like crisps. For water, he carried an enormous pipe which he’d found on a building site, and which he would use to suck up water from lakes and ponds.
But this diet played havoc with Oswald’s stomach and he had to squat several times to spray brown-orange diarrhoea over town and country alike. The people cursed Oswald, who, once a world-famous attraction, was now almost-universally hated.
Dieu merci, il est trop jeune pour se masturber!” exclaimed the King of France as a thunderous rain of smelly yellow urine crashed down onto his palace and gardens.

Striding along at nearly five hundred miles an hour, it only took two days for Oswald to reach the Sahara, where he amused himself by kicking some pyramids around, much to the dismay of the locals who found this ‘tourist’ too big and strong to fleece.
So, Oswald was free to stamp around the Sahara Desert, which was nice and warm and, to him, like a giant sandbox. Here, he grew to be almost a mile high, taking the occasional foray south to snack on herds of impala, antelopes and zebras.
But Oswald was not happy. He missed his mother and father and his schoolfriends. Now he had no one. He was unable to talk or communicate with anyone. His voice was too loud and his size meant it was hard to approach people without squashing them. And it was very cold in the desert at night. He would lie, shivering and crying, keeping the natives of the Sahara awake. But they didn’t really count, so to all intents and purposes, Oswald was isolated.

Then, after a week in the desert, the second part of the general’s cunning plan came into play. Oswald was stomping around the desert, gazing out to Morocco in the North and thinking to drain a nearby oasis, being rather thirsty, when he spotted something moving – a tiny light, low down in the distance.
It came nearer and nearer and now Oswald heard the high-pitched scream of engines. He felt frightened. But after all, he was a mile high – invincible!
Then the tiny light began to rise above the desert, higher and higher, until it was level with his waist. Closer and closer it sped towards him, until, like an angry wasp, it buzzed at his chest. Oswald tried to swat it away but missed, then he felt a sharp pain. That was the last thing Oswald ever remembered. He was enveloped in a huge fireball as a five-megaton nuclear warhead exploded in his ribcage. The explosion was so enormous it could be seen from almost every country in Africa and the heat was so intense that Oswald was completely vaporised, along with some local tribesmen – ‘unavoidable collateral damage.’ So, there wasn’t even the need to dispose of a hundred-ton corpse and a day of celebration was held all over the world.
Of course, some said that the action was cruel and wanted the Prime Minister to be prosecuted by the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children and there were violent demonstrations – as there always were about anything. But the Prime Minister would have none of it and went on television to give a speech about personally having saved the world from a terrible menace.
And as for the oh-so-wicked witch who had started it all. Well, whilst listening to the radio and the chaos her potion had wreaked, she cackled so much that she suffered a fatal heart attack. Her evil potions now stood on a shelf, in innocent-looking, anonymous glass bottles, waiting for the day when they would perhaps be found by an unsuspecting school child and, maybe, tasted once more.

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.

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(1500 words)

My mobile rang, making me jump. I looked at the clock. 11 p.m. Who the hell was ringing me so late? Let them phone back tomorrow! Suddenly, for no real reason, other than curiosity, I snatched the phone up and touched ‘answer,’ barely glancing at the incoming number.
“Hello, is that Graham?” A woman’s voice. She sounded quite young.
“Yes, who’s that?”
“It’s Joanne. Joanne Ellis. I work in the QC lab at Rylands. We’ve met a couple of times at meetings recently. I have … ginger hair.”
I remembered her. Quite attractive. Glasses. Long auburn hair. Didn’t say much. My interest perked up. “What can I do for you, Joanne? It’s … er, rather late.”
“I’ve discovered something. I need to speak to you. It’s important.”
“Can’t you tell me over the phone?”
“No … no, I need to speak in person. Please ….” She sounded anxious.
I poured boiling water onto fresh ground coffee, inhaling the feisty aroma. 11.30 p.m. Joanne should be here any minute. What the hell did she want? I couldn’t get my head around it. Unless someone had tried it on with her inappropriately. Molested her. That was the last thing I needed.
“Darling, are you coming to bed?”
It was Becky, my wife. Her blonde hair was ruffled and her heavy breasts pressed through her thin nightie.
I felt my body stir. “No, someone from work called. They’re calling round any time now. … they want to talk. It’s urgent. I don’t know what it’s about. Some neurotic woman. I’ll get rid of her as soon as I can.” I kissed Becky’s warm nose. “Love you.”
But Joanne didn’t call round and she wasn’t at work the next day. In fact, she wasn’t at work ever again.
Becky and I sat in the lounge whilst Sam, our little boy, sat painting at a small easel. He had just turned three. Becky was talking about her friend Zoe’s wedding arrangements. I watched Sam paint a circle with two dots and a curved line inside. A face with two eyes and a smile, I presumed. Clever boy. Then a ‘body.’
“Graham, have you been listening?” Becky’s irritated voice cut in.
“What, er, sorry, no I’ve just been watching Sam paint the same line eight times.” The ‘body’ of the stick figure was now a soggy blue mess. “Did you give him his Zyproxin?”
“You know I don’t like giving him drugs. He’s so young.”
I sighed. “Look, doctors know best. Mix him up some Kaleidoscope milk and give him his pill.”
Sam began to pound his brush on the easel, dabbing blobs of blue paint everywhere.
Becky sighed and headed for the kitchen.
A month after Joanne disappeared, a package was delivered to me at home. I took it into my study, cut the top off and tipped out a small brown diary. There was no accompanying note. How odd. Inscribed on the first page was a name. A name that made my heart pound. Joanne Ellis.
I sat at my desk and began to look through it. It was pretty mundane. ‘Dentist 2 p.m. check up,’ ‘Halfords – get windscreen wipers changed. 5 p.m.’ and so on. On some pages there were chemical formulae and scribbled, cryptic notes, none of which meant anything to me.
I flipped through to the day of her phone call to me. Just two words, the last entry in the diary. But two words that made me stare. And stare some more. ‘Kaleidoscope – LSD?’ What the hell what was that about? Kaleidoscope milk was the number one milk additive for young children in the country. Sam was on it, all the kids we knew were on it. Full of health-giving vitamins and minerals, targeted for toddlers and young children.
I locked the diary in a desk draw and tried to put it out of my mind.
The police had called round one evening, having found my number on Joanne’s phone.
“Mr. Humphries, Graham Humphries?”
“You are personnel manager at Rylands Foods?”
“We’d like to ask you some questions about Joanne Ellis. May we come in?”
Seated in the lounge, a tall thin man with receding hair, a long, pointed nose, and pale green eyes introduced himself. “I’m inspector Steele, we’re investigating the disappearance of Miss Ellis. We understand on the night of her disappearance she phoned you about 11 p.m. Is that right, sir?”
So, I’d explained the circumstances, just left out the bit about her wanting to come round. I don’t know why. I just didn’t want to tell them. So, I said that she’d asked to speak to me at work the next day. They seemed to believe that. Fortunately, Becky was out at the time. I’d prime her when she got back, although I expected it would lead to an argument. Still, it had to be done. As regards the diary, well no one knew about that, except me … and whoever had sent it.
A week after that, I got a call from Rylands’ CEO, the curiously named Hal Hall, to go up to his office.
Hal sat behind an enormous mahogany desk in a cavernous, luxuriously carpeted office on the top floor. He was an athletic-looking man in his early fifties with curly brown hair and a neat brown beard. He had piercing blue eyes that would stare right into yours, right into your soul. He gave me the creeps.
Seated next to him was a squat man with a pasty grey face, small black eyes and a slash for a mouth. His hair was black and looked like it had been painted on. He wore a black jacket and trousers, a white shirt and a thin black tie. There was no sign of a paunch. Hal didn’t introduce him. I noticed the man wore black leather gloves. That was strange.
“Look, Graham, I’m not going to beat about the bush. I understand you’ve got Joanne’s diary.”
That was the last thing I’d expected. I took a deep breath. “Er … what makes you think that?”
“Have you, or haven’t you?” The blue eyes peered into my soul.
I tried to stay calm. “No.”
The man with the painted hair got up and strode towards me. Before I knew what was happening he had grasped my nose with an iron grip, hauling me to my feet.
He let go, leaving me to rub my red, throbbing nose.
“Let me ask again,” said Hal. “Do you have Joanne’s diary?”
I looked from Hal to painted-head-man and back. “What if I do?”
“Well, I guess you’ve looked through it, maybe put two and two together?”
“What do you mean? OWWW!” Jack once more grasped my nose and led me by it to the back of the office. Hal came over and opened a large window behind me.
“Led me go, you’re hurding me!”
Jack did as requested. I tried not to burst into tears from the pain.
“Look, Graham, I need the diary back and I need you to sign a total non-disclosure form. Otherwise, you can take a trip out of this window right now.”
I looked down on pointed iron railings several floors below, and at Jack’s stocky body and pudgy grey face, his eyes, like two burnt peas, sizing me up. Beneath the black jacket, muscles shifted and flexed, and I imagined the gloved hands were itching to grab me and hurl me out and down onto the railings.
So, I’d agreed. Hal had given me a glass of whisky, told me to take the rest of the day off. Someone would finish my work and I’d be chauffeured home to hand over the diary. Then I’d been told a little story. A story of how Kaleidoscope milk additive had a very small quantity of a specially-designed hallucinogen in it. Undetectable. Just enough to set kiddies ‘off on one,’ ADHD, OCD, you name it. Take ‘em to the doctors and they’d prescribe Zyproxin, which just happened to be made by Rylands Pharmaceuticals, our sister company. That would put them right.
“So, everyone’s happy, Graham. The kiddies, the mums and dads, the doctors, and most-importantly, the share-holders.” Hal smiled. “And of course, it’s too big a boat to be rocked, you do understand that now? Joanne tried and well … look what happened. She disappeared and she won’t be coming back.”
The slash in Jack’s face raised imperceptibly at either end.
“And Jack knows where you live. Of course, you wouldn’t want to lose your pension and benefits, nor Becky and Sam, would you?”
Reluctantly I’d signed the document. Permutations flashed through my mind, but all were fraught with danger. Easier just to go along with Hal. I knew one thing though, Sam was done with Kaleidoscope milk and Zyproxin for good, and I’d do my damnedest to ensure that applied to all my friends’ kids too. And, for now, I’d keep quiet about the photocopy of Joanne’s diary I’d lodged with a solicitor friend of mine.

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king's cross

(800 words)

“Invisible ink, Mrs. Parsons.”
Elizabeth Parsons, holding a sheaf of blank paper, looked up at Mr. Umbridge, an expression of confusion on her pink face. “But why?”
“Believe me, I don’t know, Mrs. Parsons. But your husband assured me that it would be visible under ultraviolet light. Alas, we have no such source on the premises. But I’m sure you’ll be able to buy one, or perhaps borrow one for the duration required.”
“Do you know what he wrote?”
“That I do not, Mrs. Parsons, and if I did, I’m afraid I still couldn’t tell you. It would breach client confidentiality.”
“But surely now he’s dead?”
“It matters not, Mrs. Parsons, the principle is paramount. However, …” He paused, gazing out above the bags under his eyes into Elizabeth Parsons’ bright blue orbs. “However, he assured me it was written with, er … kindness.”
Hah. That would make a change, she thought, but kept her face expressionless.
“So, there we have it, Mrs. Parsons, we’ve been through the terms of the will and it just remained for me to pass on that envelope from your dear, departed husband.”
Elizabeth sat in a station cafeteria at a table, alone. The café was generally quiet, the adjoining tables unoccupied, save for a solitary middle-aged man. She sipped her latte and took out the envelope, extracting the sheets. She held one up to the light. She could make out the faintest translucence in places but the writing was well and truly invisible. Just what had the old bastard wanted to say to her in death that he couldn’t have said in life? She put the papers back in the envelope and put the envelope to one side. Well, she would have to first determine how much an ultraviolet light would cost. And test it out first, of course. She didn’t want to splash out on a costly white elephant!
Just then, a cry came from somewhere outside, where tables spilled onto the station concourse. “My little boy. Where is he?” The woman’s voice was shrill, panicked.
A handful of patrons stood up from their chairs but seemed reluctant to move towards the woman’s increasingly desperate cries. Elizabeth rushed across, putting her hands on the woman’s upper arms. “Calm down. Please calm down!” The woman was red-faced, looking around frantically, her frightened eyes wide with ancestral angst.
Elizabeth resisted the urge to give her a good hard slap. Instead she shook her vigorously. “Listen to me. When did you last see your boy? What was he wearing?”
The woman seemed to regain some composure. ““He … he was here just two minutes ago. I … I went to get some sugar.” She spoke rapidly, gasping for breath. “When I came back, he’d gone. He’s nowhere to be seen!” She gestured around the cavernous station hall.
“What was he wearing?”
“A red jumper. Blue jeans. He’s only six.” She began to sob. Others had gathered around now.
“We need to call the police,” someone said.
A tall man with a huge bulbous nose and no-nonsense manner stood forward. “No, wait, let’s all spread out and search the station. All report back here in three minutes, then we’ll call the police, if necessary. He’s probably wandered off. That’s what children do.”
Elizabeth looked over at her bag anxiously.
“Don’t worry,” said the man. “One of us will stay here to watch our belongings. You!” He pointed to a huge woman in a ludicrous pink dress. She certainly didn’t look the type to bound along a hundred metres of platform and back in three minutes. He began to regiment the members of the impromptu search party.
Elizabeth headed down the outside platform, the one nearest to her, as per her orders. A train stood waiting to leave. She ran down the side of the train, looking anxiously through the windows. Towards the middle of the train a man noticed her and quickly glanced away, down at something on the table before him. He looked oddly familiar. From the café perhaps? Suddenly she heard a cry and looked back. In the distance, the woman in pink was holding the hand of a small boy with a red jumper and blue trousers.
All’s well that ends well, Elizabeth thought as, back at the café, she passed the mother, who was half-laughing, half-crying, remonstrating with the boy.
“But mummy, I saw a pussy cat. I wanted to stroke it.”
What a fuss over nothing, she thought as she picked up her bag. She looked for the envelope but the table, the chairs, the ground were bare. Frantically she emptied her bag over the table. With growing horror, she realised the envelope wasn’t there, just as she heard the train pulling away from the near platform.

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(650 words)
“Invisible doesn’t mean non-existent!” I said.
“In my book it does. If I can’t see something, I don’t believe in it.”
My partner, Greg, was on his usual soap-box, and we were in the middle of yet another argument. Science, specifically the pin-up physics professor who was on the telly all the time, had spoken. There were no ghosts, no UFOs, no life after death. So that was that. The mountain of evidence didn’t fit their neat little theories, so the members of the scientific professions chose to ignore it. And Greg, a scientist and avid fan, lapped it up, unquestioningly.
“Look, you believe in gravity, electricity, don’t you?” I asked.
“Yes, of course. We can see the effects of them.”
“But if someone can communicate with spirits, then that’s an effect isn’t it?”
“Not if it’s just in their own mind.”
“But what if they – mediums – give messages to people that only that person knows?”
“They don’t, they just give general stuff that could apply to half the population. ‘You’re going through changes,’ ‘someone’s going to have a baby,’ ‘someone’s got a bad leg.’ Pfft.” He snorted.
It was no use arguing with him. It just set us at loggerheads and raised my blood pressure. I knew there was a spirit world. I’d had messages from my grandmother and grandfather through a medium. They’d talked about pieces of jewellery I’d got of hers, about my granddad’s regiment. Even that I’d been looking at photographs of them that very day. Indeed, I had, and the medium even told me the colour of the album cover! That was proof enough for me, whatever Greg and his beloved Professor Whassname said. They’d find out for themselves within a few decades and then, boy, would they feel foolish. Always assuming spirits could feel foolish, of course.
“In my book, invisible means something that can’t be seen by the human eye, that it’s out of the right wavelength, or whatever,” I said.
Greg rolled his eyes.
“Anyway, it doesn’t mean it’s not there! What about when it’s dark? You can’t see stuff but it’s still there! Ha, got you!”
“No, it’s not invisible. It’s just not illuminated.” He crossed the bedroom to the wardrobe and took out a grey jacket. “Do you think this goes with my shirt and tie?”
Greg was wearing a pale green shirt and a red tie. I had to admit he looked quite dashing in that outfit. “Yeah, it’s OK.” I looked in the dressing table mirror and brushed my hair aggressively. It was long and brown with natural chestnut highlights. But I hardly noticed them. I was stewing over Greg. He always had to argue. Couldn’t admit he was wrong or let things be. I wasn’t even sure there was a future for us together if it continued much longer.
Downstairs a door slammed. It’d be Greg’s daughter, Heather. I heard her come upstairs and her bedroom door open and close. We exchanged glances. One of us needed to speak to her about her ‘boyfriend,’ Toby. She was fourteen, he was nineteen. I’d drawn the short straw.
After a few minutes we heard her door open once more and a knock at our door. “Come in, honey,” called Greg.
Heather opened the door clutching a couple of notebooks.
“Started on your homework already, sweetheart? Good girl.”
She smiled sheepishly. “I’ve got to write two essays. One on ancestral homes and one on what I think is the most important thing in the world. I don’t know what to write for that.”
Greg laughed. “That’s easy. Science! Or we’d all be living in mud huts, eating berries and raw meat.”
I had a sudden flash of inspiration. “No, it’s not,” I said. “It’s human thought. Without that, there’d be nothing on this planet. And it’s invisible too!”
Heather looked admiringly towards me. Greg’s expression was priceless.

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Spilling the Beans

magic beans
(650 words)
Unseen hands grabbed my arms from behind. I kicked out, into thin air, and felt the acute pain of a blow just below my right breast. I shouted out in agony, falling onto the hard cellar floor. I was barely aware of my hands being cuffed, then I was manhandled onto a chair in the dark.
A bright light, like a stab of sunshine, shone into my eyes, hurting, even as I quickly closed them again.
“What you doing here?” The voice sounded foreign, Middle-Eastern perhaps?
“I could ask you the same question. Aagh!” A broad hand gave my right cheek a resounding slap.
“Listen, I can let you go. Just tell me what you do here.”
It seemed like I wasn’t in a position to argue. “It’s my home, our ancestral home. We’ve lived here for three hundred years. Who the hell are you?” My eyes crept open but I could see no face behind the bright light.
“Why you come through cellar then?”
“I lost my front door key this afternoon!”
I heard footsteps, saw a torch flashing, then the cellar lights came on, dazzling me. There stood a stocky young man. Perhaps twenty-five. He was clean shaven with dark, cropped hair. He approached, looked me up and down, then reached for his trouser zip.
“You are attractive.”
“I’ll scream!”
“Sorry, I just meant you are nice looking.” He reached behind me and unlocked the handcuffs. My arms and wrists hurt. I massaged them.
“My name is Stavros. I worked for your uncle Trevor. I did gardening, serviced his car. For two years. Before he move back here. Maybe you hear of me?”
“No, sorry. So why are you in our cellar exactly?”
He walked to a pile of small wooden boxes in a corner. “These boxes, they belong to me.”
“What’s in them?”
“Magic beans.”
“Magic beans. When they grow, messages appear on the leaves. Didn’t you know?”
“No, that’s amazing! What messages?”
“Well, normally, they say ‘I love you,’ or ‘Missing you,’ that kind of stuff. These are … different.” He smiled and removed a box lid. “You come and see.”
I walked over and looked down on white beans, each with something engraved on them. I picked one up and turned it in the cellar light. ‘Pay up.’ “What’s this about?”
Stavros laughed. “Your uncle, he’s ex-army. His regiment was the Intelligence Corps. Seems some of the members have scores to settle. He got me to manufacture these. I would plant them in little pots and they would be delivered to the … ‘target.’ Then, as they grew, he … or she … would see the warning on the leaves. They grow pretty quickly, just a few days.”
“Yes, they would have a few days to settle up, or ….”
“Or what?”
“Let’s just say, they wouldn’t be walking around without a stick.”
“Oh.” I sat back down. “So why do you want them back? And why do you carry handcuffs for heaven’s sake?”
“The handcuffs are good if I need to … persuade … someone. The beans, well, me and my friends have our own uses for them.” He gave a wry smile. “But now it is time to say adieu.” He pulled out a squat black revolver, fitted with a silencer, from a jacket pocket and pointed it at me. “So sorry.”
“No, please.” I felt hot urine on my cold thighs. “I’ll do anything.”
He took a step back, “I cannot take the chance, I tell you too much.” There was a deafening bang and he crumpled to the ground, his head smacking onto the stone floor.
Footsteps came from the cellar stairs. Uncle Trevor appeared, carrying a smoking pistol. My ears rang.
He gave a crooked smile. “Hello, Marie. Sorry about that. Stavros had outgrown his usefulness. There wasn’t time to fit a silencer. Come upstairs. There’s something I need to explain ….”

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Now I Am Ten


desert island survival

(600 words)


March 27th

It’s my birthday! I am ten. Mummy and daddy say they have a speshal surprise for me. But I have to wait until next week! Today they gave me a Lego set. It is a very big one, so I don’t mind waiting. I will make a model of the Houses of Parliment and a space rocket.

March 28th

School was boring. Denis Lavin got punched in the mouth by a boy in year six. He lost a tooth and his face was all bloody. The boy who punched him was laughing but he got caned. Then he wasn’t laughing.

March 29th

I hate my school! Mrs. David was horrible to me in RE cos I said I don’t believe in God. But that’s what mummy says.

March 30th

Hooray! I’ve found out what the surprise is. We are going on holiday tomorrow and I will fly in an aeroplane! There will be mummy and daddy, my brother Stephen and my uncle David.

March 31st

I was so excited I couldn’t hardly sleep! We are going to the airport soon. Daddy’s friend Dave is driving us. I am taking Enid Blyton. The Folk of the Faraway Tree. That’s my favourite. And this diary too. Of course!



Day 1

Something horrible happened. I am on an island with uncle David and some people I don’t know. From the plane. It crashed in the sea and we came in a dinghy. Somebody put a lifejacket on me. I don’t know what happened to mummy and daddy or my brother. Uncle David says not to be afraid. But I am. He found me some paper and a pen. They have lit a fire.

Day 2

It is very hot here. There are men from the plane. They are trying to chop down parm trees to make us shelters. They are shouting a lot. A nice lady called Nadine came and read me a story but it was a grown up one and I didn’t really understand it. About love and stuff.

Day 3

Me and uncle David have a kind of house. They made it out of bits of plane that washed up and some trees. I like it here but there’s no other kids so I feel lonely. I like Nadine. She and uncle David are friends.

Day 4

I have got to no some of the men. There is Tony. He is very big. And Dean. He likes to talk and shout! They are making a big fire so we can be rescued. Today I swam in the sea. They said it is safe if I stay close to the beach. I don’t think there is sharks. I like it here but I’d rather be rescued.

Day 5

Today there was a fight. A man called Derek told Tony that he wanted a bigger house. He said Tony took to much stuff from the beach that had washed up and that Tony’s house was WAY bigger than his. He started pulling bits from Tony’s house. Tony punched him in the face and it was all bloody. I think Tony bust Dereks nose. A lady called Wendy looked after him. She seems very nice.

Day 6.

This is the end of my paper. I rote on both sides but there is no more space. There was some food washed ashore and there is some coco nuts and bananas. But I don’t know what will happen. I miss mummy and daddy and my brother Stephen. I hope they are all right. I am scared and I hope we are rescued soon.

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Quid Pro Quo

dragon firepit
(650 words)


John threw a log into the fire pit and I pulled my bare feet up to the edge of my chair, bringing my knees up to my chin and stroking my smooth, bare calves. Yellow and orange flames curled skywards, momentary daggers of light, dancing in the indigo twilight. “I’m not going through with it!”
He laughed, not speaking.
I heard a clock chime and looked up the lawn to the house. Ten o’clock. A faint light showed through an upstairs window but it otherwise lay in darkness. Beyond, a car door slammed and an engine started up. Our last guests leaving.
John got up and walked over to the barbecue, returning with a sausage and a chicken leg.
“Haven’t you eaten enough? And did you hear what I said?”
It was suddenly silent. I looked up at the twilight sky with the searchlight of Venus rising over a distant roof. I imagined I could feel and smell the encroaching darkness, reach out and caress it. A cricket chirruped in the distance.
“You’ll be letting everybody down, especially Paula.”
“How does that work, exactly?”
“Everyone else will go along with it, they’ll all get publicity, except Paula.”
One of our guests ran a tattoo parlour. “It’ll hardly be front page news. Anyway, it’s alright for you, you won a haircut. Not exactly life-changing!”
“You don’t need to have KILL across your forehead.” John laughed. “You can have a nice little butterfly in the small of your back.”
“Yes, for whose benefit!” I had to laugh, despite the bizarreness of the situation. We’d hosted a charity barbecue to raise funds for a local animal shelter, fortunately just out of barking range. Each guest had contributed a prize in the form of a service voucher, which had been drawn between us. So, there’d been vouchers for manicures, hairdressing, massage, car servicing, meals at restaurants and so on. There’d been general hilarity as Alice McMahon had drawn a free work-out at a gym. “Oh, I think she could do with a week at a health farm first!” exclaimed her husband, Fred.
“Cheeky sod!”
We all laughed. Alice, although attractive, could definitely do to lose a few stone.
The wood crackled and a warm breeze changed direction and blew the smell of soot and smoke into my face, making me cough. I felt indignant. “But I don’t want a tattoo, ‘free’ or otherwise!”
It was growing dark now, just the flickering flames playing on John’s handsome face. A light went on up at the house and I saw a torch bobbing towards us. My daughter, Heather.
“I know where you can have a tattoo,” said John. “Just above your sweet little ….”
“Shh! It’s Heather.”
She had her long blonde hair in a pony tail and was wearing a nightie and dressing gown. She plumped herself down on one of the deck chairs, gazing around at tables covered with empty beer and wine bottles, plates with grease and chicken bones, ash trays with cigarette butts, crumpled napkins. “There’s a lot to clear up.”
“Yes, you can help us tidy up in a minute, or the foxes will come in the night. Guess what, Mum won a free tattoo!”
Heather smiled, showing perfect teeth in the firelight. Kids were so lucky nowadays, orthodontists weren’t on the radar when we were growing up. “Oh, you lucky thing! What’ll you have? You could have dad’s name tattooed on your arm!”
I smiled. “OK, that’s a good idea, sweetheart, I’ll do it if he has my name put on his!”
I looked at John and John looked at me. His face wore an inscrutable expression and he sat, staring at the flames, not saying a word.
The cracks in our marriage had been showing for a long time. Maybe, just maybe, winning that particular prize was a blessing in disguise. It was time to face up to reality.

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 500 word story group please contact me and I’ll send details.

Don’t forget to check out some of the other stories on the blog. There are over 250!

What Am I? – competition


My FIRST is in HARRY but never in POTTER


My THIRD is in ACE and features in SPADES

MY FOURTH is in MACE but never in BLADES

My FIFTH is in HORROR but not in SCREAM

My SIXTH is in DEMON but never in DREAM


My EIGHTH is in SPIDER but never in DULLER

My NINTH is in WEATHER but not in VANE

My TENTH is in HOBO but never in BRAIN

My ELEVENTH’S in BITTER and also in BEER

My TWELFTH is in FLITTER but never in FEAR


My EIGHT plus my TWELVE will aid you to solve!


If you can solve the riddle and would like to win an inscribed copy of my latest book, To Cut a Short Story, vol. II: 88 Little Stories, please send your solution to me via the contact page, together with your name, address (worldwide) and the name you would like the book to be dedicated to. Do NOT post your answer in the comments! The senders of the correct solution will be put into a ‘hat’ and randomly drawn to give one winner.

The competition will remain open until the end of February 2019 (Midnight GMT (UTC)

The winner will be announced here shortly thereafter.


NOTE: I received NO correct solutions before the deadline, so I am extending the competition until the end of March. The FIRST correct solution received will win the prize and terminate the competition. I’ll announce it here as soon as possible, should I receive a correct solution before the new deadline.


To purchase the stories up to June 2017 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 500 word story group please contact me and I’ll send details.

Don’t forget to check out some of the other stories on the blog. There are over 250!