Deaf Date


sign language

(500 words)

As a man who’d been almost stone-deaf since birth, meeting women was something out of Christian Brown’s comfort zone. They may have smiled, but from their eyes, and replies, he knew he was less than intelligible.
Now he was shown to a seat in the Koh-I-Noor restaurant. He took a deep breath and looked around at the mainly empty seats, then at his watch. 7.55 p.m. His councillor and psychologist, Susan, had arranged a blind date for him with a lady called Stephanie. She’d told him nothing about her, just that she was attractive, divorced and in her early forties.
But he trusted Susan. Over the past three years, she’d helped him gain social skills and a measure of confidence. Looking in the mirror, he recognised his good looks, despite the hearing aids behind both ears.
A woman with a white stick and sunglasses passed his table, aided by a waiter. “Are you Christian?” he enquired.
Hearing the dull thudding of his own voice, Christian responded that he was Church of England. He must have been intelligible after all, as he saw the woman stifle a laugh. The waiter struggled with both Christian’s pronunciation and the joke, reiterating the question.
Christian read the lips of the woman, presumably Stephanie, as she stood at the table. “Are you Christian Brown? May I join you?” From the way she felt the table and edged around it, he realised she was blind.
Stephanie had likewise been told very little about Christian, and now sat, trying to understand his strange manner of speaking. Susan had said he had a good heart, and that was what she now needed most in a man. She asked Christian if he could lip read and heard a noise that sounded like ‘yes.’
Christian admired her long chestnut hair and judged from the parting that it was her natural colour. She had high cheekbones and perfect teeth. He felt a strong attraction building and told himself to relax, to let her feel at home with him. To his surprise, a waiter brought her a beige plastic-coated card, covered in small bumps.
Stephanie skimmed it with her fingertips. “May I have Chicken Vindaloo and Tarka Dahl, please?” She smiled in Christian’s direction, “I like things spicy!”
Christian read her lips and felt his face flush, then, with relief, realised it didn’t matter.
He felt a hand on his shoulder and turned. It was Susan, all smiles at seeing the two of them together. She gestured in sign language to him, whilst speaking it out loud for Stephanie’s benefit. “Hello, Christian, are you alright?”
Stephanie felt a kiss on her cheek and Susan’s hand on hers, and a whisper in her ear.
“Are you OK with Christian?”
They both smiled at Susan, one seeing, one unseeing, one hearing, one unhearing, realising that this wise and compassionate woman was trying her best to bring much-needed romance into both of their lives. Neither felt inclined to object.

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Something to Do With the Sea


bookshop 4

(750 words)

Credited, usually, with the patience of a saint, I was nevertheless tested at times.
“I’m looking for a book.”
I looked up from my desk at the back of the shop, where I was cataloguing a copy of Pepys’s diary, bound in worn morocco leather that had no doubt, decades earlier, been an impressive maroon. The man was tall, ascetic, with a boyish face. His black hair was neatly parted and his nose was thin and pronounced. Ominously, he sported a dog-collar.
“Ah, yes, what’s it called.”
“Oh, that I’m not sure about. It’s quite a long title.”
“Well, who’s it by? I can look it up for you.”
“Ah, hmm, the name escapes me right now.” He gazed around the shelves intently, as if it were his first venture into a second-hand bookshop.
I felt the first bubblings of annoyance. “Well, look, what’s it about. Is it fiction or non-fiction?”
He looked down at me, blinking rapidly. “Oh, it … it’s non-fiction. Sorry, I’m not being much help, am I?”
“Well, is it a book on theology?” I suggested helpfully, taking account of his garb.
He smiled. “No, even us rectors need to read something other than the bible!”
“Look, can you remember anything about it?”
“Yes, it’s blue, and I think … an American author, something to do with the sea.”
Oh, that narrowed it down to a couple of million books then. I smiled my best bookshop-owner’s smile. “Look, perhaps you could come back when you have the author and title? But, while you’re here, why not have a look around. It might jog your memory?”
He returned to the counter some twenty minutes later clutching a number of books, just as I’d moved on to cataloguing a dog-eared copy of The Collected Letters of Samuel Johnson. Truth to tell I was glad of the diversion from Mr. Johnson’s wordy missives. “Did you find the book?”
“What book?”.
“The one you asked me about when you came in!”
“Ah, no, alas, it’s gone clean out of my mind. I do hate it when that happens, don’t you?”
Well it was part of my job that things didn’t go ‘clean out of my mind’ but I concurred politely, totting up books on chess, crosswords, violin-playing and one on how Aristotle invented science, to a respectable thirty-five pounds. That would at least cover heating and lighting for the day, I reflected.
The following morning, the shop bell rang and a woman appeared, her ample figure clothed in black. Her hair was platinum white, cut in a neat bob and she wore a little powder, pale-blue eye shadow and pink lipstick. She carried a book on chess – Rubinstein’s Fifty Best Games, which I recognised as one I’d sold to the vicar the previous day.
“Can I help?” I asked.
“Yes.” She gave a pleasant smile. “My husband bought this yesterday. I’m afraid he’s rather absent-minded. He’d already got a copy.”
Absent-minded seemed too kind but I smiled back. “I can refund you,” I said, ignoring my usual policy. “By the way, did he remember the book he was after.”
She handed me a slip of paper on which was written in neat fountain-pen, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. Stephen R Covey.
Trying to keep a straight face, I said, “Well, you’re in luck. I’ve got a copy in the back. I’ll just fetch it.”
I returned moments later with a virtually unread copy. The previous owner didn’t seem to have scored too high on the effectiveness scale. “You can have it for … er, three pounds.”
“Oh, that’s wonderful,” she exclaimed, taking the book and flicking through it with pink-painted nails. “My name’s Susan by the way. My husband – the vicar – is Cecil.” She held out her hand.
I shook it and stood mesmerised as her jade-green eyes stared into mine.
She seemed in no hurry to release her grip. “Look, you must come to tea.” She proffered a card. “Tomorrow would be good.” Glancing at a sign, she said, “How about four o’clock? I see you close early.” Hesitating, she added, “Although Cecil will be at choir practice till five, I’m afraid.” She didn’t look too afraid.
“Oh, that’ll be OK.” I thought I could live without Cecil’s company for an hour.
She smiled and handed me three pounds.
In the words of Mr Covey himself, it had all the hallmarks of a win-win situation!

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Poor Rose


border collie 2

(1100 words)

“What time do you get off?” the girl had asked me. Surprised, I’d turned from flipping a burger. She was tall, slim, with blonde hair in a short pony tail.
“I’ve a break in twenty minutes. Why?”
“Can we chat? I need a favour.”
The next twenty minutes had crawled past. I could see the girl sitting in a corner, fiddling with her phone. What the hell did she want?
“Look, my name’s Martha, I come here sometimes, you’ve served me a couple of times,” she said when I was free to join her.
Now I came to think about it, she did seem somewhat familiar, but then we served a lot of people.
“You seem a nice guy and I need someone to do me a favour.”
“What?”
“My sister phoned me to say she’s mislaid her house keys. I’ve got a spare but I’m a nurse and I’m needed on the other side of town, I’ve really gotta go. Like, now.”
“Well, where’s your sister?”
“She works at Jacksons.” She gave a wry smile. “They make toilets. It’s half an hour in the opposite direction.”
“What, will she come here then? I don’t finish till eight.”
“No, she’s on shifts. She won’t finish till ten, then she has to wait for a bus. She won’t be home till half-past.”
Martha had told me to go to her sister’s flat, let myself in and wait for her. That she was a friendly girl, but quiet and lonely after her dog had died. For me to keep her company for a bit. She’d shown me a photo. Her sister was older than Martha and plumper, with glasses. But she had a kindly face, not unattractive, and curly black hair.
“What’s her name?” I’d asked.
“Rose.”
I’d weighed up the pros and cons, hoping I was doing the right thing. “Ah … OK then.”
“Thank you so much.” She came round and kissed me on the cheek, making me blush.
The light wasn’t working properly on the landing. Instead of the soulless white glare from the fluorescent strip, there was a faint orange glow, like a dying star. I took the key I’d been given and turned it in the lock. Inside, it was dark. There was a musty smell, an odour of unlived-in-ness. I stood and listened. I heard the faint sound of a car door slamming on the street, way down below, then nothing, total silence. Then I became aware of a low, deep hum and a faint bubbling sound. I turned back to the grey rectangle that was the open front door and felt around for a light switch. Blinking in the bright light, I found myself in a long hallway with several closed doors.
The first one I tried opened onto a small cloakroom. There were several coats and jackets on pegs. I ran my fingers over the black fur trim of a jacket. It felt soft and smelt of perfume.
The next one opened onto a large space. I could see a faint area of luminescence some distance away, the glow of the city through the curtains. I turned the light on and found myself in a large lounge where three sofas were arranged in a rough triangle about three feet apart. In a corner was the source of the humming and bubbling – a large tank full of water. I clicked a switch on a cable and the tank lit up. Tiny fish of silver and gold swirled around, whilst an angel fish hung motionless, blinking forlornly. Fronds of green plant life extended up to the surface and a replica of the colosseum stood on multicoloured gravel, alongside models of other ancient architectural wonders.
In a neat bedroom there was a double bed with a lemon-coloured bedspread featuring a design of small pink rosebuds. A little table stood in an alcove. On it were an upright wooden crucifix and a pair of plaster hands, held in a praying position and holding a small tea light. On either side were pink candles, about a quarter burnt down, and on the wall in front of the table, a large framed photograph of a dog, a border collie – brown and white – looking up with huge eyes. A small vase of smoked glass held a single red rose.
I became aware of old-fashioned music and realised I must have nodded off. Surprised at being in unfamiliar surroundings, it took me a moment to remember where I was. The news had finished and it was now an old black and white movie. I didn’t know they showed those any more. I recognised the pale, angular face of a famous old actor. The one who looked like Peter Cushing. What was his name? I couldn’t remember and got up and turned the TV off. I looked at the clock and got a shock. It was nearly midnight!
Where the hell was Rose? I looked around the apartment, just to make sure she wasn’t back. In the alcove in the bedroom I was surprised to find several rose petals on the little table. That was odd.
I found some notepaper and a pen and scribbled a message to leave outside the front door in case Rose came back in the meantime, then grabbed my coat and went out. I took the lift down to the lobby and walked out into the deserted street. There was a quiet, cold rain. I looked up and down, seeing the yellow lamplight reflected on the wet paving slabs. In the distance I could see flashing blue and red lights. I decided to walk in that direction.
As I approached, I could feel apprehension building in my gut. There were a number of police cars and an ambulance, and on the pavement, a small wet crowd. As I grew closer, the ambulance drove off and the crowd, seeming to lose interest, began to drift away.
“Excuse me. What happened?” I asked a large middle-aged woman in a raincoat and beret.
“There was an accident. The police were chasing a motorbike.” She gestured to a mangled wreck behind a police car, which I could now see. It was surrounded by chequered tape. “It crashed and hit a pedestrian.” In the street light her face looked like a slab of orange clay. “They said they were both killed.”
“Who was the pedestrian? D’you know?”
“No. They said it was a young woman. She had a photo of a dog. That’s all I know.” She turned away and her bulky silhouette shuffled off slowly into the rain.

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Salmon and Soul


stiffkey

(1200 words)


Tunsgate Green stood, thinking of Ruth back in the cottage, typing away at her wretched manuscript. Some romantic nonsense, mainly to make up for the total lack of it in their lives, he imagined. Once she’d been young, vivacious, sexy even. He snorted. Hard to imagine that now! Their love life currently resembled this salt marsh – dead flat.
He gazed over the dry beige marshland to the distant level horizon, the faintest deep blue ribbon set against the pale blue sky indicating the start of the North Sea, next stop the fjords and islands of western Norway, 400 miles away.
They’d come to Stiffkey, on the Norfolk coast, to try to rekindle something of their relationship, but with Ruth immersed in her fictional romantic world, and him stalking the lonely marshes and empty beaches, they rarely seemed to meet when one or the other wasn’t tired. She could be irritatingly churlish too, which didn’t help, and he probably wasn’t much better, he admitted.
He missed Shiva, his black labrador and companion of the last twelve years. She’d developed stomach cancer and had to be put to sleep six weeks earlier. Ruth had made sympathetic noises, but she didn’t really care. He’d been devastated. He realised he still was, as tears came to his eyes at the thought.
A gentle cool breeze ruffled the stubby coarse grass. It was warm and he felt sweaty, even though he’d not walked fast. Out there he knew appearances could be deceptive. Salt water lurked under the soil, always eager for a victim, perhaps an overzealous dog, or even a careless walker. At night, spirits of footpads and pirates were said to roam the endless flat landscape, damned to do so by virtue of their heinous deeds in life.
He walked back alongside a creek of bright blue water. The soil was exposed here, clay-brown, but dry from the heat of summer. There was no sign of modern life – no fences, telegraph poles, nothing. Just this ancient path, scuffed by centuries of wayfarers.
Coming into the village he encountered the Stiffkey Stores. A pale-red pitched roof surmounted walls made from small stones, some grey, some black, cemented together somehow. A faded blue awning, stained green with moss, overhung a dark curtainless window. In front of the store stood a trailer full of pots of colourful flowers. Someone had recently given it a lick of fresh grey paint.
He pushed the door open and a bell rang. To the left was an old brown wooden counter with an ancient till at the near end. Shelves on the far wall contained tins of soup, loaves of white bread, bags of sugar and the like. Against the wall to the right was a stand containing potatoes with soil on them, large, almost-fluorescent orange carrots, huge cauliflowers, and other vegetables and fruit.
“Hello.” A young woman behind the counter, dressed in an enormous thick bottle-green turtle neck pullover, smiled brightly. She had shoulder length blonde hair, and an attractive, tanned face, unadorned by make up. On the counter in front of her lay a salmon. Its scales held shades of purple and red. Freshly caught, he surmised.
“Hello,” he said, surprised. He’d met old Mr. Blush on his one previous visit to buy some stamps. “Did you catch that yourself?” he found himself asking.
“No, I created it!” She laughed a warm laugh, showing perfect white teeth. “What’s your name?”
“Oh, it’s, … don’t laugh. Tunsgate! Apparently I was conceived there. My mother never knew my father’s name. What’s yours?”
“She smiled, it’s Nancy, but you know me as Calluna … in the other place.”
He began to wonder if she was all right in the head. She seemed somehow familiar though, and exuded an aura of friendship. “What do you mean, you created this salmon?!”
She stood up and smoothed the green wool down over her breasts. She laughed her warm laugh again. “There are four of us, you – Arthemis, that’s what you’re called, me, Nathum and Senji. Our guide and teacher is Shato. He sometimes comes to us as an Irish leprechaun, other times as a beautiful young woman! Your ego-mind doesn’t remember, but inside, deep inside, your superconscious mind, the mind of your soul, remembers very well!”
Something in what she was saying rang a distant, faint bell. “I … er, I don’t know. It’s interesting what you’re saying but ….”
She came out from behind the counter and he noticed she had one pale blue eye, and one jade green eye. He felt a jolt of recognition. His imagination though, surely?
“We were on what we call Earth Two, a ‘practice world.’ Now we are at level three we can practise, with Shato’s help, channelling energy to make things. At first small pebbles and rocks, then plants, then … fish!” She laughed. “It took a long time. Many, many, many lifetimes!”
She approached and put her arms around him. Tunsgate closed his eyes, hugging her back. Yes, he knew her. Deep inside. He could feel the love of a soul mate emanating from her. Then she broke away. “I have to close the shop now.” She wrapped the salmon in greaseproof paper and put it in a brown paper bag. “Here, a present from Calluna!”
“What did you do?” asked Ruth. She was in the small kitchen, pouring boiling water into a large blue china teapot. He enjoyed the familiar, fragrant smell.
“Oh, just walked along the coastal path. I miss Shiva.”
“I know, darling, she was a lovely dog.” She came over and, to his astonishment, hugged him, kissing him on the cheek. He couldn’t remember the last time she’d done that.
He continued, “I called into the store. There was an amazing young woman there. Said she knew me from a previous life!” He felt embarrassed.
Ruth laughed. “I wonder who that was, there’s only old Mr. and Mrs. Blush run the store.”
“She was about twenty-five, blonde hair, attractive. She gave me this salmon!”
“Oh, that’d be from the salmon farm just down the coast. They’ve got a son. He works there. There’s no daughter though. Well ….”
“Well what?”
Ruth poured strong brown tea into two blue enamelled mugs and splashed in milk from a carton. “Well there was a daughter. Old Mrs. Blush told me the girl used to ride a horse along the coast. One day, about ten years ago, she went out and neither she nor the horse ever came back.”
“That’s terrible!”
“Yes, some said the horse was a water kelpie and had taken her back to the sea. More likely they went onto the marsh and just got swallowed up, poor girl. Her name was Nancy.”
He started. “Nancy. That was the name of the girl in the shop!”
Ruth looked up. Her lips were glossy and he noticed she’d applied some powder to her normally pale cheeks. “Old Mrs. Blush told me Nancy had an unusual characteristic … she had one blue eye …”
“… and one green,” he said.
Ruth looked into her mug. “Truth can be stranger than fiction … sometimes.”
“I suppose so.”

She smiled. “Look, let’s drink our tea, then ….” She nodded towards the bedroom door.

Please note: this story was originally published on 30th November 2017. To read the comments, please click HERE.

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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My Name is Ian Z. McPhee


love hearts

(627 words)


It was incredible and completely unexpected; the sensations as our fingers touched was electric; my heart skipped a beat and I momentarily forgot to breathe. Her fingers intertwined with mine and she twitched her lips in that funny way she used to, before kissing me tenderly. I gazed into her dark round eyes and knew it was love – deep, sacred love.
We’d been together for six weeks now, not long, but long enough for me to start to get to know her personality: playful yet pensive, jubilant but shy, magnanimous yet fickle. It was wonderful to have a partner again, after having only male company for the best part of a year, and her silky hair and long limbs drew admiring glances from my friends and colleagues.
I’d scarcely known her before she moved in with me. She appeared out of nowhere one day with just a bagful of possessions: a mirror, toiletries and the like. She was so beautiful though, that I couldn’t turn her away. I’ll always remember that she had a bunch of bananas, which we’d laughed about as it’s my favourite fruit.
I didn’t have a job then so we would spend a lot of time together, sometimes kissing and cuddling like all young lovers, but on other occasions watching the television or simply looking out of the window, watching the world go by. On other occasions we passed time in quiet, solitary meditation, which we were both schooled in.
I suppose, looking back, that our life together was rather haphazard, existing day to day, making no plans for the future.
I only saw her angry once. A small boy in a red pullover and jeans stood banging at our window, for no apparent reason as far as I could see. His mother stood nearby with younger siblings, paying scant attention. “Stop it Henry!” she would shout from time to time. There was no sign of a father. My beloved went to the window and pounded on it, matching the boy fist for fist. That seemed to enrage him and he started banging harder and faster. She did likewise, emitting a strange animal-like sound, when suddenly the mother pulled him away and cuffed him hard around the ears. Instantly my love became calm and her normal self again, taking an apple from a bowl and smiling at me sheepishly.

Then, one sad, sad day, our relationship ended. A man in a green uniform with a peaked cap and shiny buttons entered our living area, uninvited. I recognised him as a fruit delivery man so held my tongue.
“Sorry Fred,” he said, although that wasn’t actually my name, “Bella’s got to get on a plane, she’s off to Berlin.” That wasn’t actually her name either. Then other men came in, with a cage on wheels. I protested strongly and loudly. You can’t put her in there! I saw her being given an injection. “Just something to calm her down Fred, nothing to worry about.” The cage door was opened and they manhandled her in.
“Let him say goodbye, bless him,” one of the men said. I went to the cage and looked into her dark round sleepy eyes. I put my hands through the bars and our fingers interlaced for the last time. “Goodbye,” I whispered in our own secret language.
They wheeled her out and I never saw her again. I had no photos, just memories of her to keep. Simple memories – eating fruit together, climbing on a big frame outside and swinging on ropes, watching the crowds watching us, searching each other’s coats for fleas ….
I didn’t know if or when I’d have another mate but in the meantime I decided to eat a banana.

Please note: this story was originally published on 12th September 2016. To read the comments, please click HERE.

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Full Fathom Five


cruise ship
(1300 words)

I stood at the railing, gazing out to the haze of the distant level horizon. The sea was calm, low deep-blue waves undulating slowly, barely hinting at their potential ferocity. Ahead and far below me was the bow of the cruiser, where people, ant-like, sat by an unusually empty pool. I sighed and thought of Janie. Bitch!  We’d had problems, sure, who doesn’t? But her leaving had come as a shock.
It was Valentine’s Day, of all days, and I’d ordered some Adrenaline roses, her favourites. Unexpectedly, a silver BMW had pulled up, and I’d recognised Andy, her gym trainer, his dyed-blond hair swept over in an attempt to look youthful. Obviously it had worked. Janie appeared. “Look Steve, I don’t want a scene. I’m leaving. Me and Andy … I’ll be in touch about my things.” She’d looked embarrassed and hurried out, clutching her sports holdall, before I’d had time to reply. I watched her get into the car and kiss him. They drove off without looking back. Just then the flower delivery van had turned up. I’d taken the roses and thrashed them to pieces in the back garden with tears streaming down my face.
“Full fathom five thy father lies, of his bones are coral made.”
Surprised, I looked around to see a young woman with medium length blonde hair and sunglasses. She wore a jade green dress with a modest neck line.
I couldn’t help myself. “Those are pearl that were his eyes, Nothing of him doth fade.’
“But doth suffer a sea-change,” we both said, in unison.
She laughed. “I don’t think there’s many on this ship who know Shakespeare!” Her voice was husky. “Why aren’t you on the island?”
“Oh, I fancied some time to myself.” I’d accompanied my mother on this cruise, naively not anticipating the non-stop queuing for lifts, queuing to embark and disembark, crowded pools full of rowdy children, and endless bars, cafes and restaurants thronged with people.
“I know what you mean. My name’s Jamie by the way.”
“Hi, mine’s Steve.” Jamie, Janie. Hmm.
She shook my hand, her palm was dry and warm and her long slim fingers wrapped around mine and squeezed. Her nails were short with a clear varnish and she wore a curious gold ring in the form of a coiled snake with two tiny purple stones for eyes.
We stood in companionable silence, gazing in awe at the endless sea. A warm breeze blew her blonde hair back showing high cheekbones and full lips, lightly made up. She was tall and slight and her skin was tanned. I felt self-conscious of my own pale flesh and paunch, trying to hold my stomach in below my white T-shirt.
“Are you with anyone?” she asked.
I told her about my mother – aged, irascible, partially deaf and between cataract operations. Mother had said she was looking for a sugar daddy. I’d asked Jamie if she knew of any blind 90-year olds on board.
She laughed as if I’d told the world’s funniest joke. “I’ll keep an eye out! Sorry Steve, I have to go. Look do you know ‘Arabella’s Sushi?”
I said I’d heard of it. It was a bar that moved between decks every day. A novel idea that appealed to me.
“Would you like to meet tonight? It’s on deck six today. Say 8 p.m.?” she said.
“Yes, that’d be lovely,” I replied, trying not to sound too desperate.
That evening I’d showered and spruced myself up. In a pastel orange shirt, cream linen slacks and, holding my stomach in I thought I didn’t look too bad.
I arrived early, feeling rather apprehensive, to find the bar wasn’t crowded, even though the throngs had returned from viewing Roman ruins – only a few tables were taken. I got talking to an attractive Filipino waitress. She was friendly, seemed happy to chat and told me they worked seven days a week whilst on cruise. For no reason I found myself asking if anyone had ever gone overboard. Her face changed. Yes. On the last cruise. A young woman, that’s all she knew. But it was bad luck to talk about it. I apologised and her friendly demeanour returned. Suddenly I realised it was twenty past eight. No sign of Jamie!
I’d waited until nine and then, despondent, had given up, returning to our suite to find mother with another ‘old bag’, although somewhat more presentable. Mother introduced me to her as Iris Brummage. Apparently she was a retired professor of mathematics. Mother, being a fawning snob, had latched onto her.
I went out onto our balcony and sat looking out to sea, disheartened. What the hell had happened to Jamie?
The days passed. Mother went off the boat most days with her new friend and I felt as if I was the only person on their own. Everywhere were couples or families with young children. I scanned the crowds for Jamie, even asked in every cafe and bar I went to, but no-one knew her. In one cafe however, a waitress had looked at me strangely. “On a cruise, people aren’t always who they say they are.”
One day, looking down from our fifth-deck balcony, I thought I saw Jamie’s blonde hair and jade green dress far below on the lower deck. I’d raced through corridors and down endless staircases, eventually coming out where I thought I’d seen her. I looked in vain, finally asking some sunbathers, who said they didn’t remember her. They regarded me curiously, seeing me sweaty and anxious.
In my time on the cruise I found the other holidaymakers generally friendly and easy to converse with. However I soon grew tired of the endless chat of what deck was I on, what was my cabin like and what shows had I seen? None! Then would come interminable stories of previous cruises. They were well-meaning but I wanted someone on my own wavelength. I longed to hear Jamie’s husky voice laughing and to see her sunny smile again.
It was towards the end of the cruise when I found myself wandering along a part of our deck I hadn’t visited before. Not hard, considering the size of the place. Floating city was about right, and I never did learn to find my way around. Hearing music, I passed into a large open space with a bar at either end and chairs dotted around, where a pianist, drummer and guitarist were playing jazz. To my surprise mother and Mrs. Brummage were there. Mrs. B waved and smiled. She wasn’t so bad I supposed. I ordered a lager at the bar nearest the band. The barman was another Filipino, middle-aged and sympathetic. I asked my usual question. Had he come across a young lady called Jamie, early thirties, tall, slim, blonde?
“No, sorry sir, so many people!” He gestured, opening his arms, laughing. Then, “Only Jamie I know is pianist here.”
I looked at the man on the piano, young and slim, currently drawing out mellifluous melodies with apparent ease.
“D’you know him well?” I asked.
“Not really. He and Alan, the drummer, well … they, are, er … together, if you know what I mean.” He smiled wryly.
Mother and Mrs. Brummage came over. Mother spoke. “We’re going to Hairspray. D’you want to come?”
I looked at the pianist again. His tanned face, handsome yet effeminate, looked around and through me, as if I were invisible. I felt a jolt of recognition. Then he looked down again, watching his slender fingers fly. I walked past the piano, feigning nonchalance, observing him askance, then froze, seeing a familiar snake-like gold ring. How fitting! I felt sick.

I returned to mother, “Yeah, let’s go. I can’t stand jazz.”

 

Please note: this story was originally published on 5th March 2017. To read the comments, please click HERE.

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Opportunity Knocked


Woman-in-summer-straw-hat-sends-air-kiss-over-pink
(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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A Flying Visit


repairing_magic_flying_carpet_by_gaudibuendia-d9vt1ip

(1300 words)

My story starts one sunny day in August. I’d spent the morning setting up bookcases, then bringing in box after heavy box of old books from an outbuilding, with the intention of getting them into some kind of order. They belonged to my uncle Josiah who had died at an unexpectedly early age after being pushed onto the live rail of a tube train at Holland Park station by a ‘random madman,’ described as a ‘fakir lookalike,’ yet to be apprehended.
The books had been left to me, Ruben Winterfield is my name, in uncle Josiah’s will, possibly as I’d worked in the antiquarian book trade for a number of years, although I’d only met him on occasion. Well, the ones I’d looked at so far were fairly weird. There were books on various forms of astrology, tarot, angels, demons, witchcraft, clairvoyance and the like. There was also a collection of old hardbacks by William Walker Atkinson, the famous occultist, also known as Yogi Ramacharaka or Theron Q. Dumont, which I suspected to be very valuable in the first and early editions, which these were.
Needing a break, I decided to take a stroll and get some fresh air. I walked along a footpath outside my house, to a track along the edge of a field, where a stream bubbled in a gully which ran alongside. I reached a huge, gnarled oak tree, where there was a short path to a small waterfall. On impulse I took it and was amazed to find that, for the first time ever, I was not alone there.
A lady in a purple cloak was situated on the far side of the stream, bending over with her hands in the water, presumably searching for something. On my side of the stream stood a young girl, perhaps six years old, holding the lead of a beautiful honey-coloured rough collie. The girl had a pretty face, bright blue eyes and mid-length blonde hair, held back in a pony tail with a blue band.
The lady seemed startled by my appearance and stood up, looking flustered. The little girl simply turned to me and smiled. “Hello, I’m Esmerelda, this is Solomon, and that’s my mummy.”
Well, it seemed that the mother, Tameka, had been performing some kind of ritual, to Neda, a goddess of waters, when in her excitement of shouting an invocation, a talisman she’d been holding went flying into the waterfall. It was eventually found, a leather pouch, stamped with strange symbols, and containing now-sodden herbs.
Esmerelda rolled her eyes at me. Apparently, this wasn’t the first time her mother’s ‘occult activities’ had gone awry.
I’d invited them back for a cup of tea, a glass of orange squash, and a bowl of water respectively, and had taken a shine to them. Tameka had wavy blonde hair and was not unattractive, but somewhat odd, rambling on about archangels and goddesses, as if they were personal friends.
Esmerelda, on the other hand, seemed bright as a button, and, mentally well in advance of her six years. Solomon seemed a gentle soul, content to sit in the corner, close his eyes and meditate on whatever dogs meditate on.
“Mummy’s got a magic carpet,” Esmeralda said.
I laughed. “Well, I’d like to fly to Iceland, they’ve got some pretty big waterfalls there!”
Tameka perked up. “Actually, I do have one. It was left to me by my great-uncle, Henri Baq. He wrote a history of the flying carpet.”
“I thought it was just fairy tale nonsense,” I said.

Tameka’s face became serious. “Fairy tales are usually based on fact.”

So, to my astonishment, I’d wound up at their place one afternoon, an old castle-like mansion, only part of which appeared to be habitable. Tameka led us into a large book-lined study and went over to an old cupboard. She extracted a rolled-up piece of fabric, approached the centre of the room and unfurled it.
I gasped in astonishment. It appeared to be woven from green silk with a gold weft, perhaps eight feet by five. We all clambered on board, Solomon too, who barked several times, whether in assurance or alarm, I couldn’t be sure. We humans sat cross-legged in time-honoured fashion for riding carpets.
Tameka took a piece of parchment from a shoulder bag. “This carpet was made under the supervision of Ben Sherira, from the Kingdom of Ghor,” she translated. “Is everybody ready?”
“Yes, mother,” sighed Esmerelda, whilst Solomon opened his eyes and gave a soft bark.
“What about you, Ruben?”
For the first time, I realised this might not be a piece of total insanity. “Well, er, if you’re sure it’s safe ….”
Tameka didn’t reply. She read some incomprehensible words from the papyrus, clapped her hands and, Wham! I found myself looking down on an amazing sunlit cloud-scape through a translucent bubble, surrounding our carpet.
We whizzed over deep blue oceans, mountains, glaciers and forests, until Esmerelda exclaimed, “Oh, look, mummy, there’s Akureyri!” whilst Solomon whined, presumably wishing to be on terra firma.
I gazed down on the picturesque fishing town, situated in the north west corner of Iceland, as we headed over the brilliantly coloured flowers and shrubs of the botanic gardens, allegedly the world’s most northernmost, and then shortly we were hovering over Godafoss, the ‘Waterfall of the Gods.’
Curtains of thundering water pounded down from multiple falls, deafening, even within our supernaturally-protected environment. Suddenly our ‘bubble’ disappeared and we were exposed, enveloped in the mist of rebounding water, our ears reverberating to the clamour of its unimaginable crashing weight, our noses assailed with the odour of liquid energy. Solomon was barking furiously.
After a few minutes our sphere of protection reappeared and our now somewhat soggy carpet soared upwards once more.
The sun dried the carpet, even through our protective bubble and I also found it was safe to move about, a welcome relief after squatting for so long. “I’d like to see the Niagara Falls,” I ventured. “I’ve never been there.”
Esmerelda pulled a face, and Tameka took the hint. “Sorry Ruben, Esme’s going to a party. It’s her friend, Rosalina’s birthday and they’re having a magician.”
I laughed at the irony. Then I noticed that the sky had turned dark and our carpet was being buffeted by high winds. It turned cold, then after a while it began to snow.
“I don’t like this, mummy,” said Esmerelda, looking tearful. Solomon rubbed his face against her cheek, as if to reassure her.
“Don’t worry, we’re safe in our bubble,” said Tameka. “Hey, d’you remember those glass globes that you shook and then they were filled with falling snow?”
“Yes, of course,” I said. “There’d be a little Christmas scene inside.”

She laughed. “Well, we’re like that, but the other way around!”

Later that day I stood on a terrace outside the Brampton Hotel’s Riverside Room, where the party was being held. From inside came the excited squeals of young children enjoying the fun. I stood with a glass of wine, gazing down on a small waterfall which cascaded alongside a glass wall of the hotel. Had I dreamt the Iceland adventure? it seemed too incredible to be true. Suddenly I felt a warm, soft hand in mine and a kiss on my cheek.
“Thank you for coming today.” It was Tameka. With a flowing red dress and wearing makeup, she was barely recognizable as the soggy female above Godafoss earlier.
“Oh, you’re welcome, it was … something different, I suppose,” I said, rather lamely.
She smiled. “I hope you’ll come with us again.”
I noticed she was still holding my hand. My heart beat a little faster. “Yes, I’d like that.” I guessed I could use her magic in my life.

—-

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The Mound Folk


standing stone

(850 words)

With a heavy heart, I’ve decided to set down here an event from my distant youth, one that’s been troubling me for many a year. I’m now five years short of my century, not long for this Earthly plane and I need to get it off my chest.
Well, it would have been back in about 1933, those inter-war years I so fondly remember, when hope burned in all our breasts, and optimism exuded from every pore. We’d gone on a school trip to South Wales and were staying in a youth hostel, a converted lifeboat house. I remember the normally wooden or steel launching ramp had been concreted over for some reason.
Anyway, youth hostels were known to be austere in those days, not tarted up to fourth-rate hotels like they are now. This one was more austere than most. Bare stick-like furniture, cold, damp and no hot water or electricity. So, in the evenings we’d congregate in a corner of the refectory where logs blazed in an open fire and there was table football and darts.
Well, I loved table football, the excitement of pushing and pulling the rods to position the players, the powerful flick of the wrist to send the ball flying and the split second reactions needed to block a ball from your goal. All to the excited shouts and laughter of a bunch of schoolboys.
So, there we were, on our first evening, about to start our evening meal. Curiously, I can remember it even now. Parsnip soup and bread, followed by beef stew with dumplings, potatoes and carrots, that we’d spent an hour peeling beforehand. First, though, the hostel manager, ‘Skipper,’ asked us to bow our heads as he said grace.
In the silence I could hear waves crashing on the rocks outside, and the quiet hiss of gas lamps. When Skipper had finished, he cleared his throat. “… and, listen carefully, no one is to leave the hostel in the hours of darkness.”
“I hope that doesn’t include me,” laughed our teacher Mr. Hughes, “I thought I’d take a walk down the coast to the village pub, … just for linguistic studies, you understand.”
We all laughed.
“I’m sorry, Mr. Hughes, that does include you, sir, it can be dangerous out there, er, … the wind and the waves ….”
“He doesn’t want us to bump into any Mound Folk, that’s what it’s about!” Joseph, my class mate, whispered from his bunk in the dormitory. From the snoring and heavy breathing surrounding us, it sounded like we were the only two still awake.
“What are you on about?!”
“They’re elves, tall and thin. They live on the moors hereabouts, under those mounds you see sometimes.”
“How do you know?”
“Sally, the lady who brings milk in the mornings told me. At night their menfolk make jewellery, pots and pans, and fashion swords. The women bake and brew and herd their cattle. And they love to dance! Sally says they play the fiddle like you’ve never heard. Even the trees and stones have to dance! If you hear it though, you can’t stop dancing, unless someone cuts the fiddler’s strings. And if it gets light before you stop dancing, well, you turn to stone!”
“Do you believe that?”
“Well, I’m going to find out!”
“No, Joseph, don’t, you might … get lost … or something.”
Not one for following rules, he’d pulled on some clothes and crept out of the hostel via a back door Sally had shown him, locked at night, but the key left in the lock.
And that was the last time I ever saw him.
In the cold light of day, I awoke. I could hear waves thundering on the shingle outside but there was dead silence in the dormitory. Then I looked over at Joseph’s bunk and was horrified to find it empty.
I couldn’t sleep after that and I found Mr. Hughes, bedraggled and unshaven in his bed, and told him Joseph wasn’t there. There followed a day of frantic searching, us boys at first, then the local bobbies, then even the army were brought in.
There was no sign of Joseph. Eventually it was assumed that he must have fallen into the sea and drowned. A tragic accident. A memorial service would be held and a tree planted in his name.
But on our last day there, we’d had some free time and I walked up onto the moor and to one of the mounds Joseph had referred to. There was a stone obelisk, nearly five feet high. It looked quite new, the sides showing no sign of wind erosion.
I circled the stone, pulling my collar up against a high wind, and wondering. Then, as I turned to walk back to the hostel for lunch and the bus home, I heard a high-pitched wail. It could have been the merciless wind whipping the bare turf, or perhaps a gull high above, being thrown across the sky, or maybe even the sound of a small boy crying out desperately from his stone prison – for help that could never come.

—-

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A Girl Like Alice


Takao Trick Art Museum

(650 words)

With any luck it would blow over. I wouldn’t miss her, though. In fact, now I thought about it, I could quite happily live without Alice wandering around the empty, echoing corridors of Thurkett Grange, dressed in nothing more than a long-sleeved shirt – pale green stripes on white – with her small, hard breasts showing through the material like two cherry tarts. As often as not she’d be humming tunelessly, frowning, pacing up and down, sometimes muttering to herself. And as for ‘Steve’!
I couldn’t even be sure how we came to be together. I’d met her somewhere, a restaurant, a party, my mind’s hazy on that point. She had a lean, smooth face, with mediumly-full lips, neat white teeth and large grey eyes, all framed by an inverted ‘v’ of tight curls in straw coloured hair, cascading down to her shoulders.
She wasn’t especially pretty, but attractive, if you know what I mean.
“Hello, I’m Alice, who are you?”
“Stephen, … well, people call me Steve.”
She’d seated herself opposite me, plonking a large glass of lemon-coloured wine down on a table between us, so that some splashed onto the tablecloth. She giggled. “Whoops! … That’s a coincidence, my cat’s called Steve!”
“Why did you call him Steve?”
“I didn’t. He told me that was his name.”
I laughed. “Sounds like an unusual cat!”
“Someone said you live in the old manor house. On your own. Do you get lonely?”
I’d blushed. Truth was I did sometimes. Since Lorraine had left a year ago. “Not really.”
“Can I come and see the place?” She smiled a quizzical, endearing smile, smoothing her short black skirt down over long slim legs with orange-painted fingernails.
So, as a patron of the county art society I’d shown her round my gallery, which housed a number of the society’s finer works.
She’d traced her fingernails over a moody seascape, executed in oils.
“Careful! That’s a valuable painting!”
“This was painted by my uncle Maurice. He lived out by the coast – in Mablethorpe.”
“Really?” Maurice Sotherton had indeed lived in Mablethorpe and the painting was signed just ‘M.S.’ “That’s a coincidence.”
Then the library. Thousands of volumes rubbing shoulders from floor to a high ceiling where light entered through small leaded windows in the sides of a white-painted cupola.
“I wrote a book once,” she said.
“Really? What was it about?”
“It was called The Seven Spiritual Laws of Excess … it was supposed to be funny.”
“Did you sell many copies?”
“One. To my husband.”
“Oh ….”
“Actually, you know him.”
“I do?”
“Tom Prince. You play pool together at the Blacksmith’s Arms. Or did.”
Well, that was strange. I did know Tom, a friendly guy, aged about thirty, but we’d mainly played for different teams. Then one day he’d vanished. No one knew where he’d gone and his house was looking rather dilapidated. I’d never heard him refer to a wife.
But all that was in the past. Alice had left as suddenly as she’d moved in, taking her vociferous Siamese cat, Steve, with her. I could honestly say I missed him like a hole in the head. But Alice? Well, she wasn’t all bad. We’d had good times together, not just in bed. She was a font of bizarre and irrelevant knowledge and a frequenter of odd galleries and museums. The type that lay hidden down ancient cobbled alleyways and which hardly ever seemed to open.
My finger hovered over her number on my speed dial. I reckoned it wouldn’t do any harm to give her a call. Just to see how she was doing, nothing more, you understand. Here goes! I pressed the number just as the doorbell rang. I thought I heard the yowl of a cat. Another damned coincidence! My heart beat a little faster and I found myself smiling. ‘Better the Devil you know’ came to mind.

—-

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