Orchestral Manouevres in the Dark

Here’s a free story, to say thank you to everyone new who is following me (and all you lovely people who’ve stuck with me all along).

Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark*

The orchestra pit smells of sweat and rosin. Here in the first violins the sweat smell is faint – it’s rarely a physical job, producing the sweet strains of fiddle music, unless they’re doing one of the long, complicated Mozarts or some tricky modern stuff. Of course, if the First Violin is playing a particularly demanding solo the sweat flies along with the fingers, and the ambience becomes just that bit riper.

Next come the cellos. There are interesting scrapes in the floor, marring its polished finish, all running more-or-less parallel to each other. The cellos’ points stab into the floor, and slip a little when the cellists really get going. The grooves are almost impossible to see in the darkness. They are sticky with rosin. It’s not pleasant to walk across this section – she does it on tiptoe.

It’s no fun going further forward. There’s that big box where He stands. He has a funny smell – pungent, spicy, makes you sneeze. Nasty – and the box is too high for a comfortable jump. Better to go back, into the woodwinds.

Here, there’s a faint metallic smell – flutes and piccolos well warmed up – and a whiff of the grease that lazy wind players use to make their instruments easy to adjust. The trumpeters are gone in a waft of Brut and Brasso, but further round some of the larger horns have been left behind, upended. She rubs herself on their fingerpads and winds round the chairs, heading for the percussion section.

This – this is her favourite part. Lots of things that swing, and glitter, and chime. It’s fun to pat the sleigh bells and knock them against each other. Tubular bells knock back, and she gives them a wide berth. It’s back here amongst the drums that the best smells lurk – yeasty, fulsome smells of large men with interesting body odours, drumsticks imbued with sweat and dirt, very nice to chew. And skins. The gorgeous, meaty, tantalisingly faint smells left in skins when they have been bleached and stretched out across drum heads, reverberating with the strangled cries of the creatures they once covered.

She jumps up onto the largest of the timpani. Its taut surface booms faintly as she lands, releasing a faint mist of dust that she analyses minutely, detecting the timpanist’s tuna sandwich lunch, his neighbour the triangle player’s athlete’s foot and even a faint scent of aftershave all the way from the rostrum. She sneezes and turns her back, and turns and turns again, enjoying the tiny vibrations that shake the skin. She settles down and regards her domain, before lifting a back leg and proceeding to groom her impeccable fur. The orchestra pit is ready for tomorrow, and the orchestra cat is ready for her evening snooze.

*Any relationship between this story and the New Wave group of the same name is purely coincidental.

‘Christmas Landing’ for Crooked Cat’s Christmas

Day 4 of Christmas with the Crooked Cats’ advent calendar.

Crater Under a Big Sky

Intergalactic Seed Ship Hawthorn. Second Officer’s Log.

Day 1: We’ve made it. Successful landing on the planet we’re calling Christmas, because that’s the date by which the first extraterrestrial human colony will be up and running. The preparations took years, but now our crew of three is about to begin to revive the colonists, and the day we’ve waited for will finally arrive.

Day 3: the instruments are all telling us that it’s safe to open the hatch. There’s a breathable atmosphere out there. I wonder what we’ll find.

Day 7: more of us are being revived each day. It’s starting to look like a real settlement, but I can’t help feeling depressed. We knew things would be different, but I’d hoped for trees. Green things. Something a bit more like home used to be. We’ll get to work planting just as soon as the ground is prepared, but at the moment everything is barren and dry. Not a living thing as far as the eye can see.

Of course, for all we know the ground outside the ancient impact crater where we landed is covered with lush jungle vegetation, but our settlement site was chosen carefully, to be sheltered from the wind that our atmospheric scientists told us would be fierce, and as a result our horizon is small, and close – and bare.

Day 13: I don’t believe in bad luck. I don’t. Thirteen is just a number. We have halted the revival program. Our scientists have discovered a slight, unforeseen and completely lethal variation in the radiation from the sun. Those of us already on the surface have received enough radiation to kill us – not immediately, though it is already enough to shorten our lives. We are spending as much time inside the ship as we can, but with so many awake we are all very cramped.

Tests have shown that our plants will not grow. The radiation is toxic to all forms of earth life. We are facing a slow death by starvation.

Day 17: I cannot bear being cooped up inside any longer. If I’m going to die, I’d rather it was out in the open, under the sun – feeling the wind on my face. A small group of us are going hunting. There must surely be something alive in this place. All the tests indicated that there would be.

Day 19: Well, there is life here. Still no sign of anything that you’d call a plant, and when we slogged to the crater’s rim the barren landscape spread in all directions as far as we could see, but there’s an animal: small, fat, running on two legs with stubby upper limbs. Some kind of small dinosaur, maybe. We tried to catch one, but even with the long-range pulse guns we had no luck. They’re just too speedy and maneuverable. Ensign Tolly stuck his leg in a hole and went head over heels – broke it in two places. We’re carrying him back now.

Day 21: I’m going on my own. It’s against orders, but the hierarchy has almost broken down now. Along with the replicators. Something to do with the damned radiation: it’s cooked some of the components, and now we can’t make anything other than a grey, tasteless mush. They tell me it provides adequate nutrition, but it doesn’t feel like it. I’m desperate for something with taste, and a bit of texture in my mouth. What I wouldn’t give for a bacon chop, or a nice crisp apple!

Day 22: I’ve come almost as far as I can go before turning back. If I walk any further I’ll not make it to the ship before my mush-ration runs out. I can’t bring myself to care. There’s something catching the sun to the south – flashing intermittently – for all the world like a signal. Of course it can’t be, but I’m going to take a look anyway.

Day 23: Amazing. I found the things that live here. I’ve found everything! Trees, crops, animals, bird-things – people, of a sort – all down a hole in the ground. They live in immense underground caverns, where the lethal radiation of the star is filtered through the layers of rock.

There are these little green men. Really! Hairy little guys, like skinny green orang-utans. They don’t speak – just kind of sing or hoot at each other – but they seem to communicate through the flashing of mirrors. The signals they exchange across the cavern’s expanse are quite complex, so I’m sure they have some kind of language.

They like me. I’ve been adopted. There are three or four of them that look after me – bringing me food, water, painting me with some kind of tribal colours, massaging my hands – they’re fascinated by the smoothness of my skin. They’ve sent a delegation to the ship. They’re going to invite all of us to live with them.

Day 25. I like my new friends, but it’s great to have human faces around me again. We’ve closed up the ship for now, although in time perhaps the others can be revived and brought to join us, but the rest of us are together, and you wouldn’t believe how happy we all are. The little green guys are pretty happy too. They’re preparing a feast for us. There is a fruit a bit like an apple, and another one rich and juicy like a peach, but it tastes of onions. They make flour from a kind of mushroom that grows on the cavern roof, and then cook it up into patties. And down a level from where I’m sitting they’re preparing the meat.

The green guys are pretty good trappers and hunters, with all sorts of ways of catching those little reptile runners. They smell really good, cooking on spits over the fire. And it turns out they taste just like turkey.

Let’s talk about love, #2

Source: Let’s talk about love, #2

Here’s a taste of real life to add spice to my fiction. I think after forty years I can stand to reveal this much.

Making the Best of Things – Part 1

Here at last, and only a little bit later than planned, is the first instalment in my Christmas story. Come over to https://www.facebook.com/groups/737252102990447/?ref=ts&fref=ts and join us for a season of stories – and read the rest of this one, to be published here and on Facebook on 27th December 2014.

Fliss and Max

Making the Best of Things, or, Five Stay Home for Christmas

Part 1 – 27th November

“Fliss! Fliss! Put that child down and come here.”
“Aww, Missus Matchum, don’t be mean. She’s lovely. I think she might follow me home.”
“From your mouth to God’s ear, son. Fliss’ll follow anyone home, if she thinks there might be food or a cuddle in it. Get over here, ye daft bitch. Heel.” The white bulldog trots reluctantly back to Agatha Matchum’s side as the child runs off down a side street.
“Did you win, then?” Annette is curious. Surely the name issue has already been settled, and not in Aggie’s favour.
“Win what?” Aggie flicks her iron grey bob behind her ears and hauls at the leads, positioning one bull terrier on each side of her. The dogs eye one another round the swing of her tweed skirt and leather boots and elect to behave. For now.
“The Royal versus Fliss argument.”
“Argument? There is no argument. He says, okay, Max is my dog, but the female is his, and he wants to call her Royal. I say: if I’m the one walking her, then I’m the one naming her. She got her shots last week. It says Fliss Matchum on the bill, and I don’t notice him rushing to pay it.” Aggie’s brother Malcolm lives with her, in between stints on the oil rigs. Hardy souls have been known to remark that he’s worked his way through a series of careers, each of which takes him further away from his sister. More charitable (or cynical) types note that he always comes home again.
Aggie puts the dogs in gear and marches forward. Annette’s shepherd bitch, Saf, falls obediently into line and the two women set off uphill towards the bus stop. Annette is dark and plump, and wears her hair in a braid. She’s fond of loose, comfortable clothing in flower prints and bright colours, which conceal her figure and make her look like the ageing flower child she is. She finds Aggie brash and overbearing, and they make an odd couple, but nonetheless they’re best friends. Annette can’t imagine life without her. Ahead of the two women a howling arises, interspersed with yips. The dogs pant and strain at their leashes. Company is waiting.
Near the top of the hill two women are huddled together in the bus shelter, trying to keep out of the wind. In front of the shelter a small, white bundle jumps up and down excitedly, yapping at the top of its voice. Above its head a worn leather lead juts horizontally into the street. One end is attached to the collar of a beautiful samoyed, gleaming white, lovingly brushed and frothing with the effort of pulling against the lead. Inside the shelter Val Collins braces herself against her dog’s pull as she carries on her conversation. Every now and again her voice floats out over the sound of barking.
“Sit, Karma. Sit now, there’s a dear.”
Her voice has no effect on the dog, whose eyes are bulging as it chokes itself against its own collar. Fortunately, Aggie and Annette reach the others just before Karma collapses from asphyxia. The dogs mill round together, sniffing each other’s bottoms and tangling the leads. Karma collapses into a white, hairy pile in the roadway and pants ferociously, saliva dripping from his tongue. Sugar finally ceases yapping and piles into the fray, whining and nipping at the larger dogs. Saf bears her patiently, shouldering her away from time to time, while Max and Fliss ignore her altogether. They are too busy licking up the pools of Karma’s saliva from the gutter.
Eventually, the women get the leads sorted out and start off along the ridge.

Chantelle closes the oven door and straightens, rubbing the small of her back. Steam has condensed on her fringe and it hangs limply in front of her eyes. She pushes it back behind her ears and shouts. “Jared? It’s your turn to walk the dog.”
There’s no response from upstairs, but the rocker on the floor under the kitchen table begins to wail softly. Chantelle reaches out one foot and pushes the rocker into motion again. The baby quiets, while she continues preparing the dinner.
“Jared?” It’s no use. It looks as though she’ll be walking the dog again. Funny how ‘family dog’ inevitably becomes ‘Mum’s dog’ when it comes to exercise. The potatoes come to the boil and she turns them down to simmer. She decants a pile of chopped green beans into the pot with the carrots and pushes the hair out of her eyes again. With luck there’ll be just enough time to change Alice, feed the dog and persuade the twins to lay the table before serving up. Daisy’s walk will have to wait until after bedtime, as usual.
Chantelle sighs. Things seem to be getting harder every day. It’s at times like this that she really misses having another adult around the place – even though he’d been pretty useless when it came to household chores. She misses having someone to keep an eye on the baby while she nips out to get the washing in, or to take the chicken out of the oven when the timer goes (and stop the dog from eating it) while she rounds up the troops.
Sometimes she feels it needs the skills of a Sergeant Major to keep five kids and a dog in line. That was another of Gary’s complaints. “You’re always telling me what to do. You’re so grumpy all the time.”
“You just try keeping a household of seven (plus dog) in order by yourself, Gary MacEwan, she mutters, kicking the table leg. Bloody coward. He’d been fine in the early days – caring and helpful during her pregnancies, patient and loving afterwards – and there’s no doubt at all that he loves the kids, especially Jared once he’d become old enough to be interesting – but somewhere along the line the spark had gone out of their marriage, and he hadn’t cared enough to help her keep it alight.
It’s understandable, she thinks. After all, by the time they had four children she’d been pretty well exhausted, and the work is hard. There isn’t much room for romance in her life. But right now, with ten year old Jared, eight year old Georgie, twins Tim and Luke (six) and the baby, she really can’t do it all on her own.
She smiles down at Alice. She’d been the baby that Chantelle had hoped would restart their marriage, and bond them all together. It hadn’t worked out that way. Instead, by the twenty-week antenatal check she’d been doing it all on her own, while Gary was away across town in his new house, with his new girlfriend and soon enough his brand new baby. Little Molly is a model baby with yellow curls who never cries, or keeps her parents awake all night with colic. To add insult to injury, she is  two weeks older than Alice – a fact that causes Chantelle to fantasize about scratching Gary’s eyes out whenever she remembers it.
The front door opens and closes again, sending a cold draught down the hallway and banging the kitchen door shut. It opens, and a pretty girl with brown hair in braids peers round the doorway.
“Hello Georgie, how was Guides?”
“Really good. I’m nearly ready to sit my First Aid badge.”
“That’s great.” Chantelle unbuckles the baby’s safety strap and lifts her, releasing a distinctive smell of dirty nappy.
“Give her to me, Mum. I know what to do.”
“Georgie, you’re a star. What would I do without you?”
Georgie takes the baby to the bathroom, and Chantelle drags the twins away from their computer game, to screams of anguish as the screen goes black. With identical scowls they stomp around the kitchen, slamming plates down on the table and pretending to stab one another with forks. One stands on Daisy’s paw and she yelps, jumping out from under the table, and taking refuge in the utility room, coincidentally ending up right next to her food bowl. Chantelle takes the hint and feeds her, closing the door to shut the dog away from the family dinner. The chicken ought to be about ready by now.

Leroy and the Camel – A Short Story for Christmas

Here’s today’s offering from the talented authors at Crooked Cat. Don’t forget, there’s a great range of titles and it’s not too late for Christmas posting! https://www.facebook.com/groups/737252102990447/?fref=ts

Vanessa Couchman

Christmas with Crooked Cats

Continuing the Christmas with the Crooked Cats seasonal feast of literary offerings, here is a short story about a Santa with a difference.

Apologies for the possible lack of political correctness. Not to be taken seriously.

[P.S. Check out our books at the Crooked Cat Bookstore – plenty of Christmas ideas there.]

Leroy and the Camel

It was Leroy’s 25th year in the store as Father Christmas. He hated it a bit more every year.

When he applied for the job, Ralph, the Toy Department manager, had sucked his teeth.

“I don’t know; a black Father Christmas. Mmm. Well, why not? It’s a novelty. Might well draw in the punters.”

Warming to his theme, he mused out loud, “Since you come from Africa, we can’t have a reindeer. What do they have down there? Lions – no that’ll frighten the kids. Elephants – too big. I know – a camel!”

Leroy sighed…

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A Musical Comedy of Errors (flash fiction prompt ‘the wrong end of the stick’)

It wasn’t my fault. I didn’t even realise the stick had two ends. They should have spelled it out better. Spelled it out. Pfft. Lol.

Let me explain. It all started at the audition for ‘Cats’. At least, the audition went pretty well. I got the part. All I had to do was make like a cat – you know, all that preening and pawing and making eyes at the Rum Tum Tugger. Well, that was no problem: Doug Airtson is dead easy on the eye. I could look at him all day long, in his skin-tight tights and his tabby-stripe stage makeup. That boy has definitely been working out.

Luckily I didn’t really need to be able to sing. It’s all kind-of tuneless yowling. I mean, I know Lord Whatsisname wrote some nice tunes for it, but us chorus types just have to hum along, you know. They didn’t really ask me to sing at the audition. That was a bit of a surprise, but after I’d got down on all fours in my skimpy leotard and arched my back and wiggled my perty kitty bottom, that seemed to be all they wanted to see. Nailed it, straight up.

The first rehearsals were a bit boring. I learned my cues straight away. No-one can accuse me of not being quick on the uptake. But when you’ve seen one bloke in tights you’ve seen ‘em all, and the Rum Tum Tugger might be a bit of a sex symbol in the script, but I can tell you for free in real life he’s a minger. Always got his hands where he shouldn’t, and frankly he could do with a wash. It’s amazing what an actor thinks he can get away with just because he has pecs to die for and can hit top C.

I got a promotion, toot sweet. Special assistant to Mr Mistoffeles. I didn’t have to do much, either. It was, like, totally not my fault that pretty little tortie kitty tripped coming off stage and broke her ankle in the lighting pit. I only meant to shake her up, after that mean comment in the dressing room about no amount of cold cream being enough to hide the signs of a common alley cat. I’ve always had faith in fate – if you act nasty, stuff will happen to you. Though fate sometimes needs a helping hand.

So, there I was in the wings, looking like butter wouldn’t melt and the director shouts ‘You! Get over here.” I look all around, like I think they mean someone else, though there’s no-one else there. Get in! Now who’s saying I can’t act? “Hold this. It’s Mr Mistoffeles’ dancing stick. You need to give it to him just before the end of the second chorus. Red end up. That’s very important, girl. Are you listening? Red end up, green end down.”

Am I listening? I was born listening! Anyway, it goes like a dream, the director says it’s perfect, he explains how on the night when Mr Mistoffeles bangs his staff on the ground a firework will shoot out the top – because he’s magic and all that. I don’t really listen – it’s all yadda yadda, and I’m too busy getting all dreamy over Mr M – he has the most gorgeous eyes underneath his cat-mask thingy. Dreamy. So I’ve got the part. I get tickets for my Mum, since it’s a big promotion, I’m not just any old yowly kit cat any longer, I’m a Cat. I’m Mr Mistoffeles assistant cat.

Opening night, and the director’s making his last minute checks. I’m in the wings holding the stick and he’s all like ‘red end up, green end down. Have you got it Kitty?’ Yes, I say, my eyes fixed on Mr M. They say he hasn’t got a girlfriend. If I play my cards right that situation might not last too much longer. The second chorus starts and I tiptoe out on my cute little kittycat feet. He holds his hand out without looking and takes the stick from me. The chorus ends and the saxophone wails out, drums are beating, cats are yowling, everybody in the audience is spell bound by the magic Mr M and he bangs his stick on the stage and all hell breaks loose. A firework shoots out the bottom of his staff, bounces off the stage and falls into the orchestra pit. Next minute there’s sparks flying up, the saxophone has gone squeaky and the audience are all screaming.

I mean to say, what a fuss. It was fine. The audience stopped having hysterics and were allowed to go out and have drinkies a bit early while it was all sorted out. The saxophonist had a wee lie down, and he was only burnt a little bit. The FX guys sorted out the stick and Mr M came back on and did it all perfectly. They wouldn’t let me be his assistant anymore, though, on account of having given him the stick green side up.

It’s not fair. One teeny weeny mistake and I’m out of a job. I should have stuck with the Rum Tum Tugger and his roaming hands. It’s all that director’s fault. He never even asked me if I was colour blind.

A New Start

This story came first in last weeks Friday Flash Fiction competition on Authonomy.com. It just fits into the 1000 word limit.

A New Start

The sun was in her eyes. Florrie ducked her head and squinted at the gangway, concentrating on the heavy bags and awkward steps. She turned her head to rub her nose on her shoulder and overbalanced. She teetered on the edge of the deck, but a voice behind her cried, “Watch out, girl!” A hand grabbed her arm and thrust her forward. As she tottered down the slope she wondered again what she had let herself in for.

The advertisement had been short and to-the-point. “Thinking of emigrating?” It said. “A new home in the sun. Able-bodied applicants required for the colonies. No previous experience required.” More importantly, the advertisement did not specify a fare. Florrie hoped that meant the cost of passage would be included in the position. The dirty streets of Glasgow, heaving with people even poorer than herself, held nothing for her. She wanted to go where there was work to do – lots of work. Work that would fill up her empty hours and help her to forget.

The tiny room in the crowded tenement had been a far cry from life on the croft, but it was only the first step along the way. She kept their minuscule home clean and welcoming for Tom at the end of his shift, and prepared for the imminent arrival of the baby. Neither of them was prepared for the arrival of cholera. The disease crept into the close via the pump, everyone’s water supply, and within days had infected half the residents. Tom had been one of the first to succumb.

The baby had hardly lived before he was dead. She tied his tiny body to Tom’s chest with ropes torn from their clothing. It took all her strength to drag their bodies down the stairs to the pile of corpses awaiting removal, and to resist the urge to look at his face one more time. She wanted to lie down with him and die, but her body had been determined to live.

Florrie stumbled off the end of the gangway and dropped the bags onto the quay. Behind her, the man who had steadied her reached for his bag, thrusting a sixpence into her hand. “I don’t know why I’m paying you,” he said, ungratefully, “when you nearly dropped it into the drink.”

Florrie brushed the hair out of her eyes and looked around. She was supposed to be met by her new employer, a Mrs Hargreave. The press of people around the gangway was already lessening, as each passenger made the acquaintance of his or her reception committee. Florrie stood on, until almost all the people had gone. Whoever Mrs Hargreave was, she hadn’t turned up.

Just in front of her stood a large family of children, ranging in age from a boy of around twelve to a snotty, rather grubby baby of indeterminate sex. There were six of them in all, accompanied by a middle-aged man in down-at-heel boots and a brown woollen suit; probably his best, given how uncomfortable he looked in it. He came forward and spoke to the purser, who was striking the last passenger names from his manifest.

“Lizzie Meadows? I’m supposed to meet Lizzie Meadows?”

The purser consulted his list.

“No luck, mate. She died on the way out. Complications of measles. Terrible thing in steerage – carried off three babies and a pregnant woman. And your Lizzie. Sorry.” He turned away, his remorse perfunctory and completely without empathy.

The man’s shoulders slumped. A girl of around nine or ten tapped him on the shoulder.

“What is it, Dada? Is Auntie Lizzie not coming?”

The man turned and looked at the girl. His face wore an expression of hopeless exhaustion, and the lines of recent grief.

“Oh, Netty.” He held out his arms and she nestled into them for a moment. He gazed over her head at the eldest boy, now holding the baby and patting her ineffectually as she cried. “Your Mam’s sister isn’t coming. She died on the voyage. It’s just going to be us. I’m sorry.”

Florrie finished her examination of the dockyards. After travelling halfway round the world she had arrived to exactly the situation that she’d left behind – she knew no-one, she had no job, and she was in a strange place about which she knew virtually nothing. Swiftly, she came to a decision, and addressed the man.

“Pardon me,”

“Yes miss, can I help you?”

“I couldn’t help overhearing. Are you looking for domestic help? My employer seems to be absent, and so I find myself in need of work”

The man took in her slender form, thin face and shabby carpet-bag. Florrie squared her shoulders and held her head high. She was proud of her roots, and there was nothing to be ashamed of in being a farmer’s daughter fallen on hard times.

The baby snuffled, then let out a sudden loud yell. Instinctively, Florrie reached into the pocket of her skirt and pulled out a rag, with which she wiped the baby’s nose. It startled, and looked at her, and she reached out and tickled it under the chin. The baby chortled, and as the boy shifted it from one hip to the other it reached out for her.

Florrie looked at the man. His careworn face regarded hers, his eyes meeting hers with kindness and hope. He nodded as he made up his mind. “Will you come with me, lass?” he asked. “I cannot offer you much pay, for it has been difficult to work these last months since my wife passed. But our home is warm and dry, and you will be among friends.”

The boy exchanged Florrie’s bag for the baby, which nuzzled her chest as she turned her back on the docks and followed in the wake of the father and his brood. She smiled ruefully.” I wished for work”, she said to herself. “I seem to have been given it.”