Death by DVD

police-line-do-not-cross-tape-at-crime-scene-1

(850 words)

Horncastle Suicides, a special report by Genevieve Messier for the Horncastle Times. January 2018.

Horncastle, a small Roman town dating from the ninth century, and situated in the Lincolnshire Wolds, an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, lies at the confluence of three waterways – the river Bain, the river Waring and the Horncastle canal. Today, many of the old wharf buildings lining the canal and the river Bain, once traversed by barges laden with grain, timber, and coal, have  now been converted into smart, desirable apartments and town houses.

Horncastle boasts a plethora of antique shops, from the smartest emporia of expensive furniture and rare porcelain, to a converted church, shared by a number of dealers, with a myriad illuminated cases displaying bright, enticing jewelry and knick-knacks, to the chaotic and mind-boggling maze of bric-a-brac and junk that is Archer’s.

But this picturesque town and its surrounding villages hold a dark secret. In the past two years, since January 2016, there have been 12 suicides, predominantly of young people under the age of 21. An astonishing SIX times the national average.

Genevieve Messier spoke to Mary Todd.

Mary, your son, Saul, was just seventeen years old when he died. He was a pupil at the local grammar school. Are you able to tell me about it?

Yes, it was in February 2016, nearly two years ago. He’d gone to school, normal like, he didn’t seem upset or anything. When he didn’t come home I thought he’d gone to Wayne’s. That’s his best mate. About eight o’clock I phoned Wayne’s mum, Karen. She said Wayne was there but Saul wasn’t and that Wayne hadn’t seen Saul at school neither.

That’s when I got worried. I texted him, then later I phoned his mobile but he never answered, so I called the police. I spent a sleepless night, as well you can imagine. Then the next morning they came to tell me they’d found him in the woods, down the river just past Tesco’s. He’d hanged himself with his school tie.

I’m so sorry Mary. Did he leave a note?

Yeah, he did. It was under a pillow. It said he realised there was too much evil on Earth and that on ‘the other side’ it was just light and love, and that he wanted to join his friends there.

It was several months later that a rumour about a ‘suicide DVD‘ began to emerge. The police have denied any knowledge of it, but Genevieve Messier spoke to Susan Brown (not her real name), a pupil at the local Grammar school, where it is understood five students have taken their own lives in the past two years.

Susan, what do you know of this ‘suicide DVD’?

Well, some say these kids killed themselves cos there’s nothing to do round here and no work, or else cos their parents wouldn’t let them go into Lincoln of a weekend. But what others are saying is that there’s a DVD. You watch it and you just want to kill yourself afterwards. But you have to write a suicide note about how it’s horrible on Earth and lovely in Heaven, and how you just want to go there, now rather than later. Then you have to pass the DVD on to someone else, before you … top yourself. And that person is sworn to secrecy.

Have you seen this DVD?

No I haven’t! But a mate did. Kelly Ann.

What did she say?

Well, she said once the DVD starts, you can’t pause it, so she kept going out of the room and looking in from time to time. Anyway, it starts off showing all these horrible scenes from concentration camps, and the music’s really sad. Makes you want to cry, y’know. Then there’s film of these people disfigured by the nuclear bombs, and then these kids with awful injuries and mutations from gas attacks. Modern ones, y’know.

She could’ve turned the DVD player off though?

No, she said she wanted to see what happened. Anyway, after about twenty minutes, there’s all these coloured lights flashing on the screen, and this weird pulsing music. It’s really hard to look away, she said. Then it finishes off with instructions about how to hang yourself, how to do the knots and all that. Or if you don’t want to hang, they tell you about what pills to take, and how many.

Why didn’t Kelly Ann take it to the police?

Well, she’d been sworn to secrecy, y’know, so she had to pass it to a friend, Saul, his name was.

How did she feel when she heard he’d killed himself.

I dunno. She’d committed suicide herself by then.

Thank you Susan.

Just a fortnight ago, another young man, nineteen year old Jake Tyler, was found hanged in woodland by a disused quarry on Tetford Hill. The police are continuing to investigate this mysterious outbreak of suicides and would ask anyone with information to contact them.

For confidential support call the Samaritans on 08457 90 90 90 or visit a local Samaritans branch – see www.samaritans.org for details

—-

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Chateau Courdermaire

chateau

(850 words)

13th June 1952

Dearest Mama,

Well, we’ve all arrived safely and the chateau is lovely! Stephan drove us from Surrey in his motor car. We took the ferry from Portsmouth and the crossing was quite choppy. I’m afraid yours truly spent much of it leaning over the handrail! Anyway, after a couple of hours’ drive from Le Havre we found the place, with some trouble actually. You see, it was dark, and the chateau, although most impressive from the front, is actually only one room deep, and is sideways on from the road, so not what we were looking out for at all! Anyway, we sought directions in Ville de Courdermaire, and the fellows there had a laugh at our expense. Apparently we weren’t the first to drive past Chateau Courdermaire without noticing it!

It has a sweeping gravel driveway and Stephan’s motor car looks grand parked on it. I am taking lots of photographs!

Well, there are ten bedrooms on each of two floors. We selected rooms on the first floor as they are better appointed. I have a lovely four poster bed and an en suite bathroom, and I look out over sweeping lawns in front of the chateau. Imagine! Oh, I wish you could be with us mama, such a shame that your legs are bad.

Earlier, Jane came to me. ‘Come and see what I’ve found, mother!’ She was so excited. Well, down in the cellars there is a billiards table. You can imagine how Percy and Stephan took to that! They are down there now, as I write, showing Jane and Alexander the ropes!

The sun is sinking now, and I must start preparing supper. I am steaming a huge salmon and serving it with roasted vegetables from the village shop.

I will write again soon.

Much love,

Mary xx


25th June 1952

Dear Mrs. Henderson,

I write as the caretaker of Chateau Courdermaire to bring you news of a most awful incident, for which you have my deepest sympathy, madam. I hope the authorities will soon be in touch with you, but I wanted to let you know myself, as soon as I could. There is no telephone hereabouts and and the only thing is to write, although the post can sometimes be quite unreliable, especially to England, but I know I will have done my duty in informing you to the best of my ability.

Well, I am so sorry to say that your daughter, Mary, was found in a disused ice house this morning. It lies at the edge of the front lawn and is ten feet deep, and mostly full of water. It appears she may have wandered at night, tripped and fallen in. It is low and the entrance is open. We believe she may have been sleepwalking.

A messenger was sent to the local gendarmerie. They attended post-haste and announced that your dear daughter had drowned through circumstances unknown.

Again madam, you have my deepest sympathies.

Sincerely,

Agathe Lemaire


23rd June 1952

Dearest Mama,

I write again. Things here are a little odd. I have encountered the owner, a grand old gentleman by the name of Comte Ducard. He called one evening to ask if we were happy with the facilities here – we are! He resides with his brother locally when guests are staying at the chateau.

Anyway, Stephan has been behaving strangely. He seems enervated and pale and has been taking to his bed in the daytime. He also complained about some insect bites on his neck and is now accustomed to wearing a cravat. I have urged him to see the local medic. But you know Stephan, ‘No point in bothering the local quack, I’ll see a proper doctor when I get back, if needs be!’

The chateau has a series of dilapidated attics and also a strange ‘floor between floors,’ only about two thirds of the normal height. It has just one door at either end of the landing, both locked and nothing to see through the key holes.

At night I have awoken to footsteps both above and below my room. I’ve called out, but no one answers and the footsteps stop. Most probably this isolated French chateau is stirring my fancies!

This morning the fellows at the boulangerie seemed quite agitated. They told me to lock my door at night and to hang garlic over it, even giving me some and refusing payment! Can you imagine?! It seems superstition is still rife in the French campagne!

Well, today we were planning on driving to the coast, but once again, Stephan has taken to his bed, so we can’t go. He does look very pale. I do think he should see a doctor.

Well, I hope you are well mama, and your legs aren’t troubling you too badly.

I will write again soon.

Your loving daughter,

Mary.

P.S. I saw in the mirror just now that I have insect bites on my neck too. I cannot believe it is contagious. Perhaps it is the bedding? I will speak to the caretaker, Madame Lemaire, about it.

—-

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Here’s Looking at Your Kid

pythagoras 2

(650 words)

“Well, did you hear about Gary?” Nadine’s face was flushed, as if drunk.
“No.”
“He’s just beaten the telesales record for the year and he’s only been here a month!”
It was July. “What?!”
“Well, Malcolm just posted the sales on the board. Go and look!” She laughed. “Speak of the Devil!”
Gary appeared, grinning from ear to ear. He was a ‘ginger,’ and sported a neat beard. A fan of Prince Harry perhaps? “It’s true folks, I’m the number one salesman, sorry, sales person!”
“What’s your secret, Gary?” I asked, feeling a little shy, now he’d proven himself to be such a potent newcomer.
He looked directly into my eyes and I noticed his, a pale blue, like the birds’ eggs me and my brother would take from nests, still warm, when we were kids. They opened wide. “Well Flora, the trick is to stop them hanging up. I’ll try a few angles, quickly, see if I can find out what makes them tick.” His translucent blue eyes bored into mine. I couldn’t look away. “Like you, Flora, what’s your number one interest?”
I spoke from the heart. “Well, my twins. I just want them to do well at school. Get good results, not be bullied, that kinda thing.”
“So, you’d be interested in software that’d help with their studies, of course?” The blue eyes continued to gaze into mine.
I felt light-headed. “Yes, if it covers the National Curriculum, I suppose I would.”
I looked down at a pink software sales slip. Seemed I’d signed up for Maths for Movers!, and English for Champs! “Where’s Gary?” I asked Nadine.
“He just went. Are you OK?” She sounded concerned.
“Yes, sorry, my mind’s gone blank. One minute I was talking to Gary, then ….”
“Who was Pythag … Pythagoronous?” asked Andrew, aged ten.
“Pythagoras! He discovered the rule about the square on the hypotenuse, what you were supposed to have been watching! Weren’t you paying attention?”
“Yes, it was saying something about his followers. Did they have Facebook then?”
“Don’t be silly! This was over two thousand years ago! Those were the Pythagoreans, they followed his teachings. Some of his ideas were accepted and some weren’t. They’re still going.”
“Huh?”
“Also, Pythagoras invented the musical scale. There, bet you didn’t know that!”
“I’m hungry!”
“Didn’t Kathy call you for tea?”
“No, she’s in a bad mood. Something to do with her boyfriend.”
Bloody Kathy! We’d hired her to work in our kitchens four days a week – we ran a small cafe, adjoining the house. She was supposed to fix the kids’ lunch and tea too, but recently she seemed to spend more time arguing on the phone with her new boyfriend than working. I’d have to have a word with her. My stomach felt queasy at the thought. I wasn’t one for showdowns. “Where’s Ally?”
“Watching that English software you gave us.”
Just then Kathy came into the lounge.
No time like the present! “Look Kathy, er, we need to speak ….”
“If it’s about John, it’s all over. I’ve found out he’s a ….” She looked at Andrew. “Well, not to mince words, a pervert!”
“What?!”
“He’s a smooth talking conman, sells software for school kids that comes with a free virus! Lets pedophiles control kids’ webcams and send them instant messages!”
I had a sudden thought. “This, ‘John.’ He doesn’t have ginger hair and a beard by any chance.”
Kathy’s jaw dropped. “How on earth …?!”
Allison, Andrew’s twin came into the room, naked from the waist up, save for her ‘training’ bra.
“Oh my God, did you just get a message to strip off?” I exclaimed.
Allison looked horrified. “What are you on about, mum?”
“There might have been a pervert using your computer to spy on you!”

“Oh, what?! I spilt coffee on my top, I was just going for a clean one. Anyway, I should be so lucky!”

—-

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Shameless!

rr5guitar2

(700 words)

Cooee! Over here! I’m waiting and ready for you! Look! Don’t you admire my hourglass figure? True, not as slim as some, but then again, I’m not so young any more. But I think I’m wearing pretty well, wouldn’t you say?
Don’t you admire the gold bands I wear on my neck? My rich mahogany body, the intricate rosette I wear at my waist?
Now, I’ll be the first to admit I’ve not always been faithful. You watched me go off to the Czech Republic with another, and you didn’t even try to stop me. And worse, it was with a woman! An oriental wench, twenty years older than me! I blush when I remember that there‘s even a video of us together. For that I beg your forgiveness.
So, reach out for me. I’m longing for the caress of your fingers, the excitement of your skilful touch, waiting to abandon myself to you, I don’t care! It may sound shameless but I want to surrender to you!
Don’t listen to her, look at me! See, I wear bands on my neck too, but of better quality, and above them, a piece of precious ivory. And, ‘tis true we are of similar age, but see how much younger I look, my face smooth and unblemished. I know you adore my curvaceous body, and I thrill to the touch of your hands upon my waist.
And I have breeding. I was born in far off Japan before I came to London, when young. My father was a skilled craftsman. Look at her! She can’t even tell you where she was born, and her father was just a humble factory worker!
I’ve always remained faithful to you, never run off with any ‘floozie,’ like her. And I hear she even let herself be caressed in public, whilst being filmed, no less! Honestly, she has no shame!
So come, my dear, grace me with your gentle touch and I will sing so sweetly for you!
He entered the music room, looking round at the instruments hanging on the walls and stood on stands. For some reason, the first two he ever acquired caught his attention. Yes, there was his Saxon, bought from a mail-order catalogue for £30, what 43 years ago? Orange-faced, and a body of dull brown mahogany. Of anonymous ‘foreign’ manufacture. Nevertheless, its tone had improved with age. He’d had the frets filed too, and changed the tuners himself. He’d even had a golpeador fitted for flamenco.
Then there was his Takumi. Bought from Ivor Mairants Music Centre in Soho, perhaps three years later than the Saxon? £150. Ivor himself had demonstrated it, playing Variations on a Theme by Mozart by Fernando Sor. His thumbnail had been broken, so the bass was soft.
He remembered taking it to a luthier in Muswell Hill to have the ‘action’ lowered, the man working on it with a cigarette in his mouth. A long cylinder of ash defied gravity, hanging directly over the instrument as the man slackened the strings. He’d stood, expecting it to fall, then been told to return in a couple of hours, before discovering the fate of the ash.
Then he thought of his partner twenty years ago. How she’d gone on a guitar orchestra tour to the Czech Republic and taken his Saxon, her own instrument needing repair. Later, she’d paid for extensive rework on the Takumi – the top sanded down and French polished; silver dots laid along the edge of the neck, the saddle lowered and the ‘tie block’ changed to incorporate bridge pins, in order to get the strings as low as possible. Quite recently he’d had the French polishing redone.
Then his eye caught the exciting contours of his Jackson Randy Rhoads RR-5, an electric model with an asymmetric V shape. It had a longer, thinner ‘fin’ on the top, to rest the arm on, and perfect balance with a strap. It was finished in cream with a black pinstripe, with gold hardware, and a gold ‘V’ shaped tailpiece, where the strings went through the body. A pricey and ‘flashy’ instrument. Yes, he would practice on that one today. Sorry girls!

—-

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Souls and Arrows

robin-hood

(1000 words)

Old Man

He looked across the village green to a small huddle of folks, dressed in T-shirts and shorts, mostly. They surrounded a boy, tall and skinny, his long brown hair flopping over his face. The boy, holding a long bow, reminded him of a lamppost gone wrong. Seemingly without effort, the boy drew the bow and loosed an arrow, standing motionless as it thudded into the centre of the distant target, joining two others there. A ripple of applause went around the small crowd watching.
Yes, he’d do. He’d do very nicely!


Boy

He’d noticed the old man standing at the periphery of the crowd. It was hard not to. Although the sky was filled with cumulonimbus clouds, towering up to distant anvil-shaped plateaus, the air was full of the warmth of summer. He, himself, wore a red T-shirt, green shorts and sandals. The old man, on the other hand, wore a black trench coat and top hat. Maybe it was some kind of costume. Yes, of course, that was it!
He handed the bow and arrow to the next competitor, wishing him luck, as the old man approached.
“You shot them arrows real good!” The old man spoke with an American accent.
He noticed the old man’s thin lips and green eyes, the pupils just black slits. Like a snake, he thought. “Thanks.”

Old Man
“What’s your name, son?”
“It’s Sam, er, Sam Torresi.”
“How d’you learn to shoot so well?”
“My grandad owns an archery shop, he teaches me ….” He hesitated, unsure whether to confide in a stranger. He pushed his unruly mop of hair back from his sweaty forehead. “I’m at theatre school in town now though … so I’m out of practice.”
“Theatre school. Hmm. Well I figure I can help you out there, son.”
“How?” The boy looked wary, but interested. Good!
“Well, so happens I can make you an offer that’ll get you what you want.”
“I’d like to be famous. In the movies!”
“Exactly! And I can get you just that!” His thin lips formed a smile, showing yellowed, smoker’s teeth.

Boy
He regarded the old man’s face. The cheeks were hollow, the skin tawny, but curiously unlined, as if he’d had an endless series of facelifts. “Yeah, as if! Look are you selling something?”
“I guess I’m sellin’ … dreams.” The old man reached into his coat and pulled out a photograph and a wrinkled, folded-up letter. “You ever hear of Elvis Presley?”
He reached out to take the documents. Momentarily he touched the old man’s hand. It was like ice. He read the inscription below the smiling handsome face. ‘To Tom, thanks for making my dreams come true, affectionately Elvis.’ The letter had the same handwriting and talked about shows and recording dates.
“How do I know this is real? And who are you?”

Old Man
“They call me The Colonel. I knew Elvis’s momma and poppa, Gladys and Vern. I managed him for over twenty years!”
The boy regarded him with curiosity. “But then you’d be real old, I mean real old!”
He laughed. “When you have money you can have … things that ordinary folk don’t know about.”
The boy blinked, silent now. Almost hooked!
“Look, let’s cut to the chase. I’ll make you famous. In return, I’ll give you a deal. You shoot one of your arrows, only one mind. If it hits the bullseye then there’s no charge.”

Boy
He knew he couldn’t miss, but played along. “What if it doesn’t?”
The old man removed his top hat and held it against his chest, revealing long wispy grey hair. Suddenly he looked very old. “You meet me here, in this exact spot, in eighty years’ time, eight o’clock on Christmas Eve. Then you pay the price I ask.”
He imagined the green transformed, white with a blanket of snow. Heated tents adorned the field and coloured lights hung from poles. In the centre was a huge Christmas tree, covered in sparkling white lights and glittering baubles. Crowds of warmly dressed folk laughed and smiled, drinking hot beverages and mulled wine. And the old man stood there, in his black trench coat and top hat. As black as death. He shuddered. “OK.”
The old man followed him to the now-empty target range, and watched him retrieve the bow and an arrow from a tent. No one paid attention to them.
“Remember, Christmas Eve, eighty years from now. Right here. Eight o’clock in the evening. Only if you miss, mind!”
He nodded and stood straight, at the shooting mark, the arrow in place. The old man smiled. He hesitated, then grinned back. What the old man said didn’t make sense, but he nevertheless couldn’t help but believe him.
He drew the bow and, feeling a strange mixture of nervousness and confidence, sighted the arrow just as his grandfather had taught him. He took a deep breath. Just then, a huge black bird swooped down in front of him, flapping its wings and disappearing off over the field, making him flinch as he released the arrow. With a sinking feeling in his guts he saw he’d missed the bullseye. “That wasn’t fair. I’m taking it again!” He looked around but the old man was nowhere to be seen.
He returned the bow and arrow to the tent. Huh, never mind, the whole thing was nonsense!
On coming out, a man was waiting. He looked vaguely familiar. His face was flat, not handsome. “Hi, I’ve been hearing good things about you!” The man proffered a card.
He felt surprise, but, yes, he was probably top of the class in most acting disciplines. His singing and dancing were coming along too. “Yeah, sure.” He took a proffered card from the man’s hand and examined it. “Quentin Tarantino, hey, I’ve heard of you!”
“We’re auditioning for a live action version of Young Robin Hood. It’ll be a warts an’ all account!” Tarantino smiled and winked. “You’ve every chance of being chosen.”

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The Visitation

Sabino+Canyon+National+Forest,+Tucson+Arizona,+NuventureTravels.com,+Saguaro+Cactus,+Desert

(900 words)

“Head for the hills, ‘cos I’m looking for thrills …,” sang Hamish, his Scottish burr prolonging ‘thrills.’
“I could use some of those,” laughed Julia, a short, stocky woman in her sixties.
I hoped she didn’t have me in mind.
The sun was sinking, lengthening the shadows of saguaro cacti, towering here and there along our way. Ahead, in the distance, across miles of flat, arid, semi-desert scrubland, lay a low range of hills, our destination.
Normally we’d have had a bumpy journey in an SUV but the prof’s plan had us dropped off on this side of the centre, giving us a chance to ‘acclimatise’ before our two week residence, by plodding through the hot desert for hours. Every few minutes he’d take out a notebook and write mysterious observations, sometimes pulling out a tape measure and gauging the length of a cactus arm or the height of an inconspicuous shrivelled brown plant.
It was still warm, the motionless dry air oppressive, and I was hot and sweaty. Damn Hamish! I shifted my backpack into a more comfortable position – this gear weighed a ton – and assessed the party. There was Professor Hamish McPherson, our erstwhile leader, then Julia Surey, a paramedic – no stranger to carrying defibrillators up flights of stairs, judging by her biceps. Then Valencia Lopez, a slight, brown, forty-something scientist from Paraguay, John ‘Garry’ Garau and myself, Sam Piccarreta, both in our thirties and qualified animal psychologists.
“I saw something move!” exclaimed Valencia, pointing across the endless flat dry scrub that stretched to the distant horizon.
“Could be a coyote,” said Hamish.
She took out some binoculars, scanning the desert. “It looked bigger, more upright.”
After a minute Hamish spoke. “Come on, we should get to the centre before dark.” As always he spoke quietly, insistently. A kind, easy-going man who preferred to lead by example, he nevertheless had an unstoppable drive when it came to getting what he, or the team, wanted or needed.
I looked at Val, wondering. I’d never heard her mention a husband, or a partner of any kind come to think of it. She wasn’t bad looking. I watched the sway of her narrow hips as we started again, imagining running my hands over her naked thighs. Come on Sam, snap out of it! The desert was getting to me and I’d only been here five minutes!
It was almost dusk when we reached the high wire fence surrounding the centre, a network of squat concrete buildings, set against a deepening turquoise sky. Soon stars would begin to peek through the dwindling light, preparing for their lonely, cold sojourn. A large sign stated Big Cat Conservation Trust. Hamish rang a bell, a gate opened and a man appeared.
Hamish greeted him without introduction. “How are the animals tonight?”
“They seem restless, very restless. It’s strange. I’ve never seen them quite like this.”
“Huh, that’s odd.”
We peered down into a sunken enclosure where a pair of Lynx lived. They were both patrolling the walls, agitatedly, but in opposite directions, rubbing their faces together briefly on each pass.
There were forty big cats here – lynx, cougars, bobcats, ocelots and jaguars, mainly in high-walled outside pens, furnished with platforms and shelters. Some had lived here since the centre was built seven years ago, but mainly they were released back into the wild after a year or two.
An enormous crack of thunder startled me awake in my small room. That was unusual. Then another, almost overhead, making my heart pound. Outside, the cats were yowling. Then a sound we didn’t often hear – heavy pouring rain crashing down on the roof and outside, turning the dust into mud. I could smell the scent of it through the air conditioning, and knew it’d wash the world outside clean. The plants would be grateful I thought. No, that’s silly, plants can’t think. Not as we know it, anyway. I drifted back to sleep to the rhythm of the rain.
The next thing I knew was a frantic pounding on my door. My clock said 06.42. What the hell?
“Sam, Sam, something awful’s happened!” It was Valencia. Her face was streaked with tears and she could hardly speak. The others were gathered on the veranda. The sun was up and the heat of the day was already building.
She led me down some steps and hit a number pad. The door into the jaguar enclosure opened. There they were, or what was left of them. Maia and Gaia. Their eyes were missing and their bodies had been stripped of flesh in places. Neatly incised down to the bone. “They’ve had their blood taken.”
“What?!” I could see the remaining flesh was whitish. “Are there any others?”
“They’re all like this, except for the ocelots”
They were kept indoors at present. “Oh my God!”
Back on the veranda, the professor spoke. “I’ve radioed it in. The police will come out later this morning.”
“I don’t understand.” Valencia was crying. “Who would do this?”
“Whoever, or … whatever, did this, they weren’t from … around here,” said Hamish.
“What’ll happen?” I asked.
Hamish smiled wryly, “They’ll say it’s natural causes … or cults.”
I gazed out across the desert and gasped at a purple bloom. As if the life taken from the cats had been transferred into the normally drab and desolate vegetation, a sea of flowers was springing into existence.

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Golden Tips

Darjeeling_Tea_Garden_worker

(1000 words)

Head Cook and Bottle Washer was the name of the quaint little cafe I’d discovered. It looked empty, but I’d fancied a change from the noisy, greasy clientele, and the even greasier sausage rolls of Kell’s.
“Here you are, sir.” A girl placed a silver tray onto the blue chequered tablecloth in front of me and transferred a white porcelain tea pot and cup onto it, followed by a white plate with a pink rose motif. On it sat a large scone, dotted with dried mixed fruit. Then a small bowl containing butter, and diverse jugs of milk and hot water.
“I’m impressed!”
Her large green eyes looked into mine with a sincerity that made me feel slightly embarrassed. “Is there anything else I can help you with, sir?”
“No, … no, that’s fine thank you.”
“Thank you, sir.” She smiled and walked away. I noticed she wore a smart brown uniform with a white apron, and matching white headpiece. This cafe might be small but they didn’t do things by halves!
I poured some tea out, noticing it looked good and strong, just how I liked it. I took out my phone. There was a message from Laura. Could I collect Shaun from school? She had a migraine. I looked at my watch, only 2 p.m. No problem. I buttered the scone and took a bite, starting to text a reply. Suddenly I stopped. This scone was gorgeous! Rich, fine-textured, and the dried fruit – sultanas, raisins, cherries, and others, more mysterious yet – were sweet and deliciously spiced. Why waste attention on a stupid text message?!
I looked around. There weren’t many tables, perhaps ten, mainly arranged along a kind of corridor, with three at the front of the cafe and three behind me at the rear. Only two were taken. A mother, father, and two small children, mouths full of cake rendering them temporarily silent, sat at the front, and behind me an old couple, whispering secretively, as if discussing a terrible family secret.
The girl stood at a counter looking attentive. “Was everything all right for you, sir?”
“Actually, it was delicious!”
“We bake our Scottish Lardy Cakes fresh every morning.”
“Well it was lovely!”
She smiled, as if genuinely pleased I’d enjoyed it.
“And the tea was lovely too!”
“Oh, yes, we import it from India, it’s our own blend.” She gestured to some small orange boxes on a shelf, high on the wall behind her – Head Cook & Bottle Washer Golden Tips.
I handed over the surprisingly reasonable price for my tea. “I’ll probably get some next time.”
“Yes, it’s very popular.”
That had been Thursday. So enamoured had I been with the place, and remembering an enticing array of cakes in a lighted compartment under the counter, I returned on Monday afternoon, having finished work early, to find it was closed. I felt a stab of disappointment and looked at the opening hours. Monday to Tuesday 09.00 to 12.00, Wednesday to Thursday Closed, Friday to Saturday 09.00 – 16.00. Sunday Closed. Hmm. They didn’t seem to open much.
I peered through the window. The cakes were gone but the tablecloths were in place, and the little orange tea boxes stood to attention neatly on the shelf. But with the lights off and no sign of life it all looked rather forlorn.
“Look Jilly, you must come to this fabulous little cafe I’ve found!”
“Where is it?”
“It’s behind the market place, down the little alleyway opposite the Cats Protection charity shop. They do this divine Lardy Cake!”
“Oh, I don’t usually go down there.”
“I don’t think many people know about it – yet! They do their own special brand of tea, imported from India, can you believe?!”
“Wow! OK, that’d be lovely. Meet me from work at one on Friday and we’ll go down together.”
Friday came and at 1.10 p.m. precisely, we both stood, staring into the cafe window. A sign said, ‘Sorry, Closed due to illness.’
I felt deflated, embarrassed, although it was hardly my fault. “Look, that’s their special blend of tea.” I pointed to the little orange boxes on the shelf behind the empty counter.
Jilly was fine about it. “It’s OK. Don’t Worry. Look, we’ll come next Friday, give him, or her, a chance to recover!”
“Good idea! I’ll have something else next time too. I saw Traditional Poached Eggs on the menu, with smoked salmon.”
I took a break from work on Tuesday morning. I told my partner I wanted to check I’d locked my car properly. The cafe was sombre, unlit, the staff presumably still unwell. Still, they’d be well again in another three days, surely?!
Friday came and I was ravenous. I’d skipped breakfast, looking forward to a fuller repast there, and Jilly accompanied me, dressed in a fetching grey suit, her blonde hair in a pony tail, and swinging a smart red handbag.
We stood, gazing into an empty window. Tables and chairs were piled up. The tablecloths and till were gone. There were no cakes behind the glass under the counter, now unlit and forbidding, and the shelf on the wall was bereft of the orange tea boxes. The place looked dead, desolate, abandoned.
“Look,” said Jilly, pointing to a small handwritten sign in the door. ‘Closed. Opening soon under new management.’
I stared in utter disbelief. I could taste the Lardy cake, smell the fragrant brown tea pouring from the white porcelain teapot. See the girl’s pleasant smile and her large green eyes looking into mine, seeking approval. I wondered what could have happened? “Oh, that’s a shame. Sorry to have dragged you here again.” Why hadn’t I bought one of their little orange boxes of tea when I had the chance?
Jilly sighed. “Should we go to Kell’s? I’m hungry.”
The thought of their greasy sausage rolls made me feel sick, and they didn’t use butter in their sandwiches either, just a flavourless pale-yellow spread. “Oh, all right.” The coffee wasn’t so bad.

 

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For She Had Eyes ….

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(1200 words)

I could hear she was quite young, nervous at meeting me, wanting to make a good impression on her first day, but afraid of my disability.
“Andy’ll show you the ropes,” said Sheila, my boss’s secretary. “Andy, this is Sonya.”
“Hello Sonya,“ I said, and smiled.
“Hello, Andy,” said a girl’s voice.
I continued, “Well, this is where it all happens.” I ran an audio and video library for a big HR department. “I do the audio, and you’ll be my eyes for the video!”
She laughed self-consciously.
Once alone together, I said, “Look, I know you probably don’t want to talk about me being blind, but let’s get it out of the way.”
Her voice showed relief. “That’s fine, if you want to talk about it.”
“Take a seat.”
We both sat on comfortable black leather office chairs. “Look, I’m really not much different to anyone else. I’ve lost a sense, but I’ve made up for it in many ways.”
“Oh.”
“Well, I know you’re wearing mascara, I hear the clicking of your eyelashes.”
“Yes, I do.” She laughed, and it was genuine this time, surprised, interested.
“And you have shoulder length hair, I hear it brushing against a jacket. It doesn’t catch, so it’s not so long.”
“Wow, that’s right. Can you tell what colour?”
“May I?” I put a hand out towards her.
“Yes.”
I felt her hair. It was fine, soft, shampooed and conditioned this morning. I wanted to smell it up close, but that would be going too far. “It’s auburn I think.”
“That’s incredible!”
I smiled, no need to tell her that Sue in accounts had told me that. “From your voice, I’d say you were, er, 27 or 28.”
She laughed. “29 actually. By two months!”
“I must be slipping!” No one had told me that, but the timbre and manner of her speech had. “Look, close your eyes.”
“OK. now what?”
“Imagine you’ve just sharpened a pencil with one of those sharpeners with a holder for the shavings. Now you unscrew it and smell the shavings.”
“Wow, I can a bit!”
“Now, imagine a burning match. Then you blow it out. Can you smell the smoke.”
“Sort of.” She laughed.
“And that’s just with your imagination! So, us, er, blind people, we can do most any jobs nowadays, especially with all the technology we have now. It can read the screens, make the letters huge, change the colour of the fonts on command. All that kind of stuff.”
“What do you see Andy, if you don’t mind me asking?”
“I don’t see anything, Sonya, just light and dark. I can tell if it’s day or night!”
“That’s a shame.”
“They found I had glaucoma twelve years ago. It left me blind in my right eye, but I still had some vision in the left. That’s gone now, but I’ve got over it. It’s not such a problem. I’ve got a dog, Sasha, and a white stick. Most people are helpful.”
“Thanks for telling me all that,” she said, and I could tell she meant it.
Over the next three months, we worked together quite closely and I found her to be friendly, cooperative and efficient. I didn’t pry but she told me about her life. A difficult childhood with alcoholic parents, a chance to go to university. A guy, Chris, there. Then a life with an itinerant musician, Al, who found a kind of fame, and moved on to other pastures, and other women. She’d been on her own for a year and a half now. That surprised me. I didn’t need anyone to tell me that she was attractive.
Christmas came and she sat with me at the works’ Christmas dinner. “It’s OK Sonya, you don’t have to,” I said.
“I want to. Here!” She handed me one end of a cracker. We pulled it and it exploded, hurling something plastic into my face. We burst out laughing and I could hear her retrieving it.
“What is it?”
“Oh, it’s, it’s ….” Her voice trailed off.
I laughed. “A magnifying glass!”
“You’re amazing! How ….”
“From the sound when it hit the floor … and your embarrassment.”
She didn’t say anything.
You have it, you never know. It might come in handy!”
She laughed. “Are you coming to the party tonight, Andy?”
“I don’t know, I’m not really a party animal.”
“It’d be good to see you. I’m bringing a friend.”
“Oh.” I felt desperately disappointed, imagining a strapping rugby-player type.
That evening I’d spruced myself up and called a cab. I didn’t really want to go but felt I ought to show my face. The thought of Sonya being there tipped the balance. I used my stick, having given Sasha a break from her duties, and took the lift up to the entertainment suite on my own. The doors opened onto a noisy, crowded scene. Music was playing loudly, Merry Christmas Everyone, and glasses were clinking over the hubbub of speech.
“Andy!” It was Desmond, my boss. “Really pleased you could make it. Look, I want you to meet someone.” He escorted me across the crowded room to a secluded alcove. Several familiar voices greeted me on the way. They sounded genuinely pleased to see me, although their pleasure was doubtless fuelled by alcohol.
Someone handed me a beer and I was introduced to Paul, an information science graduate, who wanted to discuss reorganizing the sales training material. After about fifteen minutes, I’d had enough. Were Sonya and her friend here yet? I wondered. “Excuse me, Paul, perhaps we could continue our discussion in the New Year?”
He was good enough to take the hint. “Of course, Andy, sorry, let’s get you another drink.” He escorted me back through the throng to the bar. Suddenly I felt a hand on my arm.
“Andy!” It was Sonya. “Let me get you a drink, what would you like?”
I felt in need of something strong. “Oh could I have a large glass of white wine please?”
I could hear the tinkling sound of it being poured.
“Oh, and this is my friend, Erica.”
I felt a soft feminine hand in mine and shook it, feeling relief it was Erica not Eric.
“It’s nice to meet you, Erica,” I said.
Sonya spoke close to my ear. “She can’t hear you. She’s deaf!”
I stood, bewildered. For once I didn’t know what to say or do.
Then they both laughed. “Sorry, bad joke!” said Sonya.
I laughed with relief.
“Look, do you know what’s hanging above our heads,” asked Sonya.
“What?”
She put a hand on my arm and I felt the warmth of her face, smelt a faint, lavender perfume and wine on her breath. Then her lips on mine, hot, pressing, lingering, a touch of a flickering tongue. We embraced and I heard a cheer go up around us. I felt embarrassed but I didn’t care.
“Look, you two go and dance, I’ll catch up with you later,” said Erica.
“I’m not very good at dancing,” I said.
“Don’t be silly,” said Sonya. She laughed and kissed me again, this time on the cheek. “Merry Christmas!” then led me towards the dance floor.

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Boxed Into a Corner

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(1200 words)

The long white envelope had changed everything, but it’d also changed the set of problems. Instead of, ‘How can I afford to pay the mortgage this month and still have money for food?’ it was, ‘What part of the country should I move to and how many acres of gardens do I want?’ Yes, those premium bonds sure came up trumps, even if they’d taken fifty years to do so!
So now one of my dreams was a possibility – a circular library! I’d envisioned burnished dark shelves, perhaps oak, stained a deep brown, areas of lighter brown and gold shining in the sun from a cupola high in the ceiling. Antique shelving would be nice, I thought, or I could get a skilful carpenter to make them. It’d take him some time, a lot of it in situ I guessed, but expense wasn’t an issue, I could probably afford to have them made of silver, if not gold.
The problem was, how do you actually build a circular bookcase? Well, the most obvious thing was to have a circular room, but I’d found that houses with such rooms were in short supply in my locality. The other possibility was to have it constructed in a large square room. Now that was a much more realistic possibility. I even had one already, a kind of office cum junk room, high-ceilinged and barely used. But what about the corners? Surely they’d be cut off, redundant, inaccessible, and gathering grounds for dust and cobwebs. Maybe even unwelcome rodents?
“What you need is EPS!” said my friend, Dave.
“What’s EPS?” I said.
“Expanded polystyrene foam. Didn’t you know that?”
“Well, why isn’t it EPF then?” I retorted.
Anyways, it seemed if you got the right type, you could have it made into blocks that would round the corners of a room off, leaving a perfect circle for the shelves to be constructed around. Apparently you could even have some cavities made in the foam for storage too, stuff that you would basically never need until you moved house, as it would to all intents and purposes be inaccessible. Anyway, that would get rid of some of the junk. Dave knew someone who could do the job.
We spent some time with graph paper and compasses working out the dimensions for the foam and in the meantime I’d found a ‘chippy’ who would fabricate the shelving from antique mahogany in his workshop, then bring and install it in a couple of days or so. I’d seen examples of his furniture in a showroom and online, and I was very excited about his work. So much so that I’d also ordered a beautiful coffee table from him in an exotic solid wood – Amboyna Burl. A deep honey colour, with swirling, marbled grain. It was great when money was no object!
Life was looking good. There was just one fly in the ointment. Sandra. Thirty years of marriage had been twenty too many. Once an attractive young woman with flowing brunette locks, she’d now become ‘dumpy,’ to put it kindly, irritable and argumentative. Even my new found wealth had barely cheered her.
Dave had a solution. “Look, I know a mate who makes these special, er, ‘suitcases.’ They’re hermetically sealed. You can put, er, stuff in them, and there’s no smell. Then when the heat’s died down, you can dispose of the, um, ‘contents’ more normally like.”
“What ‘contents’?” I asked, already knowing the answer.
So it was decided. I would take a fortnight’s holiday on a cruise. The perfect alibi! Meanwhile Dave’s ‘mate,’ the one who made the special ‘suitcases,’ would call round. Sandra would have an ‘accident,’ be popped into the case, placed in a cavity in the foam and sealed up. A car would be taken, so that it looked like she’d gone off somewhere and never arrived. Dave would then organise the carpenter.
The ‘accident’ wouldn’t be cheap but Dave, a financial wizard, would take care of the ‘laundry,’ and my ‘investment’ would be untraceable.
OK, it’d be inconvenient to have to take all the books off the shelves and disassemble some of the shelving to extract the case at some distant future date, but it seemed like a foolproof plan.
Six weeks later I sat in my beautiful library with Dave. Everything had gone perfectly, police informed, all very sad. Half the shelves were filled and there were boxes of books piled everywhere, waiting to be unpacked and assigned to their designated places. I estimated that there would still be perhaps twenty percent of shelf space available for further purchases, which could happily now be resumed, Sandra’s resistance having been ‘overcome.’ Once the shelves were full maybe I could do it all over again with a smaller room? The house was certainly big enough, especially with only one occupant now.
Dave sat on a ruby red leather sofa, sipping wine at the exquisite coffee table. “Nice piece of wood,” he said. “Very nice piece of wood!”
I sat in a browny-green leather arm chair, one of a pair, on the other side of the table. Behind me were two glass cases, housing some of my more valuable and interesting books. “Yes, it’s Amboyna Burl,” I said. “So over here are my first editions,” I gestured accordingly. “That section is books about books, and all that lot over there is on music.” I’d been a book-dealer, then semi-pro guitarist for parts of my life, and Sandra, incredibly enough, had been quite adept on the bagpipes, much to my perturbation.
Dave murmured appreciatively. “What’s those magazines in that glass case?”
A creature with its features set low in a huge round head glared at us, against an indigo background, full of what could have been bubbles or planets, reminiscent of the individual’s head. Its face bore a frightened expression, as if it knew what we’d done.
“Oh, that’s Science Fiction Monthly. They were published from 1974 to 1976, I’ve got the complete run, 28 issues!”
“I like science fiction,” said Dave. “Russ Ballard and them other writers.”
I rolled my eyes. “J.G. Ballard!”
The doorbell went.
“I’ll go,” said Dave.
A minute later he came back, ashen faced, accompanied by a lady. My jaw hit the floor.
“Well aren’t you going to say hello,” said Sandra.
“Y-yes, … of course,” I said. “But er, where’ve you been?!”
“Yes, sorry about that darling, I wanted to tell you, but you were off on your cruise thingy. I went to stay with Vanessa. Ronald’s left her and she needed some support. I actually thought you were coming back next week. When I saw your car just now I realised you must be back. I rang the bell. I didn’t want to shock you, coming in unannounced!” She barked a laugh.
“Oh, it’s … it’s g-good to see you!”
“The books look very nice. Your fellow did a good job. Did he do that table too? It’s lovely!”
“Yes, it’s Amboyna Burl.”
“By the way, darling, I had a lady in to measure up for curtains and carpets while we were both away. Has she been in touch? I haven’t heard from her.”

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Cruising Down the River

1200px-Tomahawk_Block_IV_cruise_missile

(1300 words)

“Come on Pete, wakey wakey!” Julie shook her boyfriend’s shoulder, looking with affection at his unshaven face. She wore just a shirt, lemon yellow with white stripes, and her shoulder-length blonde hair was tipped over her face.
Peter’s closed eyes blinked half-open. “Huh, wha’ the time?”
“It’s gone ten thirty. Come on, you said we could go to the park. We can get coffee at the kiosk.”
“I was dreaming of walking Lexie.”
“I’ve got her lead ready. Come on sweetheart, get up!”
Just then, three things happened. Someone started shouting down in the street below, a siren sounded somewhere and the phone rang.
“What’s that siren about? It’s weird.” She snatched up the phone.
Her sister Josephine sounded anxious, afraid. “Jules, have you seen the news?”
“No.”
“Well, you’d better put the TV on! The Navy fired a cruise missile at a terrorist warship. They’ve hacked it, turned it round towards the City of London. We’re getting out now!” Josephine hung up and turned to Alan, her husband, a good-humoured black man in his thirties. Now his face was so pale it didn’t look so different from hers. “I told Jules. They’re on their own now. Come on!”
With a shoulder-bag each of clothing, books and toiletries hurriedly thrown in, they left and Alan locked the door, wondering what, if anything, would be left of their house.
The street was almost empty but three doors away he could see Malcolm raising his hands in frustration, shouting to Sally and the kids. “Come on, we’ve got to go now. NOW!”
Alan waved. “Hurry up!” he yelled.
Malcolm checked his watch. 11.15. What the flying fuck were they up to? He went back inside. Ted was fussing over two guinea pigs in a cage; he turned, his face streaked with tears. “It’s not fair, I don’t want them to die!”
“OK, OK, bring their cage. We’ve got to go now, and I mean NOW.”
Sally came running down the stairs, her black bob of hair bouncing. She was wearing red shorts and sandals.
“For Christ’s sake, don’t you have any shoes?”
“Yes, they’re in my case. How long have we got?”
“Twenty minutes. Before we get fried! Come on!”
Sally, Jake 11, Daniel, nine, and Ted, seven, toting his guinea pigs, ran out of the house and bundled into the car.
Two blocks away they hit a traffic jam. There’d been an accident at a cross roads, two vehicles crashing head on. Horns were hooting, people anxiously getting out of their cars, yelling, gesticulating.
“What’s going on Dad, we don’t have time to stop, do we?” said Jake.
Malcolm jammed his hand on the horn. Jesus Christ!
Captain Charles Hester looked down on the gridlocked cars from the high cabin of his fire engine. He glanced at his companion, Edgar Tierney. Tierney’s face was white, his hands shaking. “I hope to God, Jude and the kids got out in time,” Tierney said.
Hester looked at his watch. Fifteen minutes to go. “They’ll be fine!” He felt his stomach lurch. I have to do this. He slammed his foot down on the accelerator and the car in front buckled up, swinging out of the way and smashing into another vehicle. Someone inside was shrieking hysterically. With his foot still hard on the accelerator, his ears closed to shouting and screaming, the fire engine bulldozed cars aside until it reached the accident spot. He could see blood over one windscreen and people in the back of the other car, motionless. He kept his foot down, the unstoppable force meeting the immovable object syndrome, he reflected grimly. What happens? The unstoppable force stops and the immovable object moves. With the engine roaring like a beast possessed, the now-wrecked front of his vehicle ploughed the mangled cars off the intersection, leaving a channel behind, into which those still undamaged enough to drive, sped through.
One of those was Alexa Rogers, an attractive barrister in her late twenties. Popular and wealthy she wasn’t hanging around for anyone. She’d not spent seven years studying, not to mention being the butt of sexual innuendo, assault even, on occasion, to get burned alive in her car! No, she was heading for the hills. Well, Lavender Hill to be precise. To her surprise the roads were running freely all the way there, the traffic going just one way – away from the financial district. A few hundred others must have had the same idea as her, she realised, as she hit congestion at the bottom of the hill.
She managed to park, then half-walked, half-ran up the hill, passing anxious families with crying children in tow. She kept her eyes fixed towards the trees at the top, signifying the park entrance. She wasn’t stopping to reassure anyone. She checked her phone. Ten minutes to go.
A crowd was gathered on the heath at the top to watch the spectacle from a safe distance, several miles away. Samantha Lacey hugged her husband, Tom. She spoke anxiously. “They’re saying it’ll be here in five minutes.” They looked down on the panorama below. Neat rows of red-roofed Victorian houses, then the wide silver ribbon of the river Thames, and in the far distance to their left, barely visible, the grey line of London Bridge. Beyond that, almost invisible brown dots, lay the Houses of Parliament and Big Ben.
She pointed. “Oh my God, look!“
A gasp went up as a silver pencil-like object flew from their right, low above the river, engines screaming. Everyone watched, transfixed, as it disappeared out of sight to the left. Samantha gripped Tom’s hand tightly. She noticed his was wet with sweat. Then a distant deep echoing thud and … nothing.
The crowd stood, silent and expectant. Thirty seconds. One minute. Two minutes. Tension evaporated. It was a dud, Tom realised. After all that, the terrorists’ hacking skills had turned back a dud! The news went around the crowd. He hugged Samantha and they laughed for the first time that morning. “We can all go home!”
Suddenly nothing existed but brilliant, blinding light. Instinctively, they put their hands over their eyes and flung themselves to the ground. There was a tremendous ear-shattering roar that seemed would never stop, the earth vibrated against their bodies and Tom felt the intense heat of a fireball howling over their heads. Samantha was whimpering like a scalded puppy. After a while he cautiously took his hands away from his eyes. There were some white spots swimming around in front of him but his vision seemed otherwise unaffected. Thank God, I can see! “Are you OK Sam?”
She nodded affirmation, her face white and streaked with dirt and tears, and her fair hair now a blackened mop.
Behind them, cars parked on the heath were on fire. Below, they could see a wall of smoke and flames rising from the houses, and in the distance, beyond London Bridge, a red flame burned with the intensity of a firework. Above it, a huge pall of black smoke was forming into something they’d all hoped they would never see. “Fucking hell, they never said it was carrying a nuke. Why didn’t they tell us?!”
Cars were exploding like firecrackers behind them. They walked the other way, down to the lake, following the crowds. They passed a burning kiosk, turning away from two charred corpses on the ground. Then Tom spotted something close by the stick-like charcoal arms of something that had once been a man. He picked it up, a metal disc with burned leather attached. He wiped soot off it. Lexie. What was that about?
Samantha tugged his arm. “Come on Tom. Let’s find help.”
He tossed the disc back onto the corpse. “OK. Poor sods.”

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