Stories from the books
and past web pages
Click on any title below to reveal the story.
They are not in any particular order and provide a mix of subjects and styles.
But when you have an odd moment, just read and enjoy.
Where no one can trespass – Flash
It’s where my soul lives. In the almost silence of the beech copse, under the green leaves of summer, the deep reds, russets and golds of autumn, the bare limbs of winter and the budding finery of spring. It’s a magical palace, fit for the most royal of us all; far from the drone of motorways; beneath a sky uncarved by vapour trails; a diaphanous counterpoint to distant towns. Not that I am royal in any way. Just a humble serf of the land that feeds us. But I follow my soul there for moments of bird song; and the whispering of the winds that pass dreamily through, in the height of the sun season, before whisking away falling leaves. Then howling, gale force, to clear away the dead and broken litter that forms a carpet on the copse floor, covered later under frosty layers of pristine snow. Sturdy trunks and a tracery of branches stand stark in silhouette against the pale grey sky, until, come spring, dappled colours of yellow, white and purple blooms break through beneath, heralding a new brightness, and an unfurling of the canopy. Yet no one else can live there but my soul. No else one can watch the moon shed its silvery light across adjacent meadows. No one else can see the golden brightness of sunlit gorse on far hills. For no one can trespass upon my mind.
Waiting for Sam – Flash
I look up at the window of the smallest bedroom, as I always do when I pull onto the drive. He’s been there five years now. Sun faded straw-coloured nylon fur, brown glass eyes, rounded ears, and paws against the window. Waiting for Sam.
Five years without hugs; five without a ride in the wooden trolley that holds the coloured cubes of alphabet bricks; five since he was last tucked up next to Sam, while I read the last pages of a bedtime story. Always there, perched on the windowsill of Sam’s bedroom staring out, so that Sam will see him when he comes home. If he comes home. Behind him, Sam’s bed, too small for him now; Sam’s toys, too babyish for a nine-year-old; and the mobile I made of spaceships and stars still hanging beneath the rusting drawing pin that left a dent in my thumb, when I pressed it home.
How Sam came to open the front door, I’ll never know. Perhaps the latch was not properly home. Laura blamed me. I blamed Laura. But in the end that didn’t matter. He’d wandered out into the front garden, where he was never allowed out alone. He’d taken his little plastic tricycle. That was still there. The first I knew anything was when the foreman came down to the shop floor, at a trot. Told me there was a panicking Laura on the phone, in the office. ‘He was right by me. Then he wasn’t,’ she said. ‘I was on a call to my sister and I heard the front door bang. I called him and called him and ran out to the street. He was nowhere!’
Then the recriminations. I must have left the door open when I went to work. At seven-thirty; four hours before. But the postman had been since. With a parcel. She’d have noticed and she swears she shut it after that. Five minutes tops, he could have been out there on his own. He could have run out and been knocked down. It’s a very busy road. I almost wish he had. Then at least we would have known. Had closure. Or even mended him. It’s the not knowing that tears apart your heart. You can’t explain how. You can’t explain why. You can’t grieve. And now, it’s too hard even to hope.
No more the soft little hand in mind. No more the blue saucer eyes, staring in wonderment at the zoo. No more feeding the ducks; riding high on my shoulders; running down the sand, shrieking, as cold sea covered his toes. No more little tantrums, nor clinging to Laura, eyes wet with tears, having grazed his knee. No messy finger-painted paper card on Mother’s Day. And no more Christmases. We each left a present under the tree, the first year. Just in hope, though not really believing. They’re in his bedroom, now. Still unopened.
We’re back together, now, Laura and me. We did split. And the rift hasn’t fully healed, but we agreed we must both be here for his return. The police were very good. But proved useless. The whole neighbourhood searched together; every shed, every bin, every bush, the coppice in the park. The boot of every car. Including mine. No trace. No suspicious sightings. It was though he never existed. All we have left is his beloved teddy. Sitting. Waiting. And every night Laura and I slowly climb the stairs and cross that little room to join him, in a brief vigil at the window. Holding hands, her head on my shoulder, tears in our eyes.
Beats talking to the water cooler – Flash
I’m going to end up talking to the water cooler. There’s no one else around. Just empty workstations, blank computer screens and no tap tapping on keyboards. No shouts across the floor, no murmuring banter. Occasionally a desk phone chirps out. Rings and rings. Nobody to answer it and the silence is even more obvious once it stops. Everyone’s zoomed off to work from home. Except me. I’m maintenance. Have to be here, day in day out. 7:00 am to 4:00 pm, now other lad’s on furlough. The Ted, security, takes over. Finish at twelve on Fridays, though. Still, I appreciate the overtime, when I see how some of my neighbours, around home, are struggling.
Paul from management comes in once or twice a week. Pops in his office, pops back out, gets me a coffee from the one machine that’s been left on, says a few words to encourage my lonely vigil and departs. Haven’t the heart to tell him I prefer tea. From the pot in the storeroom that just maintenance and security use. Or did, when there were others in. Have to wear a mask when Paul’s around. He wears his, but not proper like. Not up over his nose. Which is always wet. Always dabbing at it with a tissue. Nervous habit, I guess. Never known him actually have a cold since I’ve been here.
Eileen comes in once a week, as well. She’s the cleaner. Does a quick dust around, disinfects all the management door handles, ready for a restart. That never comes. All the other doors are automatic. As long as you’ve got an access fob. But no sign yet of making the place Covid-19 safe. Costs a lot of money that. Place was already going downhill, anyway. Reckon it will shut by the end of the month. Don’t even know if I’ll get redundancy. No one to ask. So, I offered to come in Saturdays, as well. Paul said no, he’d have union on his back. I could do with that extra money to put by. Get me through until I find another job. That’s if it all goes belly up.
Place is dismal away from the windows. No lights. Except the ones I trigger, as I walk around the place and they go off behind me, quite sharpish. Anything to save a bob or two. Even had to supply my own toolbox, but I like I could choose my own gear and it all goes with me when I go. When? Two weeks? Three? Four?
Eileen, pops in the storeroom, makes a brew and we sit there chatting. No masks, but a good six feet between us. She’s going domestic. Found some old guy that can’t get out and needs a cleaner who can cook a bit. Someone he can trust not to bring in the virus. His daughter can’t come over no more. Too scared to go out. And I don’t blame her. She’s got kids of her own. Can’t afford to be ill, with little ones. Husbands furloughed, too, scratching around for part time work.
It’s then that Paul comes in. Asks us to come in this Saturday. Double time. Some chap’s bringing in one of those disinfectant foggers. Going to show us how it works. Wants us to be using it next week when a buyer comes around. Keen to show we mean business. We’re doing our bit and worth saving. That will be my job gone, I bet, I say. New owner’ll bring in his own crew. Not a bit of it says Paul. He’s the one moving on. New boss wants to expand office staff, get rid of management, mostly. It’ll be a new contract, though. And only thirty-five hours. No overtime. Am I disappointed? A bit. But at least I’ll have a job. And plenty to do putting up screens, rearranging workstations and IT will be in, too, to move the computers. A bit of chat in the day. And it beats talking to the water cooler. Never get a word back from that.
Kaine Rayne – Flash
Kaine Rayne was a singer. Born Katharine Ryan. Backing group, three friends from schooldays. You guessed it: the Humbrellas. Rarely turn up, these days. No contract. No regular band. Just clubs and pubs. Never seen a bigger stage, except from the auditorium. And two failed auditions. Tried to popularise her Rayne Dance on YouTube: an awkward robotic stance with angular actions. It never caught on. Always hoping for the big break. But not many scouts visit the low dives she mostly sings in. After the pole dancers move offstage, to titillate a few punters. Daughter Kelly, ‘you’re so beautiful Mummy,’ was told she was a star. Found two sultry YouTube downloads, but nothing in HMV, nothing in The Vocalist. Now starting her teens, wondering if her mum really does go out singing. Or is just meeting men. Kelly’s dad never says anything. If he knew anything, he’s not around to say it. Not since she was three. Tonight’s the big night, though. She’s been allowed out to a gig. One of Kaine’s rare appearances at a fairly respectable working men’s club in Oldham. She’s up there, now, in the once slinky, glittery, but faded red dress, seam-burstlingly stretched across a matronly figure, bottle blonde hair showing mouse brown roots and ruby lips belting out a medley of Ibiza hits. Solo. Some Joe on a keyboard. No Humbrellas. Working up the feeble energy of just ten dancers gyrating on a small square of parquet dance floor; all with joints stiff with age and joining in raucously; mistiming and muddling the words. She casts her eyes over to Kelly, awkwardly sandwiched at a beer loaded table, between a couple in their eighties and Uncle John. The one who stays over sometimes. Kelly looks like she’s about to burst into tears, she looks hot; and not in the way she would like to be thought of, at a real gig. Kaine finishes. A few odd pairs of clapping hands. Everyone just going on drinking, a banter of laughs and trips to the bar, as she walks, unnoticed by her audience, to take Kelly back home. In near silence. Perhaps it was wrong to bring her; break her dream. Not a fallen star. One that never reached the night sky. Now it is Kaine’s eyes that fill, shutting the door to her bedroom, leaving a subdued Kelly to slip into her own. The truth was out. She’d let her daughter down. A night of restless sleep. Not even Uncle John to comfort her. Then, another day. Sunday. And a slow crawl from rumpled bedsheets, opening the bedroom door and finding on it a great big golden star, cut from cardboard and covered in glitter; and a smiling Kelly at the top of the stairs.
An evening with Albert – Short Story
I pulled the collar of my coat closer around my neck as the chill of an east wind stung my cheeks and sliced at the tips of my ears. Perhaps I should have stayed in the hotel, with its glowing log fire and a gaggle of countryfolk bemoaning the hardness of the frosts, unploughable fields and the spiralling cost of feeding their stock. But that wasn’t for me. I was only here one night and I was determined to see more of my surroundings than four walls of a bland bedroom.
Outside, it was dark. Country dark. Washed by a pale half-moon that peered through ragged holes in wispy cloud and, once my eyes had adjusted, I had no need of the torch I carried. The main street was deserted. A ghost town. Then, on a bitter night like this, only a fool would set foot abroad, without good reason. Perhaps, I was that fool. Yet there was an old-world charm about the place that reminded me of my youth, brought up in a Cotswold village. No square cut blocks of offices and apartments like where I live now. A gentle curve in this road leading to soft silhouettes of rounded hills and stands of woodland trees.
The few shops were shuttered and dark, with only an odd cottage window showing light, but down one narrow side avenue, I could see an inviting glow across the paving. Instinctively, I turned towards it, passing between a row of terraced cottages and a high estate wall, to arrive at a bookshop. The white card hung from string, behind a Georgian style glass paned door, still bore the word OPEN. At this late hour? Had the shopkeeper forgotten to turn it to CLOSED? Inquisitively, I pushed at the door and it swung back with a creak of the hinge and the jangling of a bell. Stepping inside, it felt barely warmer than out, and there was a musty, dusty aroma of old books that pervaded, although volumes on the shelves looked pristine.
I closed the door behind me, to shut out the night’s iciness, and the light above me flickered slightly. Looking up, I saw that I was standing beneath an ancient pendant gas lamp – the real thing, not an electric imitation. There was not a sound in the shop, not even the whistle of wind that you might expect from an old door in ancient timber. I hesitated, before venturing further in, but felt drawn to explore shelves to my right and, as I stepped across, I heard footsteps coming down the wrought iron, spiral staircase at the rear of the shop. Turning, I saw an elderly, grey-haired man, smartly attired in white shirt, deep blue paisley tie, grey waistcoat and trousers, his black shoes polished to a soldier’s shine.
‘Good evening, sir. Come right in.’ He welcomed me with a warm smile and gestured to the books on the right. ‘You’ll find all the geology books along there, sir, and further back a splendid treatise on hydraulics.’ He must have noticed my bemusement as he continued. ‘I believe you must be the engineer staying at The Star. A Mr Jack Rawlings, is that right?’
Of course, he was. Brought up in a small village I knew how fast the grapevine worked: the same in a small town, like this. Not many visitors would arrive mid-winter, unnoticed; and hoteliers and shopkeepers were especially good at sharing knowledge. Yet I was intrigued he was aware of the two subjects of my immediate interest. I was on my way to a site designated for geothermal power.
I nodded in affirmation, smiled, and said he seemed very well informed.
‘Small town, Mr Rawlings, small town,’ he smiled back. ‘I believe you are the man hoping to make good of the fires of Hell and bring such power up for the good of the people. Not that I believe that will bring any moral reward. Man has tried before, by other means, and reaching down to Satanic depths usually has fatal consequences.’
Amused by his archaic take on driving deep into the Earth’s crust, to harness the natural heat held in layers of granite, I quickly replied that we had no intention of drilling quite that far. I was sure the hellfire of old must lie much further down than the two and a half miles I envisaged.
‘On the contrary, sir, Hell is within touching reach at all times. How else do you explain the darkness of conflict around us, the thuggery of big cities, the gluttony of corporate empires? But let’s not dwell on such doom. Browse these shelves. And should you prefer some fictional respite after a long day, you’ll find much good reading on the far side. Dickens, Scott, Thackeray, Wilde, Austen, Bronte, Eliot, Gaskell or, should you want to reach away from our everyday life, we have the “The Time Machine” by H G Wells or a darker view in Bram Stoker’s “Dracula”.
I was intrigued by the age of his listing. Not one modern writer mentioned. I looked closer at the volumes around me and noted not one was of contemporary authorship. So, I asked him if he specialised in antique and ancient literature. ‘No, sir. Though I do keep a few. I just prefer to avoid the frippery of popular romances and such like, in favour of the more literary inspired novels and well-regarded technical works.’
I was beginning to wonder if I had stepped out of time. Then he offered me his hand. ‘But let me introduce myself. Albert Coyne. Proprietor of this small book emporium, and by chance, an archivist of the town’s history.’
As I shook the proffered palm and felt frost-cold, hard fingers squeeze mine, I commented on the late hour he kept his shop open. He told me that in an agricultural town, like this, there were many who didn’t finish their day until late and would wander in to find a book for evening entertainment, after supper at The Star or a few drinks to warm their souls. ‘And I’m sure you, sir, could take benefit of a little hot beverage, this wintry night. Pray join me in my chambers. I am in want of a little cheer, myself, as custom has been slow, today.’
With that Albert Coyne stepped behind me, slid a bolt across the door and twisted the OPEN sign around to CLOSED, before beckoning me to a side door, half way down the shop, which led into the kitchen of the adjacent cottage. It was dimly lit, by just one portable oil lamp hanging from a bracket near the door, until he lit another, larger one, on the kitchen table, which cast a little extra light about the room. About to ask if he had had a power failure, he said, ‘I enjoy the gentle glow, when I’m not reading, so I will forgo brighter illumination for now, if that does not displease you.’ I decided he might be the town’s eccentric. Looking around, there was no sign of any electric fittings, but a gas pendant, similar to that in the shop, hung from the ceiling. A grey cat, curled up close to the kitchen range, raised its head, gave me a disdainful look and went back to sleep.
On the table was an ornate Victorian copper tea kettle and spirit burner, plus two rose patterned china cups and saucers, with silver teaspoons, and a matching sugar bowl and milk jug. My host proceeded to pour the tea and offer me sugar and milk, the first of which I declined.
‘You probably think I’m some sad old widower, whiling away my last years, but books have always been my life and always will be. A writer’s imagination comes from deep within the soul and as long as the words can be read, the soul survives. I like to think I keep their eternal flame burning. It’s much the same when we keep a loved one’s letters. Especially one who has departed. Is that a hope that is in your heart, too?’
This last sentiment struck deeply home. I was still grieving from the loss of my wife, some years earlier, and kept many of the letters she had written to me, while I was serving with the Royal Engineers, in Afghanistan. She had been killed in a hit-and-run incident on Moggs Mead when crossing from Bepton Down. The driver was never traced and I bore a deep-seated hatred that could not be resolved while no justice prevailed. Albert, as he’d now asked me to call him, noticed my change of expression.
‘I see that I am right. And I expect you carry one such letter with you.’ His insight was becoming spooky. ‘You read it and she is near. But that is not as good as seeing her for just one more time. That is what your heart craves.’
The back of my eyes started to burn with brimming tears. Oh, what I would give for one last embrace. To know she was in a happy place. My lasting memories of her alive are overshadowed, by the cold grey image of identification, at the mortuary. He lent forward across the table and the same musty scent of the shop, tinged with a sulphurous odour, suffused around me. His eyes were deep set and coal black: his expression serious. ‘You are closer than you think to the one you lost. She is always at your side, in spirit.’
A chill draught passed across me, as he leant back and shadows seemed to form in the corners of the room. I felt nakedly exposed to his intent gaze. ‘Drink your tea, Mr Rawlings, before it goes cold. You have the pallor of a man who’s seen a ghost and we need to restore the warmth inside you. Now, tell me why you stopped over in this town? You have a connection perhaps: a distant relative from a bygone day and you felt the call of one sadly separated?’
He seemed to know as much of me, as I knew myself. I had, indeed, chosen the town because it was visited by my late wife, before we were married, on regular stays with her grandmother, Nan Price. She always spoke of it as her place of peace, a town she would one day return to, when older years beckoned. But she never had that chance, mown down so early in life. So, I had come for her.
‘Or have you come for her,’ Albert softly spoke, implying I wished to find her here. The place she would want to be. And perhaps, deep down, he was right. ‘I know the name,’ he continued. The grandmother that is. Miranda Price was a great woman of charity and her granddaughter, Miriam, a perfect jewel. Do I have the right family?’ Indeed, he did. ‘Before you depart, tomorrow, visit the churchyard and turn up the path opposite the middle buttress on the south side. A short way to the left you will find her headstone and you can pay your respects. More tea Jack, if I may be less formal?’
I accepted the second cup. The tea was strong and warming in the chill atmosphere, with little heat seeming to come from the kitchen range, yet Albert sat happily opposite me in his shirtsleeves. I asked him about Miriam. She didn’t come often, he told me, be she always entered into the spirit of town events and helped Nan at various charity events. Some wanted to make her Carnival Queen one year, when they knew she was coming, but the meaner of the townsfolk wouldn’t agree. It had been meant as an honour to her Nan more than Miriam, herself. She was a Flower Girl that year.
‘You must believe in an afterlife if you still seek solace,’ he continued. ‘You are right to carry that hope. There is so much more to this universe than any mortal man can understand. That’s why we need belief, in the absence of proof, for what is most important to us. You may or may not believe in spirits, but there are books on my shelves that come close to proving they exist. That they can reach through time. Though, of course, there are preposterous tales, too, from the deranged and the charlatans. But I can bring you one step closer to your dream. Come with me, Jack, back into the shop.’
Albert led the way, and took me to a deep mahogany cupboard behind the spiral staircase. He opened the wide double doors and pulled down a large writing desk, inset with dark green leather, tooled around the edge with gold ivy leaves. Yet the content on these shelves was of an entirely different age, brightly lit, as if in a portal to a separate place.
He took down a plastic-bound album and opened it out. Thumbing through a number of pages he stopped at one that had news cuttings of Carnival Day. There were three photographs with Miriam prominent. Reaching up for a slimmer volume in green card, he smiled. ‘This was from her last visit,’ he said, ‘while you were in Afghanistan.’ There was a captioned print showing Miriam standing next to her Nan, who was cutting the ribbon to open a new social centre. It was taken a few months before her Nan, well into her nineties, died. It was the happy Miriam I had loved for so long. The face I longed to see again, though I knew I never could. A photo she had sent me while I was on tour and which was lost, with most of my belongings, when a rain of Taliban shells ripped through our forward barracks, luckily with only one fatality.
I was fighting to keep control of my emotions and so made my leave, thanking Albert for his hospitality. He closed the door behind me and the shop light quickly faded, as I turned to make my way back to The Star.
A couple of late drinkers passed me as I returned, waving their flat caps and offering a cheery greeting to match their well fuelled merriness and it was then I realised how late the hour was and how long I must have chatted with Albert. Arriving at The Star, all was in darkness and the front door locked, but the hotelier had given me a key to a side door, just in case, as he put it, ‘you lose yourself on the moor’. Not that I would have ventured that far out of the town.
Letting myself in, I quietly climbed the stairs to my room and felt the welcome warmth left from now cooling radiators. Sitting on the bed, my eyes filled up with tears, but my heart felt lighter for seeing that happy image of Miriam, so different from the last one I recalled. This still wasn’t closure to my grief, but some of the heaviness had been lifted. That night I slept well and dreamed of happier days of sunshine and meadows, soft sand and rolling waves and the comfort of loving arms around me.
I was early down to breakfast, wanting time to visit the churchyard before I returned to my business journey. The waitress joked that they had thought I’d been lost to the wolves, when I wasn’t back by closing time. I was certainly as ravenous as one, as I set about a Full English. I told her I hadn’t wandered far, but I’d found unexpected hospitality down at the bookshop. She gave me a curious look, perhaps thinking I was covering for hospitality of a different kind. Then she walked over to the breakfast chef, who stood by the kitchen entrance and said something that made him frown.
I settled my bill and packed everything in the car ready for my continued journey, before making my way up to the old church and its surrounding graveyard. Albert’s directions were good. I spotted the tall, white marble headstone easily and also a figure crouched down beside it, placing fresh flowers in a chrome topped, round glass vase. She stood and turned towards me and my heart gave a double beat. There was Miriam’s soft smile, her bright, blue button, eyes, the dark brown hair, though grown a little longer. She spoke first. ‘Hi, it’s Jack, isn’t it? How kind of you to come on Nan’s birthday. I’m Joanne. Remember? Miriam’s cousin from the sticks. We met at your wedding… and, of course, at the funeral. It was so sad.’ I remembered. I’d called her the secret twin. My whole body shivered, and I’m not sure whether it was with disappointment or relief.
I told her it was by chance I’d come on this particular day and looked down at the inscription on the stone. “Miranda, devoted wife, so sadly missed, of Arnold Price and beloved daughter of Albert and Patricia Coyne”
I told her it was an Albert Coyne at the bookshop that sent me and asked was he related. She gave a little start. ‘The bookshop? There hasn’t been a bookshop in all my time. But Albert Coyne, Miriam’s dad, did have a bookshop. It burnt down in Victorian times. Rumour had it that his old cat tipped over one of the oil lamps he had dotted around his house. Fire spread to the books in the shop and though he tried to save them, it became an inferno, consuming poor Albert in its flame. There’s a narrow avenue at the bottom of the main street and the locals say that once a year, about this time, you can see the glow from the old bookshop, across the paving.’
I went back to the avenue, before leaving the town. There was a terrace of seven properties. None sold books.
Guilt and longing as my cellmates – Flash
I feel time slipping away. Truly feel it, like sand running through my fingers. Yet time is nothing to me now. Clocks tick away, hands race around dials, glowing digits flick away the minutes, the hours, the days. Without meaning. Not since the clock stopped for Julie.
For me, time stands still. Just a memory, as I trace back the moments before, while real time moves forward. Always forward. Beckoning me to a time when it will stop for me, too.
But for now, I must live with what I have done. What others do not know. In the hope that others never find out a secret I must hold close. For evermore, walking in shadow, in case light betrays me.
Julie was perfection. Beauty personified. Eyes that shone with a brightness to put the sun to shame. Hair so fair, cascading down her back, purer than a glinting waterfall. A smile that lifted my heart higher than Everest. Limbs more graceful than the fleetest gazelle. A litany of purity I could write forever. Except for her heart.
The one she gave to another.
The nights she crept to my bed and feigned fatigue. The days we were apart and I had no sight of what she was doing, while I was away, on business abroad. I always imagined her waiting for my return, filling her day with the kind gestures she showed to others, spreading her generosity worthily. Not just on one other man. He’s gone now. He holds no memories. I can’t even say his name. Though try as I might he still intrudes my thought.
I lied. I didn’t go to Antwerp as I told her. I went to Hartland Quay. They were there. Atop the steep bluff of ancient mountain that forms a jagged cliff. A quiet spot on the coast path well north of the quay itself. Laughing, smiling, embracing on the travel rug from my car. Remains of a picnic to one side. Too engrossed to hear my steps. And oh, so near the edge.
Rage and adrenalin. A fatal combination. He had no chance. I flung myself at him and he tried to roll away. Further towards the edge. I stood and kicked at him and Julie grabbed my shoulders to pull me back. I twisted suddenly and she overbalanced, shouted with pain as she lurched away, lost her balance and went in a still graceful arc, over and down to the hard, rock strewn, beach below. He and I scrambled to look down at her broken body. I’d lost everything. And as he put his hands to his face in horror, I put mine on his back and shoved with all my might.
The papers recorded the sad tale of two picnickers, who fell to their death. Too close to the edge. An accident? Joint suicide? The inquest found no evidence of murder. But I have been imprisoned for life. With guilt and longing as my cell mates.
The Last Act – Flash
The poster had faded in the harsh sunlight. “Summer Season Finale” it declared. “Shakespeare on the Beach: Macbeth. The Brindleycombe Players. 8.30 pm on East Beach. Tonight.” It had been the same every year for decades. The Players put on three beach performances, a comedy, a drama and a musical, three nights apiece, during the season and a grand finale for one night only – always Macbeth: a tradition in which Macbeth and Lady Macbeth had to be acted by different townspeople each year. ‘The same Macbeth, but never the same Macbeths’ was the Players’ motto.
I was no lover of Shakespeare and always found it a bit of a challenge, but then, I relished a challenge, trying to understand the real meaning behind lines that may have flowed easily in mediaeval times, but sounded archaic and often convoluted to my ear. So, I made my way down to the beach where the townspeople and holidaymakers always gather in anticipation.
East Beach was chosen by the Players because it was sheltered by marram grass flecked sand dunes that provided a natural auditorium, while strong currents in the sea behind kept distracting swimmers away towards West Beach. The evening was perfect; dark storm clouds gathered on the distant horizon, reaching upwards in a threatening canopy as the evening’s slanting sunlight flashed oranges and reds of gore across rugged rocks, creating a brooding ambience well suited to the performance, while rain was not forecast before the performance ended.
Standing on the sands I looked around, feeling the buzz of anticipation whenever a drama is to be played out before absorbing ears and eyes. I felt a light tap on my shoulder. It was a young policeman, asking if I was OK. He said he’d noticed me pacing the sands a long while and thought I looked a little pale. I told him I was just there for the play: the one on the poster.
‘Sorry, sir, that was last year,’ he said, slowly shaking his head. ‘Terrible tragedy, it was, too. Though I don’t mean the Macbeth, sir; one of the best performances ever, I’m told, but halfway through the last act a freak wave broke across the shore, sending cast and audience scattering, before it swept the lead role into the sea.’ I thanked him for telling me and assured him that I was fine. Then as he turned and walked away, I strode down the beach, back into the sea that had claimed me.
Call from the heart – Flash
Don’t listen to friends. They tell lies. About me. About you. How do they know what we really feel? Listen to me: you always did before. Whatever you say, it’s not over. Never will be. We’re meant for each other. From that first day. Always. Forever. I beg you believe that. Don’t just wipe this message, without listening through. You love me: I love you. You know that. We’ve always been so good together. I know the plans you were making for us. You left your phone on the table, unlocked. The booking for two in Paris. But you came back in, before I read the detail. I didn’t want you to see I was prying. OK, it was wrong to peek and maybe I have messed up a couple of times. But love isn’t three strikes and out. So, don’t pretend you don’t care? Has someone turned you against me? Out of spite; out of jealousy; or just plain envy? And you’ve been distant lately. Why? I need a clue. And why did you say, don’t come around anymore? You were planning this as our weekend. But you didn’t answer your door. The curtains were half closed. A stranger’s car was parked on your drive. And you can’t be in Paris or I’d be with you. I brought flowers and left them on your doorstep. So, if you let them wilt and die, there’ll only be one thing left to do. And it will be you who killed me.
Narrow Band of Memories – Flash
Propped up on three pillows, she breaths with short heavy gasps, her chest barely rising between the long pauses. Her eyes have lost all colour, bar a faint trace of their once bright blue, now liberally speckled with dull yellow and green. Her skin is papery and loosely folded over old bones. Her head droops forward as she fingers the gold band on her finger and recalls memories. Memories she thought she had lost, until they overtook her daily thoughts and she made memories no more.
The first kiss from the man she wed. The children at play, at school, growing up to their own married lives. The scent of heather on Highland hills, the brush of icy wind; soft sand between her toes on a Cornish beach; the Pink Hotel no longer her summer hideaway. No longer a hotel. Boarded up and crumbling, much like the last days of her life.
She talks to me about her day, but it is not today. She lives with a smile as she recounts standing there, waving her union jack as the Coronation Coach passes by, hoping the Queen would turn and smile in her direction. And when she did, she waved her flag with even more vigour in response to the Queens gentle raise of her Royal, gloved hand. She looks up at me at her bedside, but I barely hear the words. ‘Thank you for taking me, Mummy. Today has been so wonderful. I’ll treasure it always.’
She lapses into shallow slumber, then starts, eyes blinking rapidly. ‘Where’s my cup of tea. We’ve got to get away early. We’ll miss the first race, Fred, if you don’t hurry and I’ve got to get a bet on Double Delight, before the odds shorten.’ She loved her horses as much as she loved Fred; her late husband, passed away, some eight years ago. She looks bewildered. Stares at me. ‘You can go now. Your cleaning money is on the sideboard, under the green vase.’
I smile. I remember Violet. She only cleaned the bare spots: never moved an ornament, book or paper, to polish underneath.
Just the breathing now. Slow. A slight arch of her back, in a spasm of pain, eyes crunched tight, then opening wide. ‘When my daughter comes, give her this, dear.’ She wrestles her thin gold wedding ring over her knuckle and holds it out. ‘Tell her to look after it. It holds all my memories.’ She coughs, her chest rattles. ‘I will Mum,’ I answer, as I take her dry-skinned, bone-thin hand in mine, ‘I’ll treasure it always.’ Her eyes blink, as if in surprise, perhaps recognition, a last look of love, and movement ceases, colour draining from already pallid lips, her face, her life. And tears fill my eyes.
Separated by time… and space – Short Story
It took five days to get a reply from Susan. Minimum. Even at the speed of light. And giving her time to actually send one. She was over on the man-made planet Urmaxion 40, an ovoid interplanetary staging point orbiting Proxima Centauri that’s used as a base for deep space exploration and military surveillance across the galaxy. It took twenty-eight years to build and it takes seventeen years to get there, even using the latest ultra-speed cruisers. I’m on one now.
It all started over twenty years ago. I’d just turned eighteen and was feeling lonely. Susan became my space buddy on FISC, the Friends In Space Cluster. All my mates had higher grades than me, in their GEMS FA – the Global Education and Mentoring System Final Assessment. All but two had transferred to GEMS HA – the High Achievement programmes in sciences, business and historical arts. Future highflyers, all of them, I thought at the time, but only one made it to the top. He proved to be useful, though, because his uncle was the top boffin at the largest manufacturer of interplanetary cruisers. That’s how I got my place aboard one.
Phil was a true boffin, like his uncle, and kept in touch throughout our disparate career paths. When his uncle needed a good second grade propulsions engineer on the maiden flight of a new super cruiser – an IGHSCS 3500 Class, Xenon-Cobalt Fusion Powered monster designed for 20-year non stop trajectories – Phil had a word in his uncle’s ear and I was taken on. And guess where it was headed? You got it: Urmaxion 40. My ticket to see Susan.
Yeah, I had taken the plunge. After three years of messaging and highly personal chitchat, I knew we had to meet up. Now that’s not like buzzing the girl down the street and fixing a date. She was seventeen years away and no place half way to share a film and popcorn. No just hopping on an aerial bus and tripping across country. And no making a quick, surprise visit, even though I knew her address. Yet, a surprise visit it was going to be. It had to be. You can’t just message a girl and say I’m coming over and expect her to wait the seventeen years it takes to get there. So I worked out a strategy to keep us both happy, I hoped.
From all her messages, I knew Susan was single and had had a couple of brief relationships that were never expected to be permanent. I knew the things she liked: music, theatre (she was an amateur actress) and powerful bikes. I learnt that she lived in her own apartment, in a semi-rural township that was self-sufficient from its own, surrounding, agricultural land and the chemical air generators that supplemented the natural biological atmosphere, produced from woodland tracts and beneficial algae filled lakes. She kept trim running around one of the local lakes and the images she had sent me confirmed how fit she was and how fit she looked. No one on Earth appealed to me in the way Susan Parminster did.
She seemed to be attracted to me, too. Was even quite flattering about my physique (I worked out regularly at a local gym), so I remained hopeful that our FISC friendship would one day become more physical than a keyboard and screen romance. I certainly wanted something more than cybersex, not that either of us had suggested that. We’d kept within the guidelines of FISC, which recommended maintaining a discreet distance in our online activity (not that there was much option when you’re over forty trillion kilometres apart).
For those of you that don’t know, FISC was originally set up to enable a cluster of small populations working on distant space projects to maintain friendship contacts back home. As space exploration grew, so did FISC and now there are thousands and thousands of space buddies in hundreds of individual friendship clusters. I joined partly out a selfish whim to replace the friendships I was losing with my peers, who where moving out to GEMS HA institutions, but I also felt for those brave souls that had emigrated to distant locations, from which they were not likely to return, certainly not in their more youthful years. Now, of course, many of them don’t want to, whole families having grown up on some tin satellite or other; or in one of the vast habitation domes on cultured lumps of planetoid rock that wander about the galaxy. Even deep into the third millennia, they are the only ‘extra-terrestrials’ you’ll come across.
I was not going to be the first to bridge the gap, I was sure, but that didn’t mean I wasn’t just as determined. I was already working on the idea when Phil’s uncle came up trumps. There was only one snag. I knew I’d be welcome when I started the journey, but seventeen years, c’mon, that’s one hell of a journey and how would we both feel by the time I arrived. So I said nothing to Susan. I let her think I was plodding along as a second grade propulsions engineer working the small ships on Round the Moon cruises, so popular as short term holidays. You launch out of Earth’s atmosphere day one, get a live planetarium style presentation, day two, flip around the dark side and then land next to a Moondome in the sunlight. Next day, you get to jump around in low gravity recreation and choose between the Starlight Cabaret and tacky Green Cheese Diner for the evening.
The following morning you go on a moon trek, viewing acres of dry dust as you bump through a few craters, like a cheap fairground ride, and finally gather your goodies from the gift shop to take back home. Return journey is a bit of an anti-climax (though there’s on board karaoke for those who have seen all the videos on offer), except for a hover peep at one of the five space stations in Earth orbit. Not that you can see much more than a giant metal capsule with a glint of sun, if it’s not in the Earth’s shadow – or a vague shape and a few pinpoints of light, if it is.
To Susan, that was my working life and hers was no daydream job either. She was a data supervisor for a minerals extraction company, in charge of a small team of inputters and analysts, so rated middle management. And she had a similar education profile to me. That seemed good: certainly comforting that she was not a highflying executive, out of my league. Things between us were steady, with online comms once or twice a week, more if either of us got around to doing something interesting. Always hearing about it five or six days after the event, of course. Not quite a live commentary on our lives, but close. So to keep it this way I maintained my reply interval to Earth measures, during the voyage, even though I received her messages ever quicker as I passed through the comms zones closer and closer to her home.
Five years into the journey, however, I thought I’d blown it. I’d messaged an account of a theatre visit I said I’d been to, though I actually watched the play on video, in the ship. No reply. No Comment. Nothing for over six weeks. My heart sank. I was despondent and irritable, after all I had planned, but at least I had a steady job for another twelve years or more, I reckoned. It wasn’t all bad. Maybe I’d find a soul mate on board?
Then came a verbose apology. She had suffered a virus and only just recovered, she said. She’d got all my messages, though, and everything quickly returned to our normal messaging routine. I still did wonder if that was all it was or if she’d found some other buddy closer to her home, but that didn’t last long and somehow our online relationship remained strong, still more than hopeful, as the super cruiser docked, seventeen years and three days from departure. In the final couple of years, I did drop some veiled hints about how great it would be if we could walk out together in the same place, but I’d never disclosed my secret plan. Now. This was it. Surprise time.
I had three weeks leave to decide if I was to re-join the ship, stay on Urmaxion 40 or find another route home. With Susan? Without her? Well the next few days should provide the answer to that.
I caught a tunnel train to her hometown and came up to street level. I was surprised how Earthlike the general layout of streets and buildings looked. The chance to be really radical and the planners had just thrown up the old faithfuls: perhaps they were homesick when they populated this artificial world. One advantage, though, it meant getting around should be quite easy. I debated whether to message Susan to say where I was, but decided I’d take a look at her place first. Get a feel for what was going on in the locality. I wandered over to a taxi bay, climbed in a hover capsule and tapped in Susan’s address. Offered the choice of direct or visitor’s route, I punched in the latter. Might as well have a short, voice guide tour on the way and see some of the sights.
The direct route would have whisked me to Susan’s door in five minutes flat, but the scenic alternative took twenty minutes, allowing me to gather my thoughts. Would this sudden appearance be too much? What would I discover that she hadn’t told me? Would it all be too intrusive? It’s not often someone turns up on your doorstep from trillions of miles away, unannounced. I sent her a message, brief and to the point. I hadn’t been entirely honest in the last seventeen years. I had been travelling towards her all the time. I was in her hometown. Would she be free to see me? There was no reply. She might be at work or out somewhere – or, worse, with someone. Someone who doesn’t know about me and whom she doesn’t want me to know about.
The taxi pulled up and flashed my arrival on its screen. I looked out: something was wrong. This long building with its single entrance didn’t look like any other apartment block we had passed. All flat grey walls and no windows, just a massive row of air conditioning vents along the roofline. I stepped out and checked the name on the building. A large plastic nameplate proclaimed “The Farmhurst Building.” That’s the one, I thought, so I looked for entry buttons. There was only one, beneath which the words “Information” and “press for service” lit up as I approached. What a welcome, after seventeen years travelling. I pressed and heard two beeps and a synthesised voice politely ask ‘Can I help you. Sir?’ Something must have been seeing me or scanning me from somewhere, but looking around I saw nothing.
I explained I wanted to see Susan, gave her apartment number and waited. Two more beeps. ‘All deliveries for Susan Parminster should be placed in the bay on your right, sir. A receipt will be issued once it has been scanned as acceptable.’ A panel had opened next to me revealing a large cubic bay with a base of rollers. It was big, but not man sized, so I pressed the button again. Beep, beep, ‘Place your delivery in the bay, please, sir.’ In the hope that some AI was at work, if not a real person, I explained that it was me that wanted entry, not some package. The beeps and ‘Scan your pass on the red bar on the left, please, sir.’
I told this disembodied voice I had no pass. Four beeps this time. ‘Wait there, sir and hold your palm on the red bar for at least five seconds.’ A short silence. No beeps. ‘You are unknown sir. You are not of Urmaxion origin. Entry disallowed. A pass may be applied for at Farmhurst Incorporated. Good day, sir.’ I screamed at the wall in front of me that I’d travelled all the way from Earth and had no intention of going away without seeing someone. Maybe it was the pitch of my voice or me thumping the information button repeatedly, but it did the trick. Beep, beep. ‘Security will be with you in a moment, sir,’ was annunciated in an infuriatingly even monotone.
By now the hover taxi had taken the huff and, because I had ignored it and not tapped wait on its screen, it had sidled off to the nearest charge point. Luckily I had noted the operator’s code sign, so I could call another and not be completely isolated. Security, on the other hand, did not seem to be on its toes and it was a full ten minutes before the doorway opened and a uniformed guard stood in the aperture eying me up and down.
I explained what I wanted. Just to visit a friend. He tapped Susan’s name and number into his data watch. No beeps this time just a shrug of the shoulders and ‘I can’t help you sir. She doesn’t have an apartment here and she doesn’t work here, I’m sorry. You’ve wasted your time. Then with a sly smirk, ‘All seventeen years of it, sir.’
I started to protest, reasserting that we’d been messaging for all that time. We’d even exchanged gifts, using each other’s local supply services. I think he thought I was joking, winding him up, and asked if I’d really come all the way from Earth just to meet up on spec and I said yes: it was supposed to be a big surprise.
‘You should have asked her first. It would have saved all this. She would have refused to meet you,’ he said, but I said that was poppycock, how would he know? We had a good relationship going. Even if it went no further, I was sure she would have met up with me.’
‘Not possible sir.’ His demeanour was more consoling, now. ‘Follow me and I’ll explain,’ he said.
The security man was a fit and healthy sixty-year old and not someone to mess with, so I let him lead me forward in to an enclosed hallway and then into a scanning bay. He told me to put my hands on a green panel and look straight towards a soft glowing blue line. I knew the process; we had similar devices on the super cruiser. I was being bio-scanned – fingerprints, palm, iris and retina recognition factors for a visitor pass. I then followed him down two long corridors and up two floors to another, where we stopped halfway down by a smoked glass door. This was no apartment block, unless they were very spacious apartments. There were only four doors per long corridor.
‘This is the one you want,’ he said, pointing at the door, but don’t get your hopes up. Which I had.
‘You found FISC rewarding, obviously,’ he continued. ‘I understand it was a godsend when it was inaugurated. Trouble was so many people responded that they had to turn down some of the Earthside applicants, which led to a bit of a hoo-hah on the selection process. So good old Farmhurst Incorporated came up with a plan that solved the crisis and enhanced the fee income for initial introductions.'
With that, he had swung open the glass door and pointed to the rack of server modules. ‘From her key number, sir, Susan is somewhere in the twenty-third server from the right, on level fourteen. That’s as close as I can get you.’
My expression went blank with shock and disappointment.
‘Once they’d paired off the real folk, Farmhurst developed an AI auto-reply system, using data ported from names and personal details randomly re-matched with a mix of information extrapolated from historic genetic and physical databases. In short, they started making people who would never really exist. The AI system handled all messaging, replying to Earthside buddies, usually delayed a day or so to give greater credibility. Mind you, it nearly went belly up when a virus got into the system a few years back. If gifts were sent, the system contrived a suitable return gift, from information on the original sender’s database. Your gifts to your Susan would have been sold off in the company shop.’
I’m now two years into my journey back, having re-joined the super cruiser after a few days moping around Urmaxion 40 and finding little new or interesting. Only good thing is I’ve been promoted to first grade and with little to spend my extra pay on, I’ll be quite a rich man when I tread Earth’s soil again. As a respectable man in my fifties, maybe I can think about playing the field: perhaps become some young girl’s sugar daddy. Who knows what surprises might await me.
Please leave a message … – Flash
Hello, this is Margaret here, but I can’t answer the phone at the moment. According to the doctor, I died last night. But you know what I think of him. I never take any notice. Doesn’t know a nosebleed from a sprained ankle. Still, I do feel a bit stiff this morning, so you will have to leave a message and I’ll call you back when the spirit rises. Might not be until after the funeral, mind, if the doctor is right.
I do hope not too many people turn up. I hate noisy gatherings, full of fake platitudes from little known friends and relatives I would never recognise in the street. But you’re invited, of course. Because you’ve taken the trouble to call me. Unless you’re that infernal insurance man, trying to sell me some fancy funeral plan. In which case, you’re probably a bit too late and I wouldn’t want to waste your time. Or have you tapping the shoulders of all the mourners, touting for business.
Patsy – that’s my daughter, you know – was all weepy this morning. Not like her. She usually breezes in full of false cheeriness. Tells me not to moan about this pain in my back and the fall I had last week. Just old age, I said: tripped over my own feet. Of course; I’ve got years in me yet, she said. And I trust her before any doctor. Another oddity, I’m lying flat on my back, head on a plumped-up pillow and I’ve got my teeth in. I never sleep in my dentures; they go in the tumbler on the dressing table. And my hair’s been combed. I don’t remember that. Has that carer woman dropped by early?
Can’t stand that dreary Deirdre girl. That’s my name for her. I can’t pronounce whatever she’s really called. Prissies about with her vinyl gloves and damp flannel, hauls me to the commode without any respect. So, I don’t do anything, sometimes – until I’m back in my bed and she’s just about to leave. She doesn’t say much, but I see her mouth moving and read her lips. Those words don’t come from her little book of English grammar.
Now who’s that at the bedroom door? Not family. Nor a neighbour. A right soulful old soul in his dark suit and black overcoat. Obviously not stopping long or he would have taken it off. He’s whispering something. Can’t quite hear. Sounds like he wants to take me out. Over my dead body, the silly old fool. I don’t need a man anymore. The last two were trouble enough.
But you don’t want me rambling on about all my woes. Just leave me a message and I’ll be in touch when I can. Let the spirit be with you. Have a good day. And don’t forget to leave your phone number.
Seems, now, they’re wheeling me off to a parlour. I hope it’s the ice cream one. I just fancy a honeycomb cone.
A mistaken identity – Flash
Carys, half-blinded by the tears in her eyes as she typed her tweet, clicked a hashtag suggestion from the drop-down list and sent it winging into the ether.
Done it. Finished affair with #cabinetminister. Turned out to be two faced pig. Had another one on the go, too. Not as upset as his wife will be.
She shut the laptop her niece had given her. She felt better, now. Slightly. And went into the kitchen of her apartment in Cobblestone Court sheltered accommodation, tucked into the hillside overlooking the little Welsh village of Ddôlgeryrafonfachog. She flicked the switch on the kettle, to make a mug of strong tea, then cut a slice of bara brith and buttered it generously. She needed some self-comforting.
Alun had brought a new brightness to her life for the last four weeks. Popping in for a different kind of comforting. Then, two days ago, she saw him popping in to Mrs Jenkins house, across the way. And staying there for over two hours. Not that she was really noticing. Just happened to take a bit longer than usual cleaning the window onto the street.
She’d asked him straight out. He fuffled and faffed at first, then admitted it was only a bit of fun. Just like they were having. But Carys was hoping to keep the fun for herself. Grabbing the broom from the corner she shooed him out the door. Then, she watched him go straight over to knock on Mrs Jenkins door. Carys was wild with fury and disappointment. So now, she had let all her Twitter friends know. She’d thought of naming and shaming him, but most of her friends would recognise the man from the hashtag. His wife would certainly guess.
Early after lunchtime, a knock came on the door. Some scruffy looking young lad with a voice recorder, asking her who it was, who was the minister, she had an affair with?
‘I don’t know any minsters. What rubbish are you talking. I don’t even go to chapel, these days.’
‘It’s in your tweet. This morning. You said you’d finished your …’ Carys cut the lad off before he could finish.
‘It’s no business of yours, anyway.’ She slammed the door shut, sending him stumbling backwards into the corridor, where faces appeared around other doorways.
What garbage is he on about, she thought, but then, glancing through her window, she saw more people arriving, with cameras and microphones, and a film crew from BBC Wales Today.
She opened the laptop and her Twitter feed was full of replies, asking her to name the man; asking how long; some surpportive, some accusative and a whole load of wicked comments from the trolls. Tears were in her eyes again, as she re-read her own tweet. Oh, dear. She should have checked it before she sent it. The hashtag. She quickly sent a new tweet.
APOLOGIES. My mistyping. Affair wasn’t with #cabinetminister. It was the #cabinetmaker. A local man.
A pain in the toe – Short Story
‘You’ve missed your turning’
Harry looked all around, but saw no one near enough to have said that, in the muffled whisper he heard. But whoever it was, was right. Engrossed on the latest hit blasting through his earpods, he’d walked straight across the junction, where he should have turned left, on his way to work. He wheeled around, back to his turning.
‘Now you’re going to be late. Again.’ It was the same, slightly scratchy voice that seemed to rise up from the paving. Louder this time, because he'd taken out his earpods, knowing he needed to hurry along and concentrate on sliding into his office desk, hopefully unnoticed, if he could. And he thought he’d got away with it.
‘Yes Mr Addams. I’ve been here a good half hour. Didn’t you notice me walk by earlier?’
‘Liar,’ came the little voice. ‘You’re still sweating from running up the back stairs, instead of using the lift.’
That was true. And only three floors. But at least he had sneaked into his work cubicle, without anyone calling out to him, and had logged on before anyone, Mr Addams in particular, came over.
‘It’s time you got yourself together. All this last-minute racing around is no good for you. Or me. You don’t realise on how many steps up those back stairs you bash me against the risers. I don’t want to end up like my twin.’
Harry stared at his computer screen. Just a spreadsheet. He began to worry he was hearing voices, going mad. He hadn’t had that much to drink last night. He never had more than a couple of pints on a weeknight, unless it was someone’s birthday. Closing his eyes, he took a deep breath, pulled himself up straight in his chair and peered all around to check everyone else within earshot had their heads down at work, or were on phone calls. Then he took a risk and asked, quietly, ‘Where are you?’ If he got a reply, he would either find out who it was or know he was nuts.
‘Down here, left foot, as always.’
Somewhat non-plussed, Harry glanced under his desk, half expecting to see some elfin character. But all that was there was a scuffed pair of black slip-on casuals that hadn’t seen polish for a couple of months or more.
‘If you want to have a proper chat, you’ll have to take off your shoe and sock. I hate shouting through them, to get through to you.’
‘But I can’t do that here,’ Harry replied, automatically, then stopped himself saying more. Was he actually talking to his foot?
‘Perhaps not the best idea. We can have a chat tonight. But please use the lift going home, I’m feeling a bit sore from this morning’s bashing.’
This was madness. Had he been overdoing it? He’d had nothing new in his diet, didn’t do drugs of any kind. Rarely took painkillers, even when he had the odd headache, and he hadn’t needed to see a doctor for years. Not since he left school and that was only when he sprained his ankle on sports day. He wasn’t even taking part in a race, he just tripped over the track kerbing.
Harry decided to ignore everything except his work, for now, but although there was no more chatter from below his desk, his morning experience had unsettled him and he kept coming back to thinking he might have a brain problem. By mid-afternoon, he’d regained his composure, at least on the outside, until Mr Addams came over and shouted at him. He’d looked up what time Harry had logged on to the server.
Harry tried to defend himself. ‘I was, err, checking yesterday’s printouts, first, for the managers’ meeting this afternoon. You know, the charts you wanted in the hardcopy of your report.’
‘The ones you left in my office, before you went home last night, you mean? The ones I took home to check.’
‘Oh. You noticed.’
‘Yes. And I’ve noticed your timekeeping. Not good enough, Harry. This is a verbal warning that it must change. Your work’s good, but you’re paid to be here the whole day. Next time I find you’re late, it will be a written one.’
A low voice came out of seemingly nowhere. ‘Oh! Don’t be so hard on him. He still puts the hours in. And the overtime, when you ask.’
Mr Addams knew it wasn’t Harry, unless he was a ventriloquist, and saw that Harry looked just as surprised. Turning away from him, he shouted out, ‘Who said that? I’ll have no impertinent back chat, in here.’
‘Where would you like it then?’ came the voice again.
Mr Addams walked around the workstations looking at the innocent faces on everyone. ‘This is not a school room. You’re all here to work. Get on with it!’ Then, a red glow of annoyance creeping across his face, he strode back to his own plush office and his comfortable high backed, leather swivel chair.
‘I know, I overstepped the mark. Easy to do when you are on the end of a foot.’
Harry was perplexed. It wasn’t just him who could hear the voice. It seemed, however, the voice came from him, although he never opened his mouth. And he had no control over what it said. He lowered his head to just below the desktop and whispered, ‘Just who are you?’
‘Big toe, left foot,’ came the reply.
‘Well shut up. I’ll have words with you, later.’ Harry realised he’d said that as if he believed he was talking to his big toe. Anxious to allay his mental state fears, he rushed out to the men’s washroom, shut himself in a cubicle, and removed his left shoe and sock.
‘So, this is later? It seems to have come quick.’
Harry stared at his big toe as if he’d never seen one before, and sure enough, a little wrinkle, just below the top joint, was moving like a tiny mouth. He blinked. He shook his head. He looked again. His left big toe was quietly whistling, while waiting for Harry to say something.
‘Come in here to admonish me have you. Away from your colleagues. Trying to hide the truth. Mind you, half of their big toes are too dumb to bother what you say to me.’ The toe had decided to get in first. ‘You’re just the same as everyone else. Take us for granted. Yet, without us you’d be wobbling about, falling over yourselves, and you’d never run fast enough to catch that bus every morning. Not that you do now, half the time. Show us a little respect, for a change.’
‘I’m not doing this, I’m not doing this,’ Harry repeated to himself. Then, ‘If you’re so special, why haven’t you spoken up before?’
‘Code of practice. We’re supposed to keep quiet and endure all the ignominies you make us suffer through neglect, battering and general ignorance of our place in your life. So, we just chatter very quietly amongst ourselves and compare footnotes, so to speak. And while you laugh at someone tripping over, we console the injured parties. But, like that Addams fellow, I’ve had enough. It’s time to speak out. I tell you, you’re in for a nasty fall if you don’t treat me and the others with a little more respect.’
‘Well, you sound like a right, militant lefty, I must say,’ said Harry, not sure why he was addressing his big toe like a confrontational colleague. Hoping, too, that nobody else came into the washroom who could overhear their conversation. The sound of two voices in a cubicle would bring instant dismissal, whatever HR said about equality. ‘So, have you many more supporting your cause?’
‘Not yet. But you’ll see. I’ve been putting the word out on the floor.’
‘And all my other toes. Do they stand behind you?’
‘Oh, they’ll follow me. Always do.’
‘And what if I speak to my right foot’s leader. I might persuade him different.’
‘Not likely. He never talks back. Poor dumb sole. When you were a baby, your mum dropped a big tub of Sudocream on him, while changing your nappy. Barely a wiggle from him since.’
‘I never knew.’
‘Anyway, I’m the useful one. Didn’t I stop you wandering miles out of your way, this morning? Things have got to change.’
‘Yeah, you did that, I suppose. How did you know, though, tucked away in my shoe?’
‘I know every pavement crack, bump and hole on your way to work and count them as we go along. And as for your shoes, when I’m in power, I’ll ban all slip-ons. Especially old loose ones like yours. I’m bumped right up to the front every other step. Get yourself some decent lace-ups – and some open toe sandals, for the summer.’
‘So, it’s not just respect you want. You want control. Of the world?’
‘I’m not expecting that. Not yet. But here in Towcester will do for a start. We need to stand up and be counted. Show how important we are for the running of the town, keeping it on its feet in times of adversity. All toes together. A united front with strict rules for how we are treated. And that includes regular trimming of nails. Your chipped ones are disgusting, that’s why you get so many holes in your socks.’
Harry was becoming ever more bemused by this conversation. ‘Sounds like you’re aiming for a totalitarian state amongst your kin. And you’ll be the big boy amongst them, making sure they all toe the line.’
‘It’s nothing to joke about.’
‘Well, don’t expect me to support you’
‘You’ve got no choice, mate, unless you amputate me.’
‘Oh, aren’t you the clever one. Don’t forget, if you get all militant, I can soon stamp that out on those back stairs. You know how that feels from just this morning.’
‘OK, OK. I’ll tread softly to start with, see how the feeling is on the ground. But you mark my words, toes are fed up with being trodden on and the day will come when the balance is in our favour.’
Harry heard the washroom door open and close. Was that someone coming in or had there been someone listening in? Then the sound of a cubicle door closing, the click of the lock and the rustle of a newspaper.
‘Time to go. I’ve got work to do and please be quiet before we’re both in trouble.’ This is serious, Harry suddenly thought. Now I’m not just talking to my toe, I’m treating it as an individual.
Back at his desk, he kept a wary eye open for Mr Addams, counting the minutes before he could go home. Thank goodness, all was now quiet, under his desk. Nevertheless, he couldn’t help glancing down a few times. Perhaps it was all in his head. Maybe a sickie and a visit to the doctor might be best tomorrow. On the other hand, Mr Addams might check into his other recent absences and add those to his list of charges against him. Lateness and constant sickness could mark him down as an unsuitable employee, even though he was actually very good at his job. When he was there.
That night he had three pints at the Monk & Tipster, before going back to his flat and not a peep from his big toe until he sat down with his pot noodle supper.
‘Something else we need to discuss. Your diet. Shocking. I need better than noodles to give me strength. And your weekend boozing. If I end up with gout, I know who to blame.’
‘Well you’re in luck. I’ve got a frozen Toad-in-the-Hole for tomorrow and a chicken and potato tikka masala, in the freezer compartment of the fridge. And I’m meeting my Mum at The Folly, for roast beef, Yorkshires and roast potatoes on Sunday.
‘Sunday sounds great. Will you promise an extra Yorkshire, if I keep mum while you’re with your Mum?’
‘Deal. So long as you keep quiet in the office, too, from now on.’
‘But I’ve got to spread the word.’
‘Not if I can help it. Not even a whisper. You can keep your big ideas to yourself or I’ll fetch out those old winkle picker boots I once had.’
‘Now that’s unfair. That’s uncalled for pressure. And remember the corns you got? You’ll suffer as much as me.’
‘It will be worth it to shut you up.’
The following morning Harry woke up thinking, yesterday was all a bad dream. He looked at the alarm, which he’d silenced, then fallen back to sleep. If he had breakfast, he was going to be late again, so he quickly dressed, rushed downstairs, grabbed a three-day-old bread roll and a bottle of water and headed out. Crunching the stale roll, he heard a voice.
‘What did I say about eating properly?’
He felt faint at the thought of another big toe conversation. Perhaps he should take a sickie, after all. Go and sort out this problem, once and for all. See someone. Doctor, psychiatrist, perhaps a chiropodist?
‘I’m thinking of having a National Toes Day, or perhaps changing the name of one the days of the week. I’ll let your brilliant mind work out which one. Then we might get ten times the respect.’
‘My brilliant mind is thinking differently. Perhaps I can invent a toe silencer. In fact, I think I’ve got one.’ Fishing in his pocket amongst the sweet wrappers, elastic bands, a screwed-up tissue and old till receipts, he pulled something out and clasped it in his palm. Stepping into the nearest bus shelter, he sat down on the narrow, slatted seat and removed his shoe and sock.
‘No time to sit and chat, now, young fella. You’re running late, remember? And I’ve got a lot to say to my foot soldiers on your floor. Some heel has been following me around trying to discredit me, but I’ll soon nail him’
‘Don’t think so. You're becoming a real pain. Chat show’s over.’ Harry unclenched his palm and peeled the backing off a broad Elastoplast, which he wound tightly around his big toe. ‘That should gag your dreams for a bit.’ The muffled sounds that followed sounded like a colourful allusion to Harry’s parentage.
Harry just crept in on time, using the lift for once, and made a point of looking into Mr Addams office as went to his desk. Mr Addams gave him a raised eyebrow stare, came to the door and said, ‘Glad to see you on your toes, today, Harry.’
The day passed slowly, but quietly, Harry keeping his head down, nervously expecting to still hear muttered tones from under his desk. He was relieved when he left the office without a murmur from his big toe – or another sly comment from Mr Addams. He’d decided to give the Monk & Tipster a miss and the only place he stopped, on his way home, was the Spar, for a sliced loaf, a couple of cans of SPTK and a pack of Elastoplast.
As he stepped back out onto the pavement, the Spar van was just making a delivery and the driver, who was whistling at a passing girl, head turned towards her, pushed the sack truck, loaded with heavy boxes of canned fruit, beans and soft drinks straight over Harry’s left foot. He screamed out, accompanied by what sounded like an echo of muffled expletives, and crashed to the floor.
At A&E, the X-Rays showed multiple fractures and bone splinters. His foot mashed to pulp and amputation the only option. He felt sad, and a little frightened, at losing it. Even, in a way, losing his big toe and all its ambitions for toe supremacy, upset him.
After the operation, Harry sat in the bed, gazing at his good right foot, enjoying the quietness of a side ward. Still a little groggy, he was disappointed one foot had gone, but he knew he would be given a prosthetic, in time, and would get a load of sympathy once he was able to return to office work. And a tidy sum in compensation from Spar’s insurance. He felt relieved it was all over and lay back to plan a quiet few weeks sick leave. With a peaceful smile on his face, he wiggled his remaining toes, the big toe a little stiffly.
‘I know I shouldn’t say this, but it’s quite a relief my loud-mouthed leftist twin has gone. He never gave me much wiggle room. Always said I was too conservative in my ways. But at least, now, I can have my say.’
The Turbulent Sea of a Troubled Mind – Flash
I can’t lift my mind from the inky blackness of depression that lives solely within me. And all because of you. A turbulent sea of memories that torments my storm-tossed slumbers so much, I fear the night, even more than I suffer the day.
You stormed into my life like a rising tide, promising everlasting days of heaven. You taught me to love with waves of passion transcending all I’d ever known. Together, we walked the sands in search of special spaces, seeking private solitude within clefts of towering cliffs, body upon body, melting into glorious climax. We planned an idyllic destiny, stretching beyond any known horizon, buying a tumbledown shack overlooking a narrow bay. There to build our beachside world. A joyous union: solid as the rocks stretching before us. Elation filling my whole soul with sun bright, diamond dappled seas of fulfilled desire.
Then came the dark. As fast as your tide had risen, you ebbed away, finding another shore to flood with ecstasy. Tall clouds gathered about me, black and forbidding. All light and hopes, extinguished. A heart destroyed. A life lost in combers of despair and wild seas of tormented emotion. Until, like the ever-circling tide, you appeared, once more, in our doorway.
Despite your betrayal, I opened my arms to you, passion renewed with even greater force, as we rebuilt our togetherness. But deep down, I knew this could never last. And I was right. One night you never came home I slept alone, to wake as limp as bladderwrack on a deserted beach, fearing what became true. You’d followed your moon to another haven.
Sinking to new depths in a sea of rage, I drowned in self-pity. My heart no longer swelled at every thought of you, but hardened to desperate measures, as I waded out to the real iciness of an incoming storm surge, wind howling about my ears, drowning out frantic calls from a lone figure on the beach behind me. Pounded and pummelled by nature’s forces, ready to surrender my empty soul to the deep black waves, I took one last look back: my final goodbye. And you were there. Plunging into sea-foamed shallows that spread steadily inshore behind you.
Desperately, as I was lifted bodily by a seventh wave, I lunged towards the shore using the power of the surf to drive me into welcoming arms, tumbling against your shivering body, rolling over in joy, lapped by flow after flow, until we took our soaked bodies back to our homemade paradise. The warmth of the hearth, the hot passions of a bed, and once again, forgiveness.
Remorseful in the extreme, you claimed that you were blinded by the bright lights of a distant shore, only for them to be eclipsed in an instant, your new lover found in bed with a stranger. Though it was days before I found out that true reason. Not the spark of intuition you first told me; worried I might wallow in depression, end my life, as I had once threatened; and as you found me on the verge of accomplishing. No. Your repentance was insincere. The elation of your return tarnished beyond repair. Future tides of emotion would surely bring sourness in equal measure to the comfort of closeness. An endless cycle, not even a Canute could change.
I read the signs; saw that moment of slack before the tide fully turned. And I was prepared. You would never leave me again. You would ever remain within our four walls. And no one, but me, would know.
I saw looks float between you and another. At first, just envy in his eyes, but then those jubilant glances of accomplishment, sharing a knowledge of each other that I once thought solely mine.
I was nearly too late. Your bag half packed on the bed. But I enfolded you in one last embrace; felt guilt shiver throughout your whole body. But before you could utter words of leaving, you felt the jab of a syringe. And I locked you in. Secured the bedroom door. There to stay. Always. Those decorative shutters I put up, now served a purpose, slammed shut and secured from the outside. We have no neighbours near enough to hear your screams and they soon subside with the medication stirred into meals I bring you. You haven’t the strength to overpower me and escape. You know that. You tried. And you have no weapon stronger than one plastic coat hanger. You watched me remove those dangerous fashion stilettoes. while you were tied, helpless, to the bed. And once the bedroom was clear of everything, except one change of clothes and nightwear, you were free to roam just that one, en-suite, room; The wall mounted TV becomes your only window, to watch the outside world. But you have no phone to connect with it. And few folk stray by our secluded hideaway to ever guess your presence.
You spend days of induced dreaminess. Until you stop eating. Did you guess that your food, your drinks, were spiked? Or did you just want to leave me another way? So, I cooked you a lavish meal and brought you down to a candlelit table. You barely looked at me, eyes fixing on three shiny new locks on the doors, searching the shuttered widows, fruitlessly hoping for escape. But you eat your meal under my watchful eyes and pace the rooms, until I return you to your singular domain.
Did you dream, that night, of how it used to be? I heard you toss and turn, the soft creak of the bed in the room next to mine. But I couldn’t join you, like before. My wave tossed mind wouldn’t allow it. Though I wish I had. For the next day I found you, slumped across your bed, head lolling over the edge. The meal and drink forced upon you, proved too much. Choked by your own vomit.
In the late hours of that evening, at low tide, I carry you down to our shoreline, in the weak light of a crescent moon. I dig down deep beneath the shingles, and lay you to rest between the shelter of two rocks, your shroud a simple sheet from the bed in which we once lay in night’s embrace. And only the seeping sea will ever find you, caress you. The sea you so loved to always be near, I could believe you to have been a handmaiden of Neptune.
I place a large, loose, cliff shard as an unmarked headstone, but I can’t bear to leave you; even though your tragic death seems yet another betrayal. Dropping onto one of the rocks I sit in silence beside your place of rest, watching over you, as heavy clouds gather to obscure the horizon, the fast-failing light mirroring the darkness of my grief. And dwelling on what might have been, a future now lost, I see the first bolt of lightning flash across the horizon. Only when the storm fully breaks with a thousand javelins of rain striking my back, do I return home. Though, in my own silent grief, I hear its roar, muted by timber walls, I don’t see the boiling sea reach its high, wind-driven, spring tide, scouring a way through the cove, lifting all before it from deeper than ever before, shearing water worn rocks, pushing back the shore and depositing your pale nakedness onto the beach, to leave you like a spent starfish, limp and pale, in the searching rays of dawn’s pallid sun.
It was a dog walker, up on the cliffs, that spotted you first. And as I made my way down, to reverence your grave, the only glow surrounding you came from blue lights, flashing out of time, as you were lifted from the cold, hard place where you had lain.
I stare up, now, at the ceiling of this cell. My brain awash with memories that pierce the darkness of the night and torment me still. You are ever here, within my mind. I say nothing to all the questions I am asked. I keep silent, in the anguish of joys I cannot reach, the fears I dread and the knowledge I cannot release. And an inky blackness of depression folds its waves around me that will forever plague my life.
The further adventures of … – Flash
It was a distressing sight. The game wardens had caught up with the poachers moments too late. Collateral to the carnage was a mother chimpanzee that had just given birth, it’s offspring barely alive. Nmunga radioed back to base, not sure what to do about the tiny infant; whether to bring it in or end its misery. Anna, a scientific adviser at base, told him to get straight back; she would have a bottle feed ready. Every life is precious.
Nmunga cradled the little body close to him, along the rutted track back, not expecting it to survive the journey. It was barely breathing, as he handed it over to Anna, who rushed it inside to an incubator in the science wing of the reserve headquarters. But while hoping to keep the quivering baby chimp alive, she knew it would never survive in the wild. After a few weeks, Anna brought the strengthening infant to her home, where her elder daughter, Rebecca, could help in its care. It was so small and so wrapped up that Rebecca said she thought her mother had brought home a bag of chips. And so, Chips became the little one’s name.
At first, Anna’s younger daughter, Sally, was bemused by the hairy doll that waved its arms and legs and made funny guttural noises, but once she realised he was as alive as her, she became his natural playmate. When Anna was teaching Sally numbers and letters and the rudiments of reading, Chips sat alongside with big, bemused eyes, making noises that sounded like attempts to speak. That never happened of course, but one day when Sally was hesitating over pointing out the letter ‘W’ on a flash card, chips stretched out his long arm and place his finger on it. Over the next few weeks Anna found that chips recognised letters and some of the words she said aloud and his education was actually gaining on Sally’s. Time for a little science to be applied and for Chips to have his own lessons.
The greatest surprise came when, accompanied by various grunts, Chips started tapping out letters, and later short words, on Anna’s laptop. Mostly pertaining to food or play. A year passed by and Anna was both amused and intrigued by Chips’ behaviour, letting him have full reign of an old laptop of his own. She expected the day would come when he would destroy it in one of his fairly frequent moods of frustration. But as she studied him, he seemed to treasure the laptop, always tapping away or peering at the screen for hours at a time. Sometimes watching videos, too, and even spinning though Google, totally absorbed.
And then one day he pointed to the printer, gesturing he wanted to link up his laptop. Intrigued, Anna connected the cable and waited. In moments, pages spewed out and she saw real words, set out like a play and a title “The Further Adventures of the Merchant of Venice”.