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 ….

A-couple-kissing-beneath-the-mistletoe

(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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Three Lives

Servant Bells

(550 words)

“I’m a servant, milord, a maid to Sir Oswald’s household.”
“And are you happy there?” I asked.
“No, milord, cursed be the day I came into this house!”
“What do you see around you?”
“Stone flags, milord, and a great fire. There’s a kettle o’water a’heatin’ for the washing.”
“Is it the scullery?”
“Yes, milord, there be a great kitchen for the cooking.”
“Is there anyone else there?”
(subject laughs) “Yes, milord, there’s Jack, the vartlet. He sits by the fire, his face red as any fox!”
“Do you like Jack?”
“Yes, milord, he’s a knave, jolly as a pie!”
“That’s good. And what about Sir Oswald.”
(subject seems nervous) “He … he, by my troth, he doth take advantage. When my lady is away, I must needs go to his chamber of a night. He maketh me unclothe myself – naked as a needle, and … and ….”
“Can’t you refuse?”
(subject appears tearful) “What wilt thou say, milord, I must needs, or I’ll be flashing my queint as a trull down in the town, a penny a time!”
“Isn’t there anyone you can talk to?”
(subject starts to cry) “No, milord, there’s none as wish to upset his Lordship!”
I place a hand on the subject’s forehead. “On the count of three you feel completely calm and come forward in time to your next life, at roughly the same age.”
(subject nods)
“One Two Three!”
(subject looks around, smiling)
“Where are you?”
“In the children’s room, sir. I see boxes of their toys.”
“And what year is it?”
(long pause) “Good Queen Victoria reigns, … er, I’m not sure, sir.”
“What is your position?”
“Oh, I’m a nanny to two dear children, sir.”
“Where do you live?”
“Oh, I live with the family, sir, the James’s. It’s somewhere in London, near to the river.”
“What age are you?”
“Eight and twenty, sir.”
“And do you like your work?”
“Mostly. The children, Jacob and Jemima, are lovely, and the master is a gent!”
“What about the mistress?”
(long pause) “Hard as nails she is, sir, always finding fault with me, especially when the master’s not around. Once I’d taken the children out, down to the pond to sail their toy yachts, and Jacob fell over and cut his knee bad. Well it weren’t my fault, sir, but the mistress, she went mad. The master being away, she took me into her study and gave me ten strokes of her cane on my behind.” (subject begins to cry) “I couldn’t sit properly for four days, sir!”
“OK. I’m going to count down from ten, and on the count of one, you will be back in the present moment, feeling calm and happy, with full memory of this session. Do you understand?”
“Yes, sir.”
“Ten, nine, eight … two, ONE!”
(subject sits up) “That was heavy!”
“You see now. Your problem of over-dominance, especially of, er, subordinates, is linked, intrinsically, to these last two lives.”
(subject nods)
“In both cases, you were subject to sexual and physical abuse, on a regular basis.”
“Yes, it wasn’t much fun!”
“I’m going to give you some hypnotic suggestions, based on this session. They’ll help you see people for who they are, warts and all, as people, not objects or possessions to be pushed around.”

David smiles, relieved. “Thank you.”

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Just the Ticket

 

abandoned railway

(1000 words)

“Servant?, well it’s, er, someone who performs duties for someone else, like someone who used to work in a big house in the old days, like a butler or a maid.”
“Did they get paid?” asked Elsa, my eight year old granddaughter, a pretty little thing with blonde hair.
I laughed. “Yes! Otherwise they’d be a slave. Not a lot though, I don’t think. Anyway, I was a Civil Servant, a government pen pusher!”
We were headed into a green tunnel. On both sides of the path, stretching back many yards, was a wall of burgeoning saplings, mature trees, bracken, vines, beds of nettles – a mass of lush verdant vegetation, flourishing in chaos. Dappled sunlight filtered through the greenery, here and there turning patches of leaves a variegated yellow.
Elsa pointed ahead to a row of low concrete columns that seemed to stretch forever along the left hand side of the path. “What’s this granddad?”
“Ha, this was a platform. That’s the edge. Trains used to stop here.”
“But it’s covered in all these trees and things!”
My daughter Mary was visiting. She was separated from my son-in-law, Martin, and they’d been living apart these past six months. It was ‘Till death do us part’ in my day, but what could I do? My well-meant advice fell on deaf ears and just led to bad feelings. It was heart-breaking for me but I’d learned to stay schtum and just play the part of the doting grandfather. I’d left Mary on the phone to her solicitor and taken Elsa to the shops along an old railway line, now converted into a cycle path. “Well, the trains stopped running in 1965. That’s over fifty years ago!”
“That’s a long time. Before mummy was born even.”
There wasn’t a single square foot on the whole platform that was free of vegetation. “Look, see how the roots have buried down through the concrete and broken it up.” Hundreds of young elder trees had sprung up along the edge of the platform and the path itself was encroached by nettles and grass. The council penny-pinching as usual. “This path was the railway line!”
“What happened to it?”
“Oh, the council took it up in the 1980’s.”
“Why, granddad?”
“I don’t know. For scrap iron I suppose.”
Elsa’s wide blue eyes met mine but she remained silent, walking along, swinging her arms and gazing at what had once, incredibly, been a bustling railway platform.
I envisioned an army officer waiting on the platform – tall, slim, dressed in khaki, with a leather dispatch bag over his shoulder. Next to him a shorter fellow, destined for a bank with his charcoal suit, polished black shoes and Homburg hat, puffing on a pipe.
It was 1952 and I’d get out of the train here with my workmates to walk to the nearby aircraft factory. I still remembered the clanking carriages; large metal boxes with worn, faded, chequered cloth on the seating that always smelt musty, even when new, and how we’d wait to go home along this line again in the evening, tired, nails blackened after a day in the machine shop, but in good humour, laughing and joking with each other.
Then we’d hear the distant puff-puff rhythm of an engine and a cumbersome steam train would suddenly appear, coming over a long-vanished bridge and pulling into the station, smoke belching out, blackening the sky.
“Granddad, granddad, I can hear a train coming! We’ve got to get out of the way!”
I smiled. “OK, we can go down these stairs.” I pointed to a short flight of steps with a handrail, twenty yards away. They led through woodland to our right, down to some houses.
“Quick, granddad, we’d better hurry!”
“OK.” I bustled along as fast as my old legs would carry me, Elsa’s slim young legs hurtling ahead.
“Come on granddad, hurry up!”
Out of breath I reached the ‘sanctuary’ of the stairs and we both retreated a few steps down. I laughed. “Just made it!”
Elsa didn’t say anything, just looking from left to right and back, and gripping my hand tightly. “The train’s so noisy, and all that steam!” she shouted.
Finally she let go of my hand. “It’s gone off over the bridge now, it’s OK.”
Funny, I didn’t remember saying anything about a bridge.
Elsa spoke excitedly, “A man waved to me and threw something out of a window. I saw it land just over there.” She pointed to the left.
“Oh, OK, but we need to get to the shops. Your mum asked me to get some things for lunch.
Please!” said Elsa, looking at me anxiously.
“OK, be quick.” I stood and looked up and down the path as she scampered off. Some houses just visible to the left beyond the far end of the platform were almost unchanged from the thirties, maybe new windows and roof tiles, and perhaps a new chimney, but the railway, the trains, the fences, the ticket collector – all gone.
Elsa returned, holding out a small piece of yellow paper. “Look!”
I took it and gazed in astonishment. “Good Lord, this looks new!”
The thick oblong paper had clear blue print. ‘L.N.E.R. Available for three days, including day of issue. Nast Hyde Halt to Hill End. Fare THIRD, Class C.’ and the price, ‘5d.’ It was undated.
“Five pence, when there were 240 of them in a pound!” I laughed.
Elsa looked up at me earnestly, “The man threw it to me, I told you!”
I smiled at her. Suddenly a strong gust of wind snatched the ticket out of my hand and it flew high up into the air. Helplessly we watched it sail into the impenetrable ‘jungle’ on the old platform.
Elsa looked horrified. “Granddad, we’ll never get it back!”
“Never mind, maybe we’ll find another. Best be getting on our way.” But my heart felt heavy. I hadn’t held one of those for sixty-five years.

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Salmon and Soul

salmon21

(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.

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Red Nose Day

dolls2

(550 words)

Ellen stood, gazing around the room in awe. Claire had said it was OK to look in here, but she felt somehow guilty, as if prying. Surrounding her, stood and sitting on the floor, and on shelves around the walls, were perhaps two hundred dolls.
She’d come to babysit her friend’s five year old daughter, Bonny. Claire had told Ellen that she collected dolls, that she had ‘a roomful’ of them, but Ellen had never imagined Claire had been speaking literally. She’d put Bonny to bed after the little girl had fallen asleep watching a Disney DVD, made herself a sandwich, watched TV, and, growing bored, thought she’d look around the house. Look but don’t touch. The babysitter’s dictum.
In the front row was a female doll with a black tunic top and rose coloured skirt. Wavy silver hair descended to her shoulders beneath a conical pale yellow hat and bright blue eyes looked out from the lifelike face above pronounced pink cheeks. She bore a curiously neutral expression. You couldn’t tell if she were happy, or cross even. Claire guessed the doll’s costume was Swiss or German. The other dolls were of every size, shape and nationality. Chinese dolls with slanted eyes, Indian dolls in beautiful saris, babies in shawls, ‘ladies’ in emerald green finery, blonde hair piled high in immaculate curls.
Then there was a section of clown dolls, perhaps thirty in number, varying in height from just a foot or so, up to an almost life-size clown in a rocking chair. Its face was chalk-white, its eyes were black hollows and its grinning lips a garish red.
Ellen noticed that they universally sported red noses, the one unique identifying feature of a clown she supposed. She heard the front door close and Claire call out, “Ellen, where are you?”
She checked her watch. Eleven o’clock. “Coming!” She closed the door quietly, hearing a creak from within. That was odd.
Downstairs, Claire was looking happy. “Hi, how was Bonny?”
“Oh, she was fine. We watched The Little Mermaid, and she fell asleep.”
“She must’ve seen that one twenty times!” Claire went into the kitchen. Ellen followed. “What did you get up to?” Claire asked.
“Oh, after I’d put Bonny to bed I watched TV then looked at your dolls. I didn’t know you meant it when you said you had a roomful. They’re amazing!”
Claire took some bread out of a container. “Yes, I collected them over the last thirty years. I’m making a sandwich. I’m starving, you want one?”
“No thanks, I already had one.”
“What did you do with the carving knife?” Claire asked.
Ellen looked puzzled. The block that held the knives had an empty socket. “I’m sorry, I washed it. I thought I’d put it back.”
“Don’t worry.” Claire opened a draw and picked out a serrated knife. “This’ll do.” She cut two slices and opened the fridge, taking out a pack of Lurpak Light and some slices of ham. “Which dolls did you like best?”
Ellen laughed. “Well, I’ll tell you which one I didn’t like. That big clown doll in the rocking chair!”
Claire turned, looking pale. “What d’you mean? I don’t have a big clown doll. I sit in that rocker myself!”
“What?!”
“Listen!”
Heavy footsteps were coming down the stairs.

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No Gold Pavements

Custom-White-passage-corridor-photo-wallpaper-for-living-room-sofa-spatial-extension-personality-wall-mural-wallpaper

(600 words)

Well, there are no black curtains, but it’s a white room I’m standing in. Quite large, I’d say about twenty foot square, and the ceiling’s high too. I can’t jump and touch it. The walls are luminescent, so there’s a fuzzy white-blue light in the room. I snap into reality. Where the Hell am I?!
You know when you’ve been dreaming because you know you’ve awakened. That’s how I’m feeling right now. I’m sure I’m not dreaming, everything feels normal. Well, as normal as it feels to wake up in your PJs in a strange white room with no doors or windows!
I try to rationalize the situation. I do remember going to bed. I’d been drinking Gallo chardonnay and ordering books on Amazon until gone midnight, then a DVD – Communion. I remember checking the newspaper headlines for today. Something about Prince Harry’s girlfriend – Meghan someone, Brexit, earthquakes, and hurricanes. Then listening to some music in bed. The Best of Cream.
But now I start to feel seriously worried. I feel awake. What are the tests for dreaming? Oh, yes. Jump in the air. I do so and immediately land back on the ground. Try to remember the sequence of events of the last few minutes. Well, I woke up, found myself in this room, tried to remember what I’d been dreaming. Remembered what I did before bed. Yes, a linear sequence of events. What else? Oh, yes. Look at some writing, look away, look back and see if it’s changed. Well there isn’t any writing, just snow white walls and floor.
Wait a minute, there is some writing! I don’t remember seeing that before! I cross to a small printed sign. It says, ‘Do you want to exit this room?’ Ha, yes! I look away for a few seconds, look back and the writing has changed! ‘Are you sure you want to exit this room?’ So, I must be dreaming! On impulse, I shout, “YES!” Then, “YES, I’M SURE I WANT TO EXIT THIS FUCKING ROOM!”
I shout repeatedly, feeling a little crazy and expecting to snap awake at any moment. My voice reverberates harshly around the bare walls. Suddenly, silently, part of the wall dissolves, leaving an arch-shaped doorway about eight feet high. Thank God! With relief I pass through it to find myself in a white corridor. Opposite is a door with a fluted glass window. There’s something blue and pink moving behind it.
I stand, nervous and expectant as a man emerges. To my amazement it’s my neighbour Alan, wearing a royal blue robe. “Hello John,” he says. “They got you too then?”
“What d’you mean? Where are we?”
A woman with long blonde hair follows him, closing the door after her. She wears no makeup and her face is pale, unsmiling. “Hello John.” It’s Alan’s wife, Sandra. She wears a pale green robe.
“Hello Sandy, what’s going on, where are we?!”
“I’m sorry, it’s bad news I’m afraid.”
A white shape appears behind the fluted glass. It’s tall, higher than the window. Twice it moves away, then back again. Finally the door opens. I shudder. It’s dressed in a white robe and has a large oval head with two huge black eyes. The mouth is small and thin-lipped. It doesn’t have a nose, just two small holes.
It doesn’t speak but I hear its voice. ‘Welcome to our ship … John. We will return you to your home presently. But first we need to run some … tests.’ It reaches into the robe and pulls out a hypodermic syringe. The needle is three inches long.

Don’t forget to check out some of the other stories on my blog. There are over 160! 

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