Friday, 31 December 2010

On second thoughts 2

Thackeray gathered his remaining officers round him inside the tiny ruined Chapel that served as his headquarters. The remnants of his native infantry battalion manned whatever part of the perimeter still afforded cover. The guns were for the moment silent. Powder-stained and ragged, his officers crowded round the map Thackeray had spread on the battered altar, which would soon revert to a bloody operating table.

“We’ve been though much since Kandahar,” Thackeray’s strong voice belied his exhausted eyes and wilting side-whiskers, “So I’ll not attempt to gull you now.”

He outlined a circle around the compound with a blunt forefinger, “There are twenty thousand Mutineers out there, in a bloody frenzy, armed to the teeth. We have approximately...” and he glanced at his aide-de-camp Masterson.

“About a hundred and ten native infantry, at the last count.” replied that worthy. “But they’re slipping away to join the rebels on an hourly basis.”

There was a grumble of disapproval amongst them; such treachery was not to be countenanced. Thackeray drew himself up.

“There will be no relief column,” he growled “And there will be no surrender. I expect you to hold to the last man.”

“To the very last bullet, Sir,” they assured him.

Then adjusting their buttons and belts to meet their destiny with full regimental dignity, they strode out to die like Englishmen.

Thackeray waited for each return to his post. Then he tore off his tunic and smeared himself with boot polish. Winding a filthy turban about his head and sticking a murderous knife in his belt, he left by the back door. He hunched his back and ran with a curious, crippled gait. He hoped to God he looked like an old Sepoy as he slipped through the lines to blend with the oncoming hordes.

Tuesday, 21 December 2010

On second thoughts 1

Dexter’s first impression of Wendy was that she was a difficult woman, hard to please, impatient and volatile. She was attractive in a peaky sort of way, and educated enough to hold down a job superior to his in the accounts department. But she was someone to stay clear of.

Wendy disparaged all and sundry. She sneered in triumph before she pulled them to pieces. Her only smile was in bitter vindication of her angry forecasts on the derelictions of others. Most people in the department were too scared of her to actively dislike her.

Then one day Dexter saw her gazing out of the window, with an expression of such melancholy that his heart keened with her. She seemed consumed by a timeless sadness. However, she became aware of his attention and gave him such an icy, challenging stare that he hurried away and pretended to busy himself with the copier.

It was clear to Dexter that Wendy was a wounded soul. She had been deeply hurt in some way. Life had been cruel and so she had thrown up these sturdy defences around her. How lonely she must be inside that armour.

He revised his opinion of her, clinging to this new subtle truth even as Wendy continued to harangue those who didn’t come up to her sky-high expectations. Behind the virago, Dexter could see the wounded baby girl, helplessly adrift in a hostile world.

He found himself defending her to his colleagues. This sudden turnaround of their shared aversion led to him becoming as isolated as she was. Dexter didn’t care. His empathy was too strong to give way.

So, they both soldiered on alone. Until the Christmas party when Dexter kissed her impulsively under the mistletoe.

Wendy broke his arm in three places.

Friday, 10 December 2010

Further Acts of Faith 2

The ruins of the little fortified chapel stood in sun-bleached relief against the azure blue sea. An on-shore breeze ruffled the coarse grass of the promontory to which the Knights Oracular had retired, after the disastrous Battle of Hattin ended the Second Crusade.

While other Orders scuttled back towards Europe in disarray before Saladin’s conquering armies, Grandmaster Bernard Desmouches led his small band of heavily armed clairvoyants to this obscure outcrop on the Levantine coast.

They built their lodge and in its cellar buried whatever pillage they managed to retain. They hid their mail coats, broadswords and axes. And kept their heads down.

Lacking the commercial skills of the Templars, the militarism of the Teutonic Knights and the pastoral vocation of the Hospitallers, the Knights Oracular relied chiefly on their gift of Second Sight. They told the fortunes of passing travellers and whenever they saw trouble ahead, they kept out of the way of it.

Passers-by saw only a community of raggedy, wild-eyed hermits, shuffling round on an uncomfortable rock overlooking an indifferent sea.

They had always been regarded with distrust and derision by their more assertive brothers-in-arms. And, as history is written only by the winners, they have disappeared from all chronicles of the Crusades. The current vogue for the Templars and the Grail, conspiracies amongst the early Church and lost testaments has failed to dislodge them from obscurity.

At last a famous author stood amongst the fallen stones of their final refuge. He observed the scratched symbol of the open mouth (often misrepresented as a vagina) on the cornerstone. He picked his way down to their cellar, with a hammer and chisel, to unearth their secrets and their remaining treasure.

The last remaining, spindly buttress fell in on him, killing him instantly.

They’d seen it coming, of course.

Thursday, 2 December 2010

Further Acts of Faith 1

Trevor met the old man one night at the bus-stop. Trevor was waiting for a bus. The old man was living there; his possessions consisted of a battered brown-paper parcel, tied up with inordinate amounts of string. Trevor shifted from foot to foot, impatiently consulting his watch. The bus remained resolutely absent.

After a while, the old man cleared his throat and spoke, “Not very happy in your own company, are you?”

Embarrassed, Trevor remained mute. With great relief he spotted the bus arriving.

“Easily done, though,” the old man stood up. “Getting to know yourself. Getting to like yourself, even.”

Trevor found the old man sitting next to him on the bus. He stared ahead, but the old man continued in a gentle but persistent manner. “All it takes is an act of faith.”

When Trevor got off the bus he found the old man still with him.

“Are you following me?” he asked, irately.

“Not at all,” demurred the old man, “I’m accompanying you.”

And so he was, right up to the door

“I live here,” protested Trevor.

“After a fashion,” agreed the old man.

“I’m not inviting you in,” insisted Trevor.

“That’s fine,” replied the old man, “Just wanted to give you this.”

He handed Trevor the battered parcel.
“I can’t, “began Trevor.

“In it,” the old man assured him, “you’ll find everything you need to be happy.”

And then he walked off.

Trevor sat alone on his sofa with the parcel and, despite himself, began to disentangle the string. Inside was another parcel, almost identical but slightly smaller. He set to work again. He persisted, driven by curiosity and irritation in equal measure. By the early morning his room was filled with crumpled brown paper and innumerable lengths and tangles of string. And nothing else.

Thursday, 25 November 2010

An Act of Faith 3

The rest of the team had already clattered out along the changing room corridor and out on to the pitch. Selby sat on the bench, bending over his right foot and adjusting the laces on his boot. His coach stood before him, a ball under his arm.

“If you’re going to make it, really make it, in this game, you have to really want it.” The coach spoke with a vital intensity, “You have to have the game in your blood. Live it, breathe it, eat it, and sleep it. It has to take over your soul. It has to be the reason you wake up in the morning and what you dream of at night.

Being the best you can be won’t be enough. One day your mind will wander and down you’ll go. No, you have to believe you're the best. You have to make every movement, every thought on the pitch out there, an affirmation of your true belief. Your self belief.

You have to have absolute faith in yourself. No questions. No doubts. Absolute unconquerable faith. Every move you make, every angle you run, every time you connect with the ball, every time you respond to an opponent’s intentions is an act of faith

Now get out there and show me some of that faith in action.”

“Yes, Mr Watkins,” replied Selby as he finished off lacing his boots. Then he trotted out to join the rest of the under-eights on the school field. He had a slight earache but they’d put him on the wing as usual. If he ran about a bit and kept out of the way, he probably wouldn’t get hurt. They might not even pass to him.

And they were having sausages for dinner.

Thursday, 18 November 2010

An Act of Faith 2

Perceval was known throughout the county as a man of piety and devout religious principal. So scrupulous was he in his observations that his place in the front pew in St Joseph’s had been worn as thin as a wafer. He refused to replace his tattered hassock, though, remarking that the cold flags of the church floor reminded him every moment of the more onerous sufferings of others.

However his sense of religious obligation was hardly matched by his sense of direction; perhaps earthly dimensions were beyond him. So lacking was he in basic orienteering skills that the parish priest always phoned up Perceval’s housekeeper to make sure he’d got home from the service without incident.

Perceval’s stated intention to make the pilgrimage to Santiago was therefore viewed by some in the village as idiotic beyond belief. Bets were laid in the public bar as to his actual destination. Birmingham was the firm favourite, followed by Intensive Care.

The priest, a kindly man, gently put it to Perceval that perhaps it was his allotted to path to remain at home; a pilgrimage of the heart was open to everyone after all. Perceval remained adamant, his faith was his rock. He could not live with the spiritual dereliction incurred by giving way to his navigational shortcomings. They were simply a test of his faith.

So on Monday 3rd October 1983, Perceval appeared at the gate of his cottage, with a haversack over his shoulder, a plastic mac over his arm, stout boots on his feet and a scallop shell pinned to the lapel of his old Harris Tweed jacket. His housekeeper wept as she waved from the bay window as her employer, doffing his hat to all he passed, walked out of the village.

He disappeared without trace, of course.

Wednesday, 10 November 2010

An Act of Faith 1

Robin had watched his Uncle Andrew build the gyrocopter for fifteen years. Ever since he’d been into Uncle Andrew’s little workshop behind the old allotments.

At first he’d been too small to help, except maybe to pick up the prototype’s plans when Uncle Andrew brushed them off his workbench with an errant elbow. But as time progressed he grew big enough to hold things; important things like the best pliers or pots of glue that so often went into hiding. His speciality was finding nails, screws or staples that had fallen to the ground and lost themselves amongst the woodchips and dust. With the rumblings of puberty, it had been his task to carry the first working scale-model down to the football fields, and hold the fuel can, while Uncle Andrew readied the machine on its launch stanchion. That day Uncle Andrews’s gyrocopter had cleared the kindergarten fence and obliterated their Wendy House, but Robin’s ambitions had journeyed to the stars. He was an Aeronaut in the making.

And so, in his late teens, and still without telling his mum, Robin sat at the controls of Uncle Andrew’s gyrocopter as it sat heavily upon the site of its downscaled predecessor’s first onslaught on gravity. It was dusk; a sensible precaution because the kindergarten would be shut.

“Ready?” asked Uncle Andrew, always a man of few words.

Robin gave him a broad grin and the thumbs up.

Uncle Andrew then fired him sideways three hundred meters, at outstanding velocity and straight into the wall of the Council changing rooms, where he exploded in a fireball that could be seen twenty miles away.

Uncle Andrew pulled the plans from his rear pocket and surveyed them. He gave a ruminative little grunt and then sloped off back to his workshop.

Friday, 29 October 2010

Off the map 4

“It’s not on here!” Big Mike Molloy stamped a stubby forefinger on the map stretched over the bonnet of the Landcruiser. “Way I see it, if it’s not on the map, it doesn’t exist.”

The desert sun bore down relentlessly on the group of hard-hats clustered around Big Mike. Around them, all progress arrested, was a spectacular array of excavators, pile-drivers and dump trucks and all their support vehicles. The trans-national highway (to date ) stretched away into the horizon behind them.

In front of them, in the middle of a wadi they wanted to turn into a six-lane highway, was a small baked-mud hut. It appeared to be a shrine. Primitive and implacable. Earlier than any Sufi, earlier indeed than any Hermetic tradition. Beads and rags were attached to disintegrating wooden staves. Hieroglyphs were scrawled around the tiny doorway, and characters of a pre –Aramaic language. From the interior came the unmistakable odour of goat, mixed with ancient ashes. If you squinted at the few remaining mosaic pieces on its wall you could just make out the remains of a face.

Big Mike looked at it, “Who the fuck’s that?”

“Ozymandias?” quipped a surveyor who liked to think he’d had a classical education.

“More like Ozzy fucking Osborne,” snarled Big Mike, “Flatten it.”

“Someone might be living in it,” protested the surveyor.

“Give a him a couple of goats and a kick up the ass,” ordered Big Mike, “He’ll think it’s fucking Christmas.”

There was a general shuffling. Big Mike looked at them scornfully

He stomped over to the hut, bent down to bellow through the tiny door, “Hey, Holy Joe! Piss off! I’ve got a road to build.”

And suddenly he wasn’t there.

They searched the little shrine inside and out. And then they build around it.

Friday, 22 October 2010

Off the map 3

It was dusk as Everett coaxed his car down the narrow, winding lane. The rutted surface scraped ominously beneath his feet. He gripped the wheel, fearful of stony outcrops and the jagged Hawthorne branches jutting into the lane.

Suddenly the lane lurched into a small gravel patch fronting a dilapidated, rambling old house. Everett realised with a shudder that he’d arrived.

An amateur botanist, he’d answered a free-sheet classified ad promising ‘Seclusion and a rural idyll for the discerning Nature Lover’. At the Hawthorne Hotel, Coppice Lane, Wiltshire. The address had sounded somewhat more substantial than the reality.

Still, he pulled out his case and went in the front door. The musty foyer was dimly lit but a rubicund little man beamed at him from behind the reception desk.

“You’re a little off the map,” Everett said breezily, to mask his apprehension.

“”That we are,” agreed the landlord, “Pride ourselves on it.”

He handed Everett a key with what seemed to be an otter’s tail keyring. “Number 4, Mr Everett. Lovely view over the pond.” He paused apologetically, “You’ve missed dinner, sir.”

“That’s fine,” replied Everett, “I ate on the way down.”

“Can I have something sent up to your room, sir?” twinkled the little man.

“Well, that would be nice,” Everett conceded.

“There’s pork or lamb, sir,” he replied, with an incongruously roguish wink, “Or chicken. Birds are small, though. You might need two.”

“A little lamb would be nice,” Everett said hastily heading up the stairs.

“Indeed it would, sir,” The warm voice followed him. “Coming right up.”

Everett was already in bed when the door opened and a tiny lamb ran into the room, a pink ribbon around its neck. The landlord’s head appeared around the jamb.

“Enjoy,” he leered salaciously, and turned out the light.

Thursday, 14 October 2010

Off the map 2

Champion Room Fragrance’s marketing brainstorm stared glumly at each other around the table in the Byron Suite of a country house hotel. Mature willows drooped outside in the water meadow. Their heads ached. Their mouths were dry with bad coffee. Layout paper was strewn about the floor, daubed by platitudes, false starts, plagiarisms, and other commercial gibberish all in bright blue marker pen.

Sally, the moderator, took a deep breath and started again. The Champion group was a major source of business for her research consultancy; she could ill afford any client dissatisfaction. The situation wasn’t help by Terry Champion, the heir apparent, sitting at one end of the table in his striped shirt and red braces (everyone else had been told “smart casual”). Terry Champion spoke as he found.

“Come on, everyone,” she said earnestly, widening her eyes to maximum sincerity. “There are no wrong answers here. We need to think out of the box, forget there’s a box at all. We want to be off the map.

“Right off the map!” Terry rapped the table in front of him.

“Let your imagination flow! Even if it doesn’t make sense to you, it could still trigger something. Nothing is sacred. Nothing is silly. Everything is useful.”

“Keith,” barked Terry. “You’re team leader, fucking lead.”

Keith stood up, terrified and portly, dyed hair scraped across his dome. He attempted a wacky grin. “Right!” he said, frantically. “Right! We all strip off, completely naked, thread daisies through our pubes, run into the store and jump up and down and shout ‘Champion’s Room Fragrances! As fresh as The Rites of Spring!’”

His eyes swept the room, desperately seeking approbation.

“Interesting,” Sally tried to sound like she as giving this serious thought.

“That’s not off the map!” yelled Terry. “That’s off your fucking head!”

Thursday, 7 October 2010

Off the map 1

Jillian and Ross Dempsey took their trekking holidays seriously. They would exchange office clothes (smart casual for Jill, pinstripe for Ross) for state-of-the- art climate controlled, thermal body suits; Swiss mountaineering fleeces; NASA ultra-thin, stormproof shells with reversible approach pants and high altitude trek boots. They would pack ultra-light rucksacks, with micro-fibre sleeping bags and mountain bivouac, hydration sachets and self-heating meals-in-bags, GPS system and back-up, water filters and medical kit. Their titanium foraging knives could also be used for field surgery. Their mini-torches bounced halogen brightness off the heavens.

They would leave their Blackberries at home. When they went on holiday they planned to go off the map and stay there. Their only contact with work colleagues, loved ones and the rest of the world would be the emergency beacon built into their GPS system, which they were at great pains to tell everyone they would make damn sure they never needed to call upon.

Jillian and Ross would tell you they were only really at home in the high peaks, from Nepal to the Andes. Only those challenging tracks and breathtaking views could counterbalance the toxic complexities of their demanding careers.

“We feel kinda clean up there,” Ross would give his boyish grin, while Jillian would nod in complete if shy agreement. And then they’d be gone for three weeks.

To a cheap motel room, the seedier the better, somewhere like Vegas, Penang or Nairobi, where they’d stack the kit, slip into something comfortable (boxers for Ross, diaphanous thong for Jill), break open the first case of tequila, the packs of Amyl Nitrate and the intimate appliances. After two weeks, whoever’s cognitive faculties were still functioning would get up and switch on the sun lamp.

It was important to have that high mountain colour when they got back.

Wednesday, 29 September 2010

The one that got away 4

He stepped through the open gate and was free. It was exhilarating and yet terrifying. He set off down the road, walking faster and faster, trying to speed away from his apprehension at the immensity of it all. Then, with a carefree shake of the head, he gave himself into it. And ran and ran, feeling his muscles stretch, his lungs open, feeling alive.

The sun shone and a light wind caused the leaves to dance in the tall trees, as he made his way into town. He’d not been allowed here before, locked away, regimented in the numbing protection of a sacrosanct routine.

When he reached the High Street, people began to stop and stare at him. He dropped his pace, and pressed on, affording them the occasional sideways glance. He didn’t want to cause offence here, any trouble and his freedom might be rescinded.

People stepped off the pavement in front of him, some smiling, some frowning. Some foolish children ran off yelling or laughing, it was difficult to know which. Everybody seemed to have something to say, so he stopped on a street corner and had a good look round.

The crowd stared back. One or two moved forward in seemed to be a threatening manner, so he moved back into a side alley, to give them time to return to a better mood.

He could hear fast footfalls behind him and gave up propriety and ran like hell, ducking into the nearest break in the wall. It was an open door and he dashed into a room with a pleasantly soapy smell. A fat woman stared at him, mouthing silently, before leaping onto a chair. She punched at something in her hand and then shouted into it.

“Police!” she screamed, “There’s a pig in the laundrette!”

Thursday, 23 September 2010

The one that got away 3

Squadron Leader Fanshawe crossed into Switzerland on the 15th March 1943. He wore a battered suit made from artfully modified remnants of uniform, prison camp blankets and bedding. His hat had been filched during a visit from the Red Cross and his suitcase carefully constructed from camouflaged cardboard.

He was weak from hunger, wheezing from the damp and cold of so many nights out in the open and limping from a leap from a train bound for Basel, during a document check.

He kept to the deepest shadows of the fir trees as he made his way down the mountain slopes. A meeting with an unfriendly Swiss border guard could have him bundled back across the frontier to, at the very least, further incarceration.

Then he saw the bright and cheerful light at the window of the little chalet nestling amongst the conifers. That single twinkling light embodied all the carefree spirit of his pre-war years, an indomitable refusal to submit to the bleakness and terror of war.

Fanshawe knocked tentatively on the door, rehearsing his cover story (he was a lost Swedish businessman travelling in typewriter parts), and it was opened by a rosy cheeked, roly-poly farmer’s wife.

“Come in, schatzi,” she beamed at him. “You are just in time for dinner.”

Inside was as warm as toast. She led him into a tiny parlour, took his hat, helped him off with his sodden overcoat, and settled him in a chair by a cosy fire with a glass of apple brandy.

A few minutes later her husband, a large man with deep-set eyes, came in and hit him a resounding blow on the top of the head with a blacksmith’s hammer.

Fanshawe had discovered the infamous cannibal family of the Eastern Alps, fifteen years before the Swiss Police did.

Monday, 13 September 2010

The One That Got Away 2

Desiree Martin peered through the heavy musty drapes at the waves washing perpetually on the Malibu shore. Her makeup matched the faded gilt splendour of the surroundings; her robe was faded too, the pink velour echoing her trembling lips and her strained, tired eyes. She peered out at the waves, wondering if the morning were late enough for a Tom Collins, if only she could remember how.

Desiree was one of those actresses made for black and white. The fact that she had survived twenty years of Technicolor was a tribute to her hunger, her persistence and the Hollywood tittle tattle that she could suck a golf ball through a thirty metre length of hose-pipe.

Desiree had sucked a lot of golf balls for industry stalwarts now long dead, and the occasional pool man or car valet to keep in training. She had started off in dubious exposure movies involving jazz and “reefers” and then progressed to slasher movies and various arcane “B” genres. She’s on some internet sites still. Goateed, pallid film buffs will tell you that nobody played a depraved nun as archly as Desiree.

She didn’t have the face for television, nor the contacts nor the memory. Nor the right ex-husbands nor the track record nor the favours she could call in. So she ended up at the beach house, which her only legitimate friend had insisted she bought in her own name.

Desiree stared at the sea spray, waiting for a particular man to walk through it, muscled, tanned and nonchalant with mischievous eyes and an open grin. It hadn’t quite happened between them before, or had it? They’d met so long ago. He’d said he’d be back.

“C’mon, mister,” she whispered. “There’s a B feature queen here waiting to give you the works.”

Thursday, 2 September 2010

The one that got away 1

Arthur always swore there was a giant carp in the River Nidd. He swore he’d seen it frequently, looming just below the surface in secret locations. He swore he’d hooked it twice, but that it had snapped his line with a disdainful tug and cruised sturdily away. He swore that one day he’d land it and then all the walking sheep droppings who cast aspersions at him in the public bar of the Pately Arms would be forced to eat their words.

The public bar thought Arthur was, as ever, talking through the shiny seat of his moleskins. So when, one day, he produced a new reel for his battered old rod, with specialist line vaunting the tensile strength normally required on Marlin boats, they didn’t bother to conceal their reservations. They hooted with mirth. They slapped the bar and the dusty furnishings in their hilarity. They called him all kinds of names in arcane dialects from the primeval Dales.

Arthur did not stand still in the face of such concerted abuse; he finished his pint of tepid local ale and strode off to his appointment with destiny and his giant carp.

An hour or so later the public bar heard an uncanny and suddenly truncated wail. Those not paralysed by beer ran out of the pub and headed down the narrow lane to the river, only to fall silent at what they found on the riverbank.

Arthur’s tackle box and battered old fishing stool had been kicked over; his keep-net was bent and empty; his thermos leaked weak tea upon the mud. Two deep grooves ran down from the upturned stool into the Nidd’s silent waters, gouged out by the heels of Arthur’s ancient rubber boots.

“It’ll be Arthur playing silly buggers,” pronounced someone, and they returned to the bar.

Thursday, 26 August 2010

Proof positive 4

Madge’s clientele were convinced of her psychic powers. Any persistent sceptics had been subtly shrugged off, leaving a small and devoted congregation who met at Madge’s every Thursday evening, for tea, chocolate fingers and intermittent access to the Afterlife.

Madge herself was gracious as her fragile health and considerable status amongst habitués of the Spirit World would permit. She carried herself with the natural reserve of the adept.

So it was with some surprise when the séance members assembled in Madge’s tiny parlour, hung with arcane artefacts and dominated by a giant aspidistra, found themselves confronted by a loud red-faced man in an even louder suit.

“Reggie Babcock,” he pronounced to whoever failed to evade his sweaty handshake.

“He’s my landlord,” Madge reported listlessly to a concerned acolyte. “And in matters of the material world, one’s hands are tied.

“Come on, Madge,” Reggie twinkled, producing a hip flask and drawing deeply from it, “Let’s have those spooks out on parade!”

The members sat around the parlour table, their hands outstretched, fingers touching. Madge dimmed the lights and took her place at the table’s head. For a while there was silence, punctuated by amused sniggers from Reggie Babcock.

“Is there anybody there?” Madge intoned in the darkness.

There came a sharp rap on the table.

“Good grief,” Reggie snorted derisively, “Can’t you do better than that?”

There was a sudden gust of wind, a crackle of energy, and a convulsive tremor at Reggie’s end of the table. Members squealed or gasped at the upheaval. One raced to turn on the lights.

While Madge sat serenely entranced at the head of the table, Reggie was slumped back in his chair, his head thrown back, sightless eyes bulging. An enormous Bratwurst filled his gaping mouth and protruded some two feet into the room.

Thursday, 19 August 2010

Proof positive 3

The professor stared at the filmy clouds gathered at the summit of his mosquito netting. The sun was beating its way through the closed tent flaps, so that beneath the clouds warm ochre light prevailed. The blood pounded in his temples, his tongue moved noisily in his parched mouth. He was conscious of every blink of his eyelids. Outside he could hear the clatter of rocks and picks, and occasional staccato interchanges in Arabic, as the huge archaeological site progressed without him.

The fever had come upon him after his first visit to the central chamber, freshly unearthed beneath what he believed to be Amahets’ tomb. Malarial probably, or some dysenteric relative, or yet one more parasitic invader produced in this arid, flyblown land. The workmen muttered about a curse, of course. The revenge of some long dead High Priest outraged at the violation of his sacred resting place. He’d had to put an end to that. A press embargo. The media would be sure to fan superstitious flames to assuage the credulous appetites of the supposedly developed world.

He became aware of someone hovering at his bedside and peered through the netting. “Is that you Pupkiss?”

“Yes, Professor,” his assistant sounded oddly subdued. “We’ve found hieroglyphs in the central chamber.”

“What do they say?”

“Oh some fantastic nonsense,” Pupkiss tried a dismissive laugh.

“Tell me,” insisted the Professor.

“Behold me, Amahet.” Pupkiss recited woodenly. “Who violates my tomb, his testicles shall turn green and he shall die before the month is out.”

The professor used all his strength to throw back his top sheet and he attempted an insouciant tone, “Well, what can you see, Pupkiss?”

But there came only silence.

Sunday, 8 August 2010

Proof positive 2

Version A
Version B

Detective Sergeant Stephens chewed morosely on his cheese and pickle sandwich and stared out of the window. The rain was falling steadily into the station courtyard, creating busy rivulets on the grimy panes. Stephens scratched a thick ear ruminatively and then squinted over his chaotic desktop at Detective Constable Hewitt who was sitting at her desk across from him, picking her way through some takeaway sashimi.

“What you got there?” he grunted, “Some kind of home autopsy kit?”

Louise Hewitt ignored him. She picked up a slice of raw tuna with her chopsticks and brought it to her mouth with a practiced hand. Then she paused, “We get the coroner’s report yet?” she asked. “On the Francis case?”

Stephens bit deep into his sandwich and talked through it, “Stabbed with a screwdriver fifteen times to the head, thirty seven times to the abdomen, superficial defence wounds to hands and forearms, and then disembowelled clumsily with a barbecue fork. Far as they can tell the whole process took around twenty minutes to half an hour.”

Hewitt dipped a thick slice of salmon into her little plastic bowl of soy and wasabi, and popped it in her mouth. She pushed a number of large photographic prints about the surface of her pristine desk. “Made a hell of a mess of the lounge” she observed. “They seem to have smeared him up over the walls.”

Stephens rummaged in a large paper bag set in front of him, for his scotch egg. He’d saved that till last. He bit into it with relish, and then remembered, “They’d forced him to eat the family hamster. It was found wedged down his throat.”

“Oooh, don’t,” said Detective Constable Hewitt with a grimace of disgust.

There was still a vestige of compassion left in the C.I.D. room.

Friday, 30 July 2010

Proof positive 1

The Angel was waiting for Jennifer in the kitchen. It stood by the freezer, casting a golden luminescence over the Aga. It looked somewhat tired around the eyes but Jennifer didn’t register this. She simply dropped the bottle of vodka she had brought back from the supermarket, which fragmented on the Tuscan tiles, and gave vent to a soundless scream.

“I got here as quickly as I could,” the Angel explained apologetically, “But there’s a lot of traffic over the Near East and I had to reroute.”

Jennifer clung to a stool by the breakfast bar and gaped at the ineffable splendour of her visitor. She could hear her cutlery, her crystal glassware and her bone china vibrating inside the fitted cupboards.

The Angel gave her a slow sad smile, “Precisely three hours ago you found out your husband Keith has been having an affair with his partner George. They are moving into George’s apartment. And are commencing proceedings against you for drunkenness and other supposed domestic derelictions. They will be claiming custody of the children. An unlikely eventuality, but one that could have a major bearing on any settlement you might expect. The children have gone to his mother’s, and are understandably distressed.”

With one foot, Jennifer stirred disconsolately at the broken bottle in its plastic bag. She gave a sniff.

“You then said...” the Angel put his fingers to his temples and closed his eyes to summon up a perfect recollection, “’Oh, My God! Has it really come to this?’”

Jennifer made a feeble gesture of acknowledgement with one hand.

The Angel gave her a kindly smile, “I’m here to tell you, Jennifer, that yes, it has.” He gave his wings a little loosening stretch, “Now, any other questions I can help you with before I go?”

Thursday, 22 July 2010

Friends in low places 4

Mrs Crabtree allowed her maid, Edie, the morning off. The whole village would be at St Botolph’s for the wedding and Mrs Crabtree thought it would both educate her and remind her of her place.

Sir Heston Blissett was marrying the Honourable Cynthia Butterwick; they were the shire’s most eligible couple. Edie had for a time served as an upstairs maid to the Butterwicks, followed by a sojourn with the Blissetts before Sir Heston offered her to Mrs Crabtree, a cousin of sorts, in the weeks leading to his marriage.

So, on a gorgeous summer’s morning, in a packed St Botolph’s, Major Butterwick gave his daughter away, with the County looking on in fervid admiration.

“If any man knows of any just cause or impediment why these two should not be joined in holy matrimony, may he speak now…” rumbled the Reverend Smiley.

“Please Vicar, I do,” came a diffident voice from the last pew.

There were gasps and mutterings. The bride-to-be blanched, her porcelain complexion now chalky. Sir Heston turned with fire in his eyes. The Major’s monocle hit the flagstones. Lady Blissett sat heavily enough to cause her stays to squeak.

“What is the meaning of this, child?” the Reverend’s voice was cold.

“I’ve attended Miss Butterwick in her bath a great many times, Vicar, “offered up Edie helpfully, “And I have to say she is not blessed with a comely appearance below.”

“What are you saying, girl?” bellowed the Vicar. As the bride-to-be pulled her veil back over her face and collapsed into her father’s arms.

“Well, Sir Heston said I had the prettiest part he ever did see,” Edie continued to discharge her religious duty, “And I should hate his wife to be a disappointment to him.”

Saturday, 10 July 2010

Friends in low places 3

The Fourth Murderer was understandably peeved. When he’d signed on for Macbeth he’d been assured of his place at Number Three. But some footling friend of the director had turned up, all lace and pomade, powdered and primped like a Bishop’s favourite in a Molly House. This posturing Ganymede had spent but ten minutes closeted in the director’s cubbyhole, and Third Murderer had slipped down to Fourth Murderer, with scarcely a please and thank you.

He sat sulking in the wings as the gentry and the groundlings massed the other side of the curtain, the orange girls plying their trade, oranges now and hot fumblings later. A burly stagehand eased him to one side as he clambered on stage with a chunk of wayside tree under one arm. Then noticing his forlorn aspect, stopped to enquire, “What’s awry with you, you big Jessie? Someone stolen your hairnet?”

The Fourth Murder tried to maintain a dignified silence, but dejection got the better of him and in a flurry of exposition, he filled the stagehand in on his dwindled fortunes.

The stagehand was a kindly man. “Which one is it?” he whispered, peering into the knot of players as they gathered off stage, ready to depict Banquo’s untimely demise.

“The one with the fat legs and smug expression,” replied the Fourth Murderer spitefully, following that with a stab of his finger.

The stagehand disappeared back stage again and returned with a sturdy length of tree trunk to complete the set. Passing the Third Murderer, he inadvertently caught him a crashing blow to the back of the head with it, felling him instantly and comprehensively.

“What have you done?” the Fourth Murderer stared down, aghast, at the insentient form at his feet.

“A slight rewrite,” muttered the stagehand. “Now make the most of it.”

Tuesday, 22 June 2010

Friends in low places 2

The alleyway was narrow and Brunson had difficulty negotiating his considerable girth along it. He sighed when he saw the sharp turn at the end and the high brick wall confronting him. He managed to drag a handkerchief from his jacket pocket, and mopped at his sweating face. Good job it hadn’t been in his trouser pocket; he’d have had to stand there and melt. No way he’d have reached it.

He inched his way along the passage, feet stumbling over unseen detritus, both shoulders rustling against the grubby brickwork on either side, the music from within the Club throbbing through the walls.

Then all at once a nightcreeper slipped around the corner and moved up swiftly upon him, lithe, urgent yet indifferent. The street rat came to a halt inches from Brunson’s heaving chest, deigned to register his sagging tie and sweat-soaked shirt and finally looked up insolently from beneath his hood.

“Taking up too much space, fat boy,” the nightcreeper pursed its lips, mockingly.

Brunson stared outraged at the little creep. Hot bile rose to his mouth, but no words.

“I’d slip between your legs, but them thighs don’t part much, do they?” The nightcreeper yawned softly. Gave his watch a cursory glance.

Brunson forced a hand into his inside jacket pocket pull out his warrant card. He flicked it open and held it up in front of the nightcreeper’s indolent gaze. “Vice!” he announced, thickly.

“Not right now,” replied the street rat evenly, “And most definitely not with you.”

He gave Brunson a dismissive smile and turned around, to pad back the way he’d came.

Brunson tugged out his heavy police revolver, a faithful friend, from his shoulder holster and blew the back of the nightcreeper’s head off. He’d like to hear a snappy answer to that.

Monday, 14 June 2010

Friends in low places 1

The coach jolted along the pitted roads from Brighton, tipping alarmingly at many a dangerous corner. Rain lashed down upon the coachman, hunched into his portmanteau, hat tugged over his eyes, blunderbuss propped beside him.

Inside, the Dowager Duchess of Swinborough, an august presence in the King’s circle, peered myopically at her companion, Amelia, whom she had dressed with sufficient expenditure to present her to fashionable society, should they ever make it to her town property in Park Lane. The great lady grunted with satisfaction. Amelia was gratifyingly plain, and so cast no shadow on her own fast ebbing looks. (The Duchess owned to forty, and had done so for decades.)

Pressed in tightly between them, almost lost amongst the wigs and crinolines, her spindly secretary Prescott essayed to maintain a placid expression. This fast travel unnerved him, the Duchess’s powder made him want to sneeze and Amelia’s sharp elbow was forever in his ribs.

“You will say nothing at Court, without my permission.” observed the Duchess for the umpteenth time. “I have a reputation to consider.”

Amelia nodded dutifully.

Suddenly the carriage jerked to a dizzying halt. Amelia was thrown to the floor. Prescott found himself pince-nez deep in the Duchess’s mountainous cleavage, and the great lady herself found herself confronted by a leering ruffian, brandishing two enormous pistols through the window.

“Money or perish,” snarled the villain, as Prescott fainted.

“Get out!” bawled the Duchess.

“Fat Lizzie?!” the highwayman was dumbfounded, “Thought you was still rolling sailors Brighton way.”

The Duchess’ eyes bulged. Her chest heaved.

“No kidding me, you old doxy, “continued the roadman amiably. “Tupped you meself often enough, haven’t I?”

Amelia made a bleating sound from the floor.

The roadman didn’t want to take it, but the Duchess gave him ten sovereign to just stay away.

Monday, 7 June 2010

The joys of self denial 4

“You must be at least curious, surely?” Ernesto wheedled. “After all this time.”

He slid the plane ticket over the cafe table. Pablo, poet in exile, cultural icon, curator of national nostalgias, looked at it sceptically.

He’d lived in Geneva for thirty years, summoning up his homeland in tightly constructed poems and infrequent public statements. They enabled his countrymen to relive a world gone by, where the present was stable and productive, where hopes were fresh and the future attainable. They reaffirmed their ideals in his measured and wry protestations.

He had rendered their hopes timeless and inviolate by his verse and also by his absence. He was a distant reminder of what ought to be.

“Come home Pablo,” cajoled Ernesto.

The warrant for his arrest had been rescinded years ago. An academic bursary had been offered and declined.

He had denied himself the quotidian experience of the land his work embodied. He had denied himself the buses, the pastries, the pollution, the buskers, the smell of drains and gardens. He had denied himself the humid transference from summer to autumn, the uniquely tinged streetlamps, the myriad worthless small coins wearing holes in one’s pockets. He had denied himself the ageing of friends and the natural entropy of families.

He had not gone back because, in his heart, he suspected it wasn’t there anymore. A football team could summon up as much of a national identity as his meticulously crafted poems.

“You can lecture, give readings,” enthused Ernesto. “It’s all arranged.” He pointed at the ticket, “First class. All expenses paid.”

Pablo shut his eyes and thought of all the ordinary things he had missed over the years. And of all the things that had gone on without him.

“It’s better I stay,” he said, and pushed the ticket away.

Los placeres de la renuncia.

“¿Seguro que no sentís un poco de curiosidad después de tanto tiempo?” insinuó Ernesto.

Pablo, poeta en exilio, ícono de cultura, preservador de nostalgias nacionales, miró con escepticismo el billete aéreo que el otro le deslizó sobre la mesa del café.

Durante treinta años había vivido en Ginebra, conjurando a su patria en poemas cuidadosamente construídos y escasas declaraciones públicas. Así había permitido a sus compatriotas revivir un mundo ya desaparecido, donde el presente era estable y productivo, las esperanzas eran nuevas y el futuro era alcanzable.
En sus mesuradas y sardónicas protestas ellos reafirmaban sus ideales.
Con su poesía, y también su ausencia, había logrado que las esperanzas de ellos se eternizaran y permanecieran intactas. Él era un lejano recordatorio de cómo deberían ser las cosas.

“Volvé a casa, Pablo,” lo incitó Ernesto.

Hacía años que se había revocado la orden de arresto. Le habían ofrecido un puesto académico que había rehusado.

Se había auto-negado la experiencia cotidiana del país que era tema principal de su trabajo. Se había privado de los colectivos, las empanadas, el aire contaminado, los artistas callejeros, el olor a cloacas y los jardines. Había renunciado a la húmeda transición de verano a otoño, los faroles callejeros de tonos únicos, las cantidades de moneditas de valor ínfimo que abrían agujeros en sus bolsillos. Se había negado el envejecimiento de los amigos y la entropía natural de las familias.

No había vuelto nunca porque, en el fondo, sospechaba que ese país ya no existía. Bastaba un equipo de fútbol para conjurar tanta identidad nacional como sus meticulosamente elaborados poemas.

“Podrás dar conferencias, lecturas”, insistió Ernesto, “está todo listo”. Señaló el billete: “En primera clase, todo pago”.

Pablo cerró los ojos y pensó en todas las cosas normales de las que se había privado durante tantos años y en todo lo que había sucedido durante su ausencia.

“Mejor me quedo”, dijo, y empujó, rechazándolo, el billete.

Traducción de Patricia Grillo

Tuesday, 1 June 2010

The joys of self denial 3

“Not long now, darling,” Sophie’s huge eyes looked beseechingly up at him. “I want to, too, you know. I’m having to be to be just as patient as you.”

James looked down at her as the moonlight danced on her golden ringlets. In his present mood, his fiancée bore a passing resemblance to an amnesiac sheep.

“Damn it, Sophie,” he muttered, “Nobody goes in for this chastity before marriage nonsense. Not in this day and age.”

The huge eyes brimmed with tears, “You don’t really mind, do you?” she wailed, “Oh I can’t bear it.”

James brightened up a little at this anguish. Perhaps she was coming round after all. He slid an exploratory hand down towards her hemline. She stepped back with a disconsolate sob.

James clenched his fists in exasperation. She was his first real girlfriend. An adventurous girl, he had thought, with certainly a daring dress sense. Yet with a surprising reticence in sexual matters. They’d known each other for just over a week and he’d proposed after three days, hoping to encourage her to greater intimacy. But all he’d had so far was a kiss in the Pictures and a series of promissory notes of carnal paradise. Still, he’d come this far. He had to keep going now.

“I’m going to make you so happy, darling” she promised him smiling through tears. Then she pecked him on the cheek and dodged nimbly inside her front door.

James walked off home gruffly to yet another late night session of porn and self pity. Sophie waved to him from her bedroom window. And then busied herself with the unguents, pessaries and antibiotics, cursing that drunken evening with the Russian trawlermen. She really should have shown more control.

Wednesday, 26 May 2010

The joys of self denial 2

The old man of the high peaks could hear them coming, thousands of feet below in the sun-kissed valleys, where meadow flowers fluttered in the warm breezes. He could hear their feckless chatter, already truncated by breathlessness. By the time they got to him, they’d be panting for air. They would, of course, expect him to make their travails worth while.

It was cool up in the heights, but he never elected to notice. He had the truths to contemplate, the way of light, the ground of being. Heat, hunger and thirst were rather impertinent interruptions in the light of revelations gently being made known to him, if only he could keep his mind out of the way.

Throughout the day he followed their ascent, the stumbling, the cursing, the swigging of water bottles, and the controlled desperation of it all. He neither moved nor declined to move. He simply listened. He had drunk some water and had eaten some nuts and fruit in the recent past. He had no bodily needs to attend to.

They arrived in the late afternoon. Two hot young men, bursting with philosophical enquiry and ontological need, staggered up to the entrance to his cave and stood, bowed over before him, gasping for breath and enlightenment.

“You know, don’t you?” said the first young man, mopping his face with his scarf. “You know what life’s all about.”

The old man shrugged a careless affirmative. The men’s faces lit up.

“Can you tell us?” asked the second man eagerly. His eyes were popping in the altitude.

“Yes I can,” replied the old man with a small, open smile.

The men looked at each other in delight and relief.

“But I’m not going to,” continued the old man, and he crawled back into his cave.

Thursday, 13 May 2010

The joys of self denial 1

Celia stared into the window of the Patisserie. The cakes were piled up on silver stands and trays. Exotic fancies, delicate tarts, sumptuous gateaux, a cornucopia of temptation. Celia rubbed a flip-flopped foot against the back of a fat calf, and contemplated the generosity of it all. Here was plenty; sugar-coated, rum-soaked, cream-cascaded, fruit-heavy plenty. She confirmed her selection with a podgy forefinger, the nail varnish chipped but every bit as bright as the cherries on the Black Forest gateau in pride of place. Having toyed with some macaroons and discarded them in favour of the almond butter biscuits, just to set off the more creamy indulgence of the fondants and éclairs, she finalised her choice and then turned from the window and walked away. Today’s ritual completed.

By the time she’d reached the car park behind the library and squeezed herself into her little runaround, the cakes were far behind her. She looked down at herself. The weight was coming off. Not so you’d notice perhaps, nothing dramatic, but slowly and steadily.

She watched a woman unchaining her bike from the railings. In a lilac plastic helmet and tight, vivid cycle suit. Not much younger than Celia, and not at all concerned about her body shape being so explicitly displayed.

Celia looked at the bike. And wanted one.

She would be a lissom streak of lycra, cornering at breathless speed, her nimble fingers working precisely through the gears. Head down, elbows in, high-toned legs pumping, her wasp waist firm, her bottom high in the air, taut, flexed and proud, ogled by men about whom she simply did not care. Couldn’t be less bothered, frankly. They’d had their chance.

Tomorrow she’d abjure the Patisserie for the bike shop. Just for a look. A look couldn’t possibly do any harm.

Wednesday, 5 May 2010

Memories are made of this 5

The scent wafted through him as Robert was half way up the stairs to his flat; a blend of baked chlorophyll, flint dust and salt sea. Mediterranean. Coastal mountains, from the strength of the chlorophyll over the salt air. And then he caught the olive trees, and a hint of cypress and he knew he was back in the Midi.

As he passed the flat on the floor below his, the smell intensified; he drew in the warm aroma of a fresh café express, the acrid smoke of a forbidden and therefore furtive Caporal and the persistent buzzing of straining mopeds in the small square where he’d spent so much time that particular summer. Back came the sunlight dappling through the trees fringing the square, the bustle of the fragrant little fruit and vegetable market and the complete absence of Jessica, who would be up in the villa, seething quietly beside the pool, sleek with expensive lotion.

Mrs Alford was probably serving up something Provencale again for when Mr Alford came home from the office. She was occasionally adventurous like this. She found recipes in the supplements or on the television.

And if Mrs Alford found something Provencale and Robert was passing, he would return to that sun soaked yet distressingly turbulent summer when the love of his life found out he was not at all the man for her. Jessica could barely manage three weeks with him in the land of Matisse; to spend the rest of her life with him would be utterly beyond her.

Even so, despite the tears, Robert appreciated these little return visits, and with a little sniff he found his key and let himself into his flat. He’d planned on spaghetti, but somehow he didn’t feel like one now. An herb omelette, perhaps.

Saturday, 27 March 2010

Memories are made of this 4

Every morning Warren used to stumble along the pebble beach behind his Uncle Reg, while the man worked up a “thirst” for a pint at the Fisherman’s Tavern. Mindful of opening time as Uncle Reg was, you could have set your watch by their procession. He would leave the house early enough to deflect any comment from Aunt Amy (as if she still cared) and stride purposefully along, pausing every thirty yards or so, to breath in the sea air with much ceremony and a complacent pat of his impressive paunch. Warren would try to keep up, scuffing his toes in his detested sandals. They would reach the Fisherman’s just as the pot-man was unbolting the door,
One memorable day their progress was arrested by a showy couple, reclining on loungers with an ice bucket between, containing a bottle of Champagne Perry. The man, in brilliantined hair, polo shirt and slacks, interrupted Reg’s deep sea breathing to ask a favour. Reg eyed his alarmingly coiffed wife suspiciously. It was a touch chilly for her cantilevered one-piece and sunglasses.

The man handed Reg one of the new, sporty little 8mm film cameras, and gave him detailed instructions. Warren watched excitedly, as Reg anchored his heavy boots in the stones, pointed the camera and announced he was ready. The couple then went through an elaborate pantomime of pouring out the wine, clinking glasses and luxuriating ostentatiously in the sun. It went on a long time. Their friends and family were going to be very impressed and, no doubt, envious.

Finally Reg handed the camera back and moved off quickly. He had time to make up and Warren had barely enough breath to ask, “Did you get all that in focus?”

“Oh yes,” muttered Reg, “They’ve got five perfect minutes of sea wall.”

Wednesday, 24 March 2010

Memories are made of this 3

Throughout her career as a dancer, Amelia’s mother had kept a scrapbook. Amelia used to leaf through it as a girl, retracing endless tours in working men’s clubs, on cruise ships and overseas military establishments, the occasional foray into variety shows and sporadic appearances on regional television. Amelia’s mother appeared in many guises and various ensembles. As well as a jobbing chorus girl, she had been a founder member of the Go-Goettes, and of their successors Rhythm!. She stared out from ancient Variety Showcall listings, dressed in ball gowns, mini-skirts, slashed tango outfits, fishnets and plumes, veils and harem pants, and even an approximated Pocahontas costume. Her smile remained the same throughout, sparkling and somewhat desperate, as she beamed out across the years.

Then she had married Amelia’s father, and that particular show was over. On occasion when Amelia was very young, her mother would take the scrapbook out and they would go through it together, commenting on the frocks or the funny names of other entertainers. Amelia’s mother would summon up memories of Yorkshire digs, dashing young soldiers in Aden, or storms on the Bay of Biscay during her bolero number. Eventually though, the scrapbook was left in Amelia’s bedroom cupboard and Amelia turned its pages alone.

Which made it all the more painful when, years later, Amelia discovered on completing yet one more house move with her own family, that the crate containing her childhood mementoes had been lost.

She drove to her mother’s sheltered accommodation in tears

“Mum, I’m so sorry!” she confessed, distraught. “Your scrapbook’s been lost in the move.”

“Don’t be so daft!” her mother laughed gaily. She pulled off one her slippers, stretched out a battered and calloused foot, and wiggled her damaged dancer’s toes. “I’ve got these to remind me of all that.”

Tuesday, 23 March 2010

Memories are made of this 2

“Let’s go over it again, sir, shall we?” Detective Sergeant Walpole stared down at Peter’s statement, his patience sorely tried.

The complainant sat in an armchair with blanket around his knees, sipping a tiny glass of Madeira. He had not offered one to the Sergeant.

“I’ve already told you a dozen times,” Peter replied peevishly. “I really don’t see what…”

“Not much to go on, is there, sir?” Walpole scanned the sheet, “You were writing a poem, the doorbell rang. You opened the door and the step was on fire. As you stamped the flames out you found out it was a paperbag filled with ‘dog doo’.”

“I have been traumatised on my own doorstep,” Peter protested. “Shouldn’t you be canvassing the neighbourhood for witnesses?”

The policeman sighed. “Perhaps if we could establish some kind of motive?”

“Lunacy,” Peter rearranged the blanket about his knees primly.

“Can you think of anybody who’d have a grudge against you?” Walpole persisted, feeling he might soon join their number.

“No,” The poet was adamant, until it came to him. “Yes!”

“And who might that be?” Walpole clicked his ballpoint encouragingly.

“Rowan Smallpiece,” the poet’s eyes burned in his head. “It’s just his sort of twisted handiwork.”

“And why would…?”

“He picked his nose and ate it. During ‘Onward Christian Soldiers’. I had him thrown out of the choir.”

Walpole faltered over his notes, “And this was…?”

“First year of Big School,” came the prompt reply. “1973.”

“That’s a very long time ago, sir,” said the policeman, slipping his notebook back inside his jacket and getting warily to his feet.

“Ah, but if looks could kill, Sergeant,” Peter’s eyes bored into his, and then focused on a faraway place as Walpole, with the usual assurances, saw himself out. “If looks could only kill.”

Tuesday, 16 March 2010

Memories are made of this 1

The elderly couple stood awkwardly just inside the entrance to the Le Coq d’Or and waited for a waiter to seat them. Eventually the bistro’s proprietress came out from the kitchen, with a small sigh of exasperation, to see why they were clogging up the doorway and not seating themselves as patrons were expected to.

The man began flapping his arms and grunting at her. Eventually she realised he was talking to her in execrable French. She put them all out of their misery with a terse, “I speak English, Monsieur.”

“Our usual table, please, Madame!” he beamed.

“George!” his wife nudged him affectionately, and explained to the waiting Frenchwoman, “We used to come here regularly. A long time ago.”

“We met here, Madame,” the old man added. “You would have been a baby.”

The proprietress relaxed into a welcoming smile and ushered them through the lunchtime throng towards a tiny table beside a radiator, with a partial view of the window.

They seemed delighted, nodding to each other as they struggled out of their coats and into the tiny space. “Nothing’s changed!” his wife said to him.

He took her hand, “No, love. Absolutely nothing.”

He looked up to the proprietress, “I came to be a poet. But we met, right here, and I came to my senses.”

They stuck to the menu du jour. When they weren’t eating they were holding hands, looking around them and evidently swapping fond memories.

The proprietress watched them leave, hand in hand. To her certain knowledge the place had only existed for ten years. Her husband had wrangled permission out of the Prefecture, then, to erect it on the site of a dilapidated public urinal that dated back before the Franco-Prussian War. She doubted Les Anglais had met up in that.

Wednesday, 10 March 2010

Omens and Maledictions 5

The cave walls were cast into sinister shadows by the flickering torchlight which glimmered on the breast plates and helmets of the Praetorian Guard. The night breezes brought in the smell of basil and exotic flowers from the wild gardens, and blended with the heady incense burned by the Oracle’s acolytes.

The Oracle herself looked deep into the fissure in the rock wall, from which all her cosmic revelations flowed and shook her head, “The Gods have nothing to tell you.”

The Emperor shuffled awkwardly from foot to foot, “Couldn’t you try again?”

She raised a disdainful eyebrow, “It is not propitious. Your oblations have clearly been regarded as paltry.”

The Emperor looked back at the tethered white bull, the heavy sacks of gold coin, the ivory tusks from beyond Carthage, the sheaves of golden corn, the many amphorae of sweet wine, the overflowing bowls of delicate fruits. He felt the rage rise within him. What did the old bag mean by paltry?

He turned to the commander of his guard and gave a desultory wave at the treasure, “Take it all back.”

“That,” the Oracle’s voice was lethal on the night air, her eyes bored into him like a cobra’s with a rat, “ would be a grave mistake.”

“I came for an omen, lady,” The Emperor shrugged, with wry apology. “No play, no pay.”

“The Gods are not mocked,” she hissed at him.

He gave her a derisory smile and ordered the guard to take up his oblations and accompany him back down the winding hill path to the city.

Half way down, the commander of the guard cut the Emperor’s throat. He had his men return the tribute to the Oracle’s cave. As the new Emperor he knew he couldn’t be too careful.

Friday, 5 March 2010

Omens and maledictions 4

Leif the Unvanquished, clan chief of the Berserkers, stood at the prow of his longboat as his men rowed them out into the cold North Sea to meet their destiny. Behind him at the settlement, the elders, the womenfolk and their children watched their departure in silence. At his shoulder stood his battle-scarred lieutenant, the mighty Lars, twin battle-axes strapped across his back, one hand on the rigging as he surveyed the glittering horizon.

“Wherever we strike land, my lord,” Lars rumbled, “Men shall think the torments of Hades have fallen upon them.”

Leif looked back at his crew, hand-picked men, veterans of a hundred merciless raids, trained to slaughter, drenched in blood and the glories of battle, deaf to the pleas of survivors, widows and bondswomen in their rapine and riot, all his to command. They would follow him to the ends of the earth, which is where he intended to lead them.

“So much out there for the taking, Lars,” Leif spoke at last, “and these hellhounds shall snatch it from the jaws of death.”

To the southern sun, then, for the fabulous treasures, the palaces, pearls and princesses, theirs to plunder at will.

High above them in the pale Northern sky a lone seabird circled the boat. Leif and Lars watched it glide effortlessly around them as their oars churned the black waters. Then, with a sudden screech, it broke off its course and plummeted into the icy sea, never to resurface.

Leif looked hard at Lars, and then sighed. “Turn us round and take us back in,” he ordered.

“We’re packing it in, lads,” he explained to his Berserkers as they executed the difficult, arduous turn, “According to that bird there’s a shit storm coming and we don’t want to be caught out in that.”

Wednesday, 24 February 2010

Omens and Maledictions 3

William Henty was a man of few words and of those none were sociable; he worked for the local council, and was the scourge of those fortunate enough to be allocated an allotment. While they sought to supplement their diets with fresh fruit and vegetables, with perhaps some begonias on the side, Henty saw only wilful negligence and wholesale flouting of council regulations.

Henty mounted dawn raids on allotment sites, scrutinising taps and hoses, inspecting bins and compost heaps, paths, and sheds, ensuring that nobody defiled his sacred bye-laws. Any transgression was ruthless punished by fines or, his preference, eviction.

Then one day he found Mr Pincus was living in his shed, in direct contravention of the terms of his debenture. Hearing some music coming from a tiny shanty half hidden amongst towering bean plants, Henty thrust aside the rickety door to discover Mr Pincus, swaddled in old blankets, lying back on a small truckle bed, reading a racing paper and smoking a noisome pipe. One outraged sweep of the tiny room established Mr Pincus was running a small fridge off the mains and a tiny portable television. Some rabbit broth simmered on a butane gas stove.

“Get out of it, you fucking gypsy!” bellowed the council official, making irate notes on his clipboard.

“You want to watch that temper,” replied Mr Pincus affably. “You’ll blow a gasket.”

“You’ll be out by nightfall, you tinker bastard!” Henty snarled over his shoulder as he stormed off up the path. “We don’t want your sort here.”

Mr Pincus mumbled something as he leaned out of bed to turn the gas down under his soup; Henty pulled up on the path with a gasp, clutched at his chest and keeled over into someone’s potatoes.

Mr Pincus is still living in his shed.

Friday, 12 February 2010

Omens and maledictions 2

Molly Carrot hurried along the seafront towards the Variety Theatre for her first ever audition. Her swaying summer frock showed off her lissom figure and long legs to best advantage, her blonde hair was becomingly ruffled by the onshore breeze, her white strap sandals skipped along beneath her, her toenails flashed pearly pink in the sunlight. She dazzled old and young men alike on the promenade. They gawped if they could or otherwise darted sidelong wistful glances. Young women snorted defensively at such an “obvious” girl, while older women shook experienced heads at a young life going so directly to the bad.

Then a high-flying seagull shat copiously on Molly’s head. She staggered, stunned by the impact, dropping her handbag and stood swaying in the thoroughfare, seagull shit trickling down her perfectly painted cheeks. The younger ladies snickered and a wave of silent pleasure ran through their elder counterparts. Children pointed gleefully. The men, in the main, remained silent, awaiting events.

The Honourable Eustace Fairfax, however, rushed across from the gardens of the Grand Hotel to commiserate. He steadied Molly while her vision cleared, restored her handbag to her, then offered her his handkerchief to remove the bulk of the detritus, the bathroom facilities of his suite at the Grand in which to refurbish her toilette, and dinner that evening to compensate for such an unfortunate experience.

“It’s supposed to be lucky!” Molly gave him the full benefit of her huge baby blue eyes. “Though I doubt I’ll make the chorus in the summer special looking like this.”

Eustace took her for the season to Nice, before housing her, discreetly, in Chelsea. Her theatrical career never quite flourished but Molly always made a point of feeding the seagulls on the rare occasion that she returned to her home town.

Wednesday, 3 February 2010

Omens and maledictions

A small lottery win enabled Stanley Potter sell his luggage shop in Kidderminster and attempt to fulfil his wife Denise’s ambition to be one of the leisured village folk you saw in television series like Miss Marple, or read about in P.G.Woodhouse. Things have of course moved on since the days depicted therein, but Denise was convinced that with sufficient floral furnishings they could simulate enough Olde Worlde charm to get by.

Denise was a determined woman, as anyone in the Tanning Salon business has to be; within weeks, the Potters had found their dream cottage in a tiny Wiltshire village called Cowing, and paid an exorbitant price for it.

Their first night in the dream cottage, an owl appeared on the fencepost at the end of the garden. It called in a melancholy and persistent manner. Stanley, knowing Denise’s nervous disposition, threw a slipper at it out of the bedroom window. Both bird and slipper disappeared. Even so, Denise was distracted by the all pervading silence and had to put her earplugs in.

Next morning they found a dead crow on the front path, but besides excoriating the local waste disposal services, Denise said no more about it, while Stanley lifted it gingerly on a garden fork and slung it over the back wall, where the owl had been.

That evening after they’d walked into the village to find the store had closed early “for family reasons”, they found a straw dollie nailed to the cottage door with a dead dormouse dangling from each arm.

“Bless!” purred Denise. “It’s just their shy rustic way of saying welcome to Cowing. We’ll get all sorts of invitations, once they pluck up the courage to say hello properly.”

That night the cottage burned down; Denise had her earplugs in and missed it.

Wednesday, 27 January 2010

Far Flung Adventures 7

The train clattered and jolted as it hurtled along through the grey late afternoon light. Mason threaded his way through knots of people in the narrow corridor, some staring out at the endless forest, some snatching a cigarette or a swig from a bottle of vodka or schnapps.

Kleptykin was on this train. He was sure of that. He had to find him. To warn him that Vronsky had exposed him. That even now Massimov’s goons were on his track.

He tried to negotiate his way round a large man in an arctic fox coat, talking to a companion in glasses and astrakhan. The big man turned and gasped in surprised.

“Good God,” he cried in a plummy English voice, “it’s Measles Mason! Devil are you doing this in this neck of the woods, Measles?”

It was Breadbin Frobisher, a rugby oaf from his school days. A buffoon then, and seemingly now. Mason replied quickly in Russian, and seeing no light of comprehension, said in a thick Urals’ accent, “You make mistake. Please let me through.”

“It’s you, Measles, alright!” chortled Breadbin. He explained to the man with him, “Brought measles with him first term at Wellington. We all got it. Been ‘Measles’ ever since.”

Mason made to slip by, but Breadbin held him fast in a manly grip, and twinkled amiably at him, “Another one of your jokes, eh, Measles? Now, don’t be a rotter. Tell an old school chum what brings an enterprising cove like you out to this benighted wasteland. I’m travelling in pig-iron, myself.”

Mason sensed a presence behind him and felt the knife slide in above his kidney, slick, expert, agonising. So, Massimov’s goons were on the train. His vision blurred.

“Sure you’re OK, old chap?” Breadbin’s sounded urgent and concerned, “You’ve gone awfully pale.”

Saturday, 23 January 2010

Birthday Boy

I want to wish a happy birthday to my compadre Chips Hardy.
Many happy years of happiness and fruitful creativity for you, old codger!!!


Tuesday, 19 January 2010

Far Flung Adventures 6

Hemel brought the biplane down neatly and climbed wearily out of the cockpit. It had been his third bombing run of the morning.

He’d located the rebels on his dawn patrol and had returned to the Sultan’s airstrip to take on ordnance. He’d then retuned to their makeshift encampment in the foothills due east, to eliminate all resistance. Joystick between his knees, he’d leaned out to drop his bombs, by hand, upon scattering tribesmen below. Occasionally a musket ball would drone past his leather flying helmet, and once, more alarmingly, there’d been the whine of a rifle bullet, but in the main the men below had contented themselves for running, pointlessly, for their horses or camels, or diving under the momentary sanctuary of a few threadbare bushes.

Boileau, the ex-Legionnaire, met him outside the wooden shack serving as the station HQ and took his report. “Nothing left worth bombing,” said Hemel, without pausing.

The adjutant knew better than to press for details. Hemel’s temper was as legendary as his efficiency. Boileau simply wiped the mission off his blackboard and returned to his paperwork.

Hemel kicked open the door to his quarters and threw himself down on his truckle bed. He smelled of engine oil, and sweat. He wanted a beer, a field shower and perhaps a little Beethoven on his phonograph.

He was bored with the trackless wastes, the heat, and the flies. He was bored with bombing aborigines, but the pay was adequate and it meant he could keep flying. For Kaiser or Sultan, it made no difference to Hemel.

He grunted as he pulled off his flying boots, and let one foot fall heavily over the side of the bed to the floor. An adult scorpion stung him in the ankle. And he was dead by nightfall.

Friday, 8 January 2010

Far Flung Adventures 5

Larsson had eaten the last of the huskies’ feet, so Svenson had boiled up poor dead Davidsen’s mittens and furs and they eaked this bouillon out over two weeks, one mugful a day each. And they waited for the supply ship to cut its way through.

They’d given up trying to mend the radio after a week, having started out with resource and ingenuity, descended into violent recriminations and ended up with forlorn prayer, before pushing the mangled set through a hole in the ice they’d made in a pointless quest for fish.

After that they’d played I-spy but gave that up on the third day, when Svenson had broken down, yelling at Larsson to spy something different from “bloody snow”. Svenson had then led them in calisthenics but had turned his ankle on the ice, and Larsson said he felt stupid doing them on his own. And anyway the fitter he was, the hungrier he felt.

They’d read to each other from their obsolete and tragically inaccurate weather printouts, adopting colleagues voices until Svenson did poor dead Davidsen by mistake and they’d both had a tearful moment. They’d reminisced about life in the meteorological institute. Larsson recalled the big breasted analyst from that exchange scheme in Riga, and said he’d managed to sleep with her. He apologised for such unprofessional behaviour. Svenson said he was gay and didn’t care. Larsson looked a little hunted and Svenson told him not to kid himself. If Larsson were the last man on earth, he - Svenson – would still find him mildly repellent.

Larsson reflected that if the supply ship didn’t cut its way through, he probably would be the last man on earth as far as Svenson was concerned. He didn’t know whether to feel relieved about this.