Monday, 30 November 2009

Family Secrets 3

For ten years after her mother’s death Jennifer looked after Aunty Winnie. Unlike Jennifer’s mother, who had been generous, cheerful and accommodating, Auntie Winnie was irascible and demanding. She was a martyr to her own digestion and a tyrant to everybody else. She sucked strong mints and gave no quarter.
Jennifer’s mother was all too accommodating to pancreatic cancer and died suddenly, leaving Jennifer a small seafront home and an inveterate invalid.

Winnie retired to the top bedroom of the tiny house and refused to respond charitably to any overtures, not even her nightly glass of warm brandy in milk. She would listen grimly to the radio at full volume, scowling at the seagulls circling above her dormer window. Throughout the night she would hobble heavy footed to the bathroom, slamming the door so that Jennifer would be fully aware of her indisposition.

Jennifer, never overly social, watched both her life and her health dwindle as she scrabbled exhaustedly up and down the narrow stairs to minister to Aunty Winnie’s remorseless requirements. She worked mornings in a greeting cards shop, returning home each day in dread of accusations of neglect and demands for fresh sheets, ironed nighties and fillets of sole in milk. She persisted for her mother’s sake. Even though on some nights she surprised herself with visions of Aunty Winnie’s spite-filled face disappearing once and for all beneath a smothering duck down pillow.

One unusually calm morning, Jennifer crept upstairs to face whatever onslaught Aunty Winnie was silently preparing for her, and discovered her lying dead beneath the dormer window, some crumbs of bread in her hand, waiting for the seagulls for all eternity.

Probate proved a problem; for when Jennifer sat down with the family solicitor, she discovered Aunty Winnie wasn’t related to her mother at all.

Friday, 20 November 2009

Lost Worlds 5

The Count prodded at an errant log with the toe of his gleaming hunting boot and steered it back into the monumental hearth. Around the stone mantel wildebeests, antelope and bison stared down neutrally; in a corner a huge brown bear stood on its hind legs, clawing at the air, complacent, glassy eyes belying its snarling mouth.

“Estates in Carpathia!” he spat. “Mother can you seriously consider aligning the most ancient house in Ruthenia to these whey faced yokels? All for a few thousand acres of scrub, bedevilled by diseased peasants and flyblown cattle. I am cousin to kings!”

His mother waved this aside with a bejewelled hand; she was not going to be deflected by mere bombast. The Count paced in front of the roaring fire, his hands clutched behind his back. He paused to pour himself a glass of Tokay, drank it in one impetuous gulp.

“It’s practically miscegenation,” he scowled into the flames.

His mother placed her hands together in her lap and drew herself up. “You will marry Anna-Sophia,” she stated, quietly, unequivocally. “She’s lumpen, docile and three months pregnant, if her doctor is to be believed, by any one of her brothers. Carpathian families are deplorably close.” She stifled his protest with a flick of the glove. “It will save you the burden of attempting it yourself.”

“I will not demean…” he began.

“You are a ham-fisted invert, whose sole interests are slaughtering wildlife and molesting farmhands. You are also the only man in the Empire who believes this to be a secret. Anna-Sophia, almost a total ignoramus, will be a dutiful and incurious wife.”

She smiled coldly at him as he dashed the Tokay glass into the fire, his shoulders heaving with despairing sobs. The family name was safe, for another generation at least.

Friday, 13 November 2009

Lost Worlds 3

Click on picture to enlarge

The mist came down so fast they had no chance of making it back to the valley by nightfall. The expedition party halted, strung out along the path they’d hacked through the thicket, while Colonel Arbuthnot consulted Professor Dawkins on their safest course of action. The air was humid, the mist fetid and clammy. Above them loomed ancient trees.

“We’d better climb out above this,” opined the Colonel. “Spend all night chasing our own tails if we try to pick our way back down to the river.”

However, the weather and the forest closed in and, after many hard hours, the Colonel and the Professor found themselves alone, exhausted and disorientated.

Round and round they went, hacking at seemingly endless undergrowth until just when all hope seemed lost, the Professor pointed ahead, “What’s that?”

The jungle ended suddenly at the brink of a chasm, plunging into sightless depths. On the other side was a rock wall with a path cut into it. From nowhere came the scent of jasmine on a light refreshing breeze.

Spanning the chasm was a narrow, rickety wooden bridge. At the far end stood a tiny man in saffron robes. He held a golden bowl heaped with unknown fruits.
“Welcome gentlemen to the land of peace and plenty. Cross now that we may offer you solace and nourishment.”

Tiny monks, similarly attired, appeared behind him, each carrying a golden platter, some with food, and others with scented towels.

“Come on Dawkins,” said the Colonel, “We must get into shelter.”

Both men stepped tentatively onto the fragile, swaying walk-way and instantly plummeted through it. They fell shrieking into the distant depths.

“Not again!” cried the tiny Abbott. He turned to the monks, who were holding onto the rock wall helpless with laughter, “It’s not funny!”

Saturday, 7 November 2009

Lost Worlds 2

Social Services had spirited away the remains of the late, intestate Arthur Curtis. They had done as much as was humanly possible to reconnect the deceased to the living but had failed to trace any next of kin. And so they sent in the house clearing agency prior to redecorating and reallocating Arthur’s small, top floor council flat.

Henry Seasons and his assistant Marek took the lift, which for once was working. They left Martin in the van, a necessary precaution in the ASBO age. Both were habituated to the poignant nature of their work. They had encountered all kinds of unsettling interiors, from the squalid to the stomach turning. They were not prepared for Arthur’s eyrie.

At first sight it was the familiar, discreetly shabby last refuge of a UK senior citizen; the tired furniture; the yellowing table cloth on the tiny table; the vase of dried grasses on the narrow mantelpiece.

Then Marek opened up the sideboard. Inside were dozens of tiny ballerinas. Figurines, models, toys and dolls in porcelain, china, glass and latterly plastic. A riot of tiny dancers sequestered together, frozen in the middle of some wondrous performance.

They filled the kitchen cupboards, the chest of drawers in the bedroom, the bathroom cabinet, and the meter cupboard. Every private space was filled with Little Swans, Sleeping Beauties, Sylphides et al. Hundreds upon hundreds of them, in graceful poses, staring loftily into space. Henry and Marek looked at each other and shrugged.

Henry braved the heavy wardrobe; behind the rumpled suit, the faded tweed jacket and the formless twill trousers, hung a silvery tutu with glittering skirts. It too was sagging and well worn. Under it, Henry found a pair of battered silver ballet pumps, in a large size.

Arthur Curtis had danced his final solo.

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