Serendipity – and storytelling

Serendipity. Sometimes it’s all you could possibly ask for. This week I’ve had three unexpectedly inspiring experiences. Firstly, one of my fellow Crooked Cats came to the island on Monday – we visited beaches and art galleries, ate icecream on the waterfront, and spent the day talking about our writing. It’s wonderful to be in the company of another writer. That evening a parcel arrived – a paperback copy of Lauren Sapala’s book ‘The INFJ Writer’, which is full of useful exercises and helpful advice. I learned that my messy, bitsy, disorganised method of writing (which is neither pantsing nor planning, but more like patchwork) has a name. It’s called the mosaic technique. How nice is that? (Despite my best attempts at cheating, I always code out to INFJ. It’s a nuisance, but there we are.)

And then another friend gave me a wonderful thing. It’s a booklet and pack of forty ‘storytelling’ cards. I was messing around with them today, shuffling and dealing out a handful of cards, then using them to make up stories. It was just a bit of fun, until suddenly a story started to tell itself. ‘The Blanket of Stars’ is the first piece of extended writing I’ve done in over three months, and here it is. Small, and whole and perfect. And all thanks to Jennifer, Lauren and Carol. Here’s to serendipity – and to friends!

The Blanket of Stars

Once there was a king: the usual kind, strong and rich and wilful, dispensing judgement from his great carved throne and overseeing the running of his kingdom. He was not a happy man, for he was troubled with poor sleep, and nightmares. Not so many nightmares, at that, for it was not often that he slept long enough for dreams to come.

He sat on his throne, which come to think of it was rather hard and not very comfortable, and stared down at his servants and companions in the great hall. His brow was deeply furrowed, his shoulders high and tense, and he tapped one boot on the flagstones of the floor as he sat there. His chamberlain came forward, rather reluctantly, bowed and enquired after the king’s health.

The king glared at him. “I’m tired of having no sleep,” he grumbled. “I’m sick of these poor quality dreams. Fetch the Keeper of Dreams.”

The servants reported that no-one had seen the old man for a very long time, and they weren’t even sure if he was still alive.

“Of course he’s alive,” roared the king. “If he’d died someone would have told me.” This sounded quite logical, and anyway everyone was too afraid of the king to argue with him.

“Search high and low,” said the king, “from the deepest, darkest dungeon to the highest, most windswept tower and find the Keeper of Dreams. I want to sleep.”

So the king’s servants spread out through the castle. They searched from the deepest, darkest dungeon to the highest, most windswept tower, and at last they found the Keeper of Dreams where he’d been all along: in his own bed, fast asleep, with a dreaming smile upon his face.

The old man came before the king, sitting on his high throne, and he bowed. “Your Majesty is looking well,” he said.

“Never mind that,” said the king. “This is no time for platitudes. Anyway, I don’t believe I am looking well, because I haven’t slept for weeks. I need to sleep, Keeper. I want some pleasant dreams. Open your box of tricks. Make it happen.”

The Keeper of Dreams eyed the king for a moment, noting his frowning brow, the unsatisfied twist of his lips, and the distinctly red tinge of his eyes. “Your Majesty,” he said, “the solution to your ills is the Star Blanket. If we can get you settled into bed with the Star Blanket tucked around you, you’d soon find yourself snoozing peacefully, awash with pleasant dreams.”

“Oh,” said the king wistfully. “That does sound good.” He mused for a moment, then his shoulders, which had relaxed, drew up again either side of his ears and he shouted, “Well, what are you waiting for? Get out there and find me the Star Blanket.”

So the Keeper of Dreams packed a small bag of his most essential possessions and set off into the world. He took with him a tiny casket, containing his favourite and most beloved dreams. As he walked through the streets of the city, he observed the daily lives of the king’s people, and spoke with many as he passed by. But none had heard of the Star Blanket, or knew of its whereabouts. One old, old woman gazed at him, her face creased with thousands of wrinkles, and spoke.

“You might as well ask the beasts of the fields as the people of this city,” she said. “For they are too busy and too worldly to pay any attention to something as old and well-worn as the Star Blanket.”

“That’s good advice, ma’am,” the Keeper of Dreams said, for he was nothing if not polite, and he remembered his own old mother, dead this many a long year, and treated the old lady with courtesy on behalf of his mother’s memory. He set off out of the city gates, on his way to ask the beasts if they had seen the Star Blanket, since the people of the city had been no help to him.

The old woman watched him go, her eyes bright and far-seeing in her old, old face. She smiled, and the wrinkles doubled, as she noted that the kind and charming man was not much younger than herself. “Good luck to you, my fine fellow,” she said. “I have a feeling I’ll be seeing you again.” She closed her eyes and her head nodded upon her breast, as she fell into the quick, easy sleep of the very old.

The Keeper of Dreams got no help from the beasts of the field: cows, sheep and llamas have no use for the artefacts of dreaming. They simply lay down with the coming of darkness and the Star Blanket fell over them quite naturally so that they slept till morning, and dreamed the dreams of contented animals. Perhaps he would have more luck in the dark forest. He stumbled his way into the deepest, darkest part of the forest, tripping over tree roots and extricating himself from bramble patches, until at last he found himself faced by a fearsome looking beast, half-human and half some wild creature of the wilderness.

“Halt,” cried the beast. “I’m hungry and you’ll do for my dinner. Stand still and let me kill you.”

The Keeper of Dreams replied that he would sooner not be eaten, if possible, as he was on an urgent errand for the king. He delved into his small bag and pulled out a heel of bread. The beast seized the bread and ate it in a few bites, washing it down with water from a nearby streamlet.

“Why should I care about the king?” he said. “Once I lived in that great city of his; I was a respected member of society. But I began to have bad dreams, and then I couldn’t sleep, and at last I was so maddened by lack of it that my neighbours turned me out into the woods to die. It’s a bad season – too early in the year for fruit and grains. I’ve eaten nothing but meat for weeks. There’s not much meat on your bones, old man, but I’ll have what there is regardless. It will keep me going until tomorrow.”

He lurched towards the old man, but stumbled to a halt as the Keeper of Dreams drew out his tiny box and opened it. A warm, golden light filled the clearing.

“Oh.” The beast leaned forwards and gazed into the box. “Oh, I see.” He sank to his haunches and bowed his head, closing his eyes and falling into sleep. A little golden dust settled on his head and shoulders as he began to snore. The Keeper of Dreams patted the sleeping beast’s shoulder companionably, tucked his box back into his bag, and walked away.

On the other side of the dark forest the Keeper of Dreams spotted a young lad, watching over a flock of sheep. The sheep grazed peacefully on the green grass, a rainbow flickered into being as a shower passed across the ground, and then the sun shone again as the shepherd lad pulled a pipe out of his pocket and began to play. The old man smiled, and he felt a little of his burden lift at the joyful sound. Surely a boy so contented must know the secret of peaceful sleep and quiet dreams.

“Lad,” he cried as he started forwards. “Please help me. I am on an urgent errand for the king, who is troubled in his sleep and suffers unquiet dreams. I am seeking the Star Blanket. Please tell me you know where it is.”

“I’m not sure I can help you,” said the boy. “Each day I bring my flock in from the pasture and put them into the barn. My sister brings me food, and then I curl up with the sheep to sleep in the warm straw. Sometimes a star looks in the high window of the barn, and even though the wolf howls I know that I am safe. But I remember that when I was very young my mother would sing me to sleep, and I always had good dreams. Maybe she can help you.” And he gave the Keeper of Dreams a little bread and cheese from his satchel (for he was a good boy, and his mother had taught him to be kind to strangers) and directed him towards the mountain path that would lead him to the village in the valley below.

The Keeper opened his small box and offered it to the boy, who reached inside and pulled out an amber honey chew. This he ate with every evidence of enjoyment. The Keeper made his way across the meadow, wondering what sweet dream the young shepherd would receive when he lay down in the barn that evening.

By this time the Keeper of Dreams was very tired, and he wondered if he would ever manage to find the Star Blanket for the king, or if perhaps he was fated to walk until his legs dropped off, or his poor old heart gave out. But at last he reached the outskirts of the village, and saw a wee white cottage with a carving of leaves and flowers over the lintel. In the doorway of the house stood a woman – a very ordinary looking woman, in a peasant’s black dress and grey shawl, but her face was kind and her eyes a warm brown as she gazed at him.

“Sir, you look tired,” she said. “Will you sit awhile and take a sup of ale with me?”

The Keeper of Dreams was very pleased to take the weight off, so he dropped onto the bench beside the door and sighed as he stretched out his aching legs and sore feet. The woman brought two tankards of ale, cool and frothy, and sat beside him, sipping her drink and gazing out across the yard where a couple of chickens were hopefully pecking the ground.

“Mother, I thank you. This was just what I needed.” The Keeper of Dreams raised his tankard to the woman, who nodded but didn’t reply. For a long moment they sat there in the warm sunshine, enjoying the moment of rest, however brief. Then the Keeper of Dreams stirred and turned towards her.

“It seems to me that I met your son, up in the high pastures,” he said. “I told him I was looking for the Star Blanket, and he said that he couldn’t help me, but he remembered that when he was very young you would sing him to sleep and he had pleasant dreams. I wonder if you would mind coming with me to the city to sing to the king. He is troubled in his sleep and has unquiet dreams.”

The woman gazed at him wonderingly. “They are very ordinary songs,” she said, “and I have only a very ordinary voice. Of course, he is my son and I love him. That makes a difference.” She thought for a moment, then stood. “Wait here,” she said, and disappeared back into her cottage.

The Keeper of Dreams was content to wait. It was pleasant sitting in the sun after a mug of ale and a day of hard exercise. He may even have dropped off for a moment, but came fully alert when the woman emerged from her house, holding an old, scruffy, many-times-patched blanket. It was the faded pink of the washed out evening sky, and every square of its patchwork bore a cloth star. Some of the stars were bright and colourful, but others were faded or torn, and a few hung loose where the stitching had come undone.

The woman bundled the blanket into a bag and pulled it onto her shoulder, along with a pouch of cheese and apples. “Come on, then,” she said. “I can’t be away long, because the sheep will soon be shorn and then I need to get busy with my spinning. But my housework can wait a day or two, if the king’s in need of a sleep.”

On their first night of travelling the Keeper offered her his little box. She peeped inside, her face warmed by the golden light, but she shook her head and he closed it again. “An early start, plenty of hard work and a job well done – those will bring me rest at night. No need for any golden toy to charm my sleep.”

The two of them trudged through the great gate of the castle a couple of days later. They’d eaten all the cheese and apples along the way, and the Keeper had traded a dream for a loaf of sour bread on the second day, but they were both footsore and hungry, and very glad to have arrived. The castle kitchen was bustling with preparations for the king’s dinner, but the second cook sat them down at a table in the corner and served them soup and bread, and a fruit compote for dessert, for the ordinary people of the castle ate the same good food as the king, only that theirs was not served on silver platters or accompanied by the best Rhenish wine.

After the meal the Keeper of Dreams spoke quietly to the cook, and she allowed the woman to use her kitchen, although she insisted first on a thorough wash and a change of clothing. Luckily one of the housemaids was a similar shape to the woman, and loaned her a grey dress and white apron, and a white scarf to cover her hair. The woman set to work in the kitchen, and before long doors were opening and servants peering in to discover the source of the appetising aromas that were issuing from the oven.

At last the Keeper of Dreams brought the woman before the king. He sat as before on his high, hard throne, with a frown of bitterness on his face and his tired head on his hand. The doors opened and the Keeper strode into the hall, bringing with him a wholesome smell of cinnamon and nutmeg and cloves. The king sat up and breathed deeply. “What is this?” he demanded.

The woman curtseyed, and placed her items on a nearby table. She poured him a simple pottery mug of cinnamon milk posset, and offered a plateful of spiced cakes, still hot from the oven. The king took the drink, not without a slight curl of the lip at the plainness of its container, but after one sip he drained the mug and turned his attention to the cakes. He ate three. The Keeper took advantage of the king’s distraction to help himself to a cake. They were really very good.

The woman sat on the step below the throne and stretched out her legs in front of her, pulling down the housemaid’s skirts which were, truth to tell, slightly short and displayed a pair of nicely turned ankles and two neat, stockinged feet. The king gazed at the shapely ankles and munched absently on another cake. She leaned her head against the side of the throne and began to hum.

There was nothing much to the song – a low, swaying melody, a word or two and some fal-la-lals. Nothing much to listen to. Nothing to excite, or interest, or…

The king’s eyelids drooped and he let go of the pottery mug. The Keeper swooped forward and caught it before it could shatter on the flagstones. The king’s head fell forward and he began to snore. The woman stood and regarded him for a moment. The Keeper of Dreams began to speak, but she put her finger to her lips.

She turned and beckoned to the chamberlain, who was peering in through the double doors of the great hall. The chamberlain pushed the doors open and in came the king’s huge, wheeled, four-poster bed, so heavy that it took twenty footmen to manoeuvre it. They rolled it into the centre of the hall, and then the Keeper ushered the servants and retainers away.

The woman went to the throne and gently nudged the king.

“Whassam?” he muttered, his eyelids flickering. She put one hand under his elbow and encouraged him to stand. With the woman on one side, and the old man on the other, the king climbed down from the throne and lay down on the clean white sheets of the bed. The woman pulled up the eiderdown as the king turned on his side and mumbled sleepily.

Opening the bag she still carried over one shoulder, the woman pulled out the Star Blanket and draped it over the king. One hand came up and pawed at the blanket, but she took it and laid it down by his side, and tucked the blanket around him. She stroked his cheek gently and the frown cleared from his face. After a moment his breathing deepened again, and she gestured to the Keeper to precede her into the corridor.

“That was a kind thing you did,” said the Keeper. “Being as how that’s no magical object in there, but only an ordinary ratty old blanket of the kind that any peasant woman might make for her babies. Still, there was surely magic in the song, anyway.”

The woman smiled and touched the Keeper’s cheek. He leaned into the touch, feeling again the long distant warmth of his mother’s hand. “Every boy needs his mother from time to time,” she said. “And every mother knows the secret of the Blanket of Stars.”

She spoke to the chamberlain, who was hovering outside the doors to the great hall, clearly wanting to go in to his master. “I will return in the spring when my first grandchild is born. I’ll want the Star Blanket back then, and he won’t need it anymore.” She shouldered her empty bag and walked out of the castle, without a backward glance.

The Keeper stood watching after her for a few minutes. Behind him the chamberlain slipped quietly into the hall. The Keeper’s forehead bore its own frowning mark as he thought, rather slowly since he was tired after his journey. Then his face cleared and his eyes widened. Nodding to himself he walked out of the castle and down into the town.

As he crossed the marketplace the old woman was there, sitting on her doorstep, taking in the late afternoon sun. She looked at him without speaking as he sat on the doorstep beside her, and turned to look into her face. Her back was bowed and her face old, but her expression was as young as springtime and her eyes were bright. The Keeper took one of her gnarled, arthritic hands in his and rubbed it gently.

“When I was young, and new in my job, and I thought that I was soon to hold all the secrets of the dreaming world in my hands, I had a dream.” He paused and looked at her, and she smiled at him. The wrinkles on her face doubled, but her eyes were clear and shining and fixed on his face.

“I dreamed that I walked far, far from my home, until I came to a valley between two peaks. There the grass was green and the streams fresh and clear. The trees bore blossom, green leaf and fruit all together, and in among the fruit bushes deer grazed in the company of wolves, rabbits scampered between the paws of a lion, and an eagle screamed overhead but did not disturb the hens which searched for worms amongst the strawberries.”

The woman gazed at him serenely. Her smile deepened, and the wrinkles tripled, but she made no sound. She patted his hand comfortingly, and he continued.

“In this valley was a small white house with smoke coming from the chimney. And on the threshhold stood an enchantress, young in years and strong in the use of her power. She led me into her garden and fed me on the sweetest fruits. And as the sun dipped behind the mountains, I realised that her eyes were the precise colour of the sky at the moment when all the light has gone, but the first star has not yet begun to shine.”

He stopped, and for the first time looked uncertain. He looked again into the old, wise face and was drawn into two deep pools of smoky blue. He began to tremble.

She smiled, the smile of a woman who is taking pity on a man when she knows he has floundered into deep water. Despite the wrinkles, the Keeper suddenly saw a woman who, in her own mind, was as young and powerful as ever she had been. She stood and pulled him to his feet.

“Some dreams are not meant to be shared,” she said, “and others wait a lifetime within us.” She pulled his head down and brushed her lips over his. “But now you have found my garden, and you will find that the fruits are still sweet.”

***

Cards used:

The King

The Keeper of Dreams

The Enchantress

The Wild Beast

The Youngest Son

The Mother

The Star Blanket

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Telling Tales Slant – Something Wicked

This one’s not so much twisted as updated, and brought back to the level of nastiness I remember from reading translations of Grimm. By name and by nature – the endings of folk and fairy tales were once much darker. For this one I have in mind the wonderful Cloris Leachmann (http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0001458/) , who is currently owning the small screen in ‘American Gods’. Who would you cast in the role of Malva?

Treacle paperback spreadCloris Leachman imdb

Something Wicked, Something Pink

So many people. They must have invited everyone. Malva inserted herself into the stream of partygoers pouring in through the great doors, flung open to the cool air of early evening, and peered through the throng. Everyone except me, that is. She stamped her foot. A startled footman glanced in her direction and she plastered a pleasant smile on her face and accepted a vol-au-vent from the tray he proffered. Now, where is that blasted baby?

She shouldered through the crowds, working her way into the heart of the building. Security was easy to spot – black suits, mirror shades, the whole stone-faced thing – but she had nothing to fear from them. Out here no-one was checking invitations (after all, everybody had one) and a little sleight of hand and misdirection should see her past anyone who took more than a casual interest. As for getting into the christening party itself… “Hello, dear.”

The sharp-suited man startled as the frail elderly woman greeted him. He drew himself up, preparing to send her on her way, but she grasped his elbow with surprisingly strong fingers. “I don’t…”

The words died in his throat as she administered three brisk taps to his wrist, neck and temple. All intelligence drained from his face and he gazed at her, open-mouthed, as she took charge and led him away. “There’s a good boy. Just keep walking. Now, take me to the family.”

He nodded, and escorted her through the crowds, all the way to the golden cradle. Malva relinquished her hostage as soon as she passed through the security cordon (her sibyllic ID – slightly psychic – and a pet security agent were all she needed to baffle the guards) and he wandered back to his post, none the worse for his experience, apart from a baffling tendency to scream whenever small, elderly ladies approached him.

The cradle was mobbed. All the invited bigwigs were offering their well wishes to the family. Malva wormed her way to the edge of the cradle. Some simpering fairy was offering up a pitiful wish. “May your days be merry, and your heart full of cheer.

Pathetic. The parents were lapping it up. The father stood grasping a glass of fizz, while the mother was practically festooned in ribbons and shiny paper from the gifts she was unwrapping. A teddy bear. Pink. A doll’s house. Pink. A satin dress with three layers of frills. Pink, what else? It was enough to make you sick.

“Darling child, your lips are like rosebuds, your eyes as bright as stars. May you marry the handsomest man in the land and live happily ever after.”

For heaven’s sake, is that what it’s come to? A chubby ball of fat, barely out of the womb, and it’s already being wished into a life of painted boredom? It had better hope it didn’t have much of an intellect, because otherwise this promised life was going to be nothing but a disappointment. Malva could stand it no longer. She stepped forward, sharp elbows at the ready.

“If you exchange your identity for invisibility in a pink shroud, you might as well be dead. So be it. At sixteen, you will come of age and die.”

So… why Treacle?

Treacle  ˈtriːk(ə)l

noun: treacle; plural noun: treacles

  1. a. British: a thick, sticky dark syrup made from partly refined sugar; molasses.

         b. syrup of a golden-yellow colour; golden syrup.

  1.  cloying sentimentality or flattery.

“enough of this treacle—let’s get back to business”

Origin: Middle English (originally denoting an antidote against venom): from Old French triacle, via Latin from Greek thēriakē ‘antidote against venom’, feminine of thēriakos (adjective), from thērion ‘wild beast’. Current senses date from the late 17th century.

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According to various online sources, the word treacle goes back to a borrowing from Old French triacle, a word referring to the sugar-syrup base into which apothecaries would decant whatever nasty-tasting cures they wished their patient to take. The word derives ultimately from a Greek word thēriakē, meaning an antidote against venom, which suggests that its early applications were topical (i.e. slather it on the outside, rather than apply it to the inside).

This dark, viscous product of sugar refining thus gained its name due to its association with apothecaries and their products. All the syrupy by-products of sugar refinement were known as treacle, but later the British firm Lyle perfected the refining process to produce that other, more popular, sugar syrup known as golden syrup. You can still buy treacle – these days it’s often called black treacle (or, in the US, molasses), to distinguish it from its golden cousin.

While sugar can be produced from beets as well as sugar cane, only the latter produces a pleasant tasting treacle.

The 17th century seems to mark the time when treacle made the jump from a medicine to a foodstuff. https://britishfoodhistory.wordpress.com/tag/treacle/ suggests ‘bread tart’ and ‘sweetmeat cake’ as early recipes using treacle, and the earliest recipes for ‘treacle tart’ in the 1870s precede Lyle’s development of golden syrup, even though most modern recipes call for golden syrup rather than black treacle. Gingerbread, which has been around at least since the 1400s, switched to using treacle as an ingredient during the 18th century. But the popularity of ‘Mary Poppins’ suggests that the association of sugar syrup with medicines remains as strong as ever.

I’m rather drawn to the idea that a substance famed for being sickly sweet (as in the famous treacle tart of my story – the favourite dessert of Harry Potter – and the treacle wells mentioned by the dormouse in Alice in Wonderland) ultimately derives its name from medicines which were so bitter that they required a sweet coating. That seems a good metaphor for this story collection.

In Treacle and Other Twisted Tales I take some well-known tales and retell them with a twist, a difference, or a wee flicker of darkness. There are new stories, too, some drawn from imagination and others from experience. There are no entirely happy endings – I don’t really believe in them – but some at least come to satisfactory conclusions. If there’s a moral in the story, it’s that beneath sweetness there is always a small, sharp tang of bitterness, and sometimes the sugar coating is very thin indeed. Life isn’t fair, and nothing ever turns out exactly the way we want it to. These aren’t fairy stories, you know.

As for the second meaning – sentimentality or flattery – isn’t that the business of we fiction writers? I employ my words as the appetising coating to encourage some unpalatable suggestions to go down. Did I sweeten the mixture enough?

And am I genuinely channelling my East End ancestors, or merely mocking Eastenders the soap, when I say to you, “Don’t worry, treacle* – if you don’t like this story, maybe the next one’ll suit you better”?

*Treacle (tart) = sweetheart

mybook.to/treacle

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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.

Maryika’s Christmas

palekh-troika-for-christmas-2016

Today’s story for https://www.facebook.com/christmaswithcrookedcats is full of magic and wonder – with a modern twist.

Maryika’s Christmas

Christmas Eve, 2016.

“It’s not fair.” Andre ran from the room, slamming the door as he went. Maryika followed, more slowly. At twenty-two she should be above her brother’s adolescent rages. She agreed with him, though. It wasn’t fair.

Their mother had made it all sound so reasonable. “We have so much. All our needs are met. Christmas is just one more occasion to give each other gifts that we can give at any time of the year. And it’s such a worthy cause.”

It was. That was what made it so hard to object. Their parents’ decision to donate to the charity War Child all the money that they would usually have spent on Christmas gifts was a harsh surprise for their children. But their mother was also right: they had so much, and it wasn’t a terrible idea to give some of what they could spare to help children to go to school, or get the medicines they needed, or keep themselves warm and safe in this winter season.

Christmas was a time for giving. Of course they should give as well as receive. Even Andre had to admit it was selfish to argue otherwise. He hadn’t lost the plot until Mama had told them she had asked all their relatives to donate the money they would have spent on gifts to the charity. This Christmas no-one would be giving any gifts at all.

Which somehow made the generous gift to the charity feel like robbery. Especially to Andre. At sixteen he was still half a child, and the thought of Christmas without mounds of presents under the tree, and cupboards full of treats to raid when he thought Mama wasn’t looking – well, it wasn’t surprising he’d lost his temper.

Maryika wandered into the kitchen, where Baba was making vatrushka, one of Maryika’s favourites. “I thought there weren’t going to be any treats this year,” she said.

Baba glowered. “Simple peasant bread,” she said, folding the delicious doughy mass over and over with her hands, kneading it gently until smooth and ready to rise. Once cooked, the sweet, soft bread rolls would be perfect with stewed fruit and cream, or just as pleasurable to eat by themselves with a cup of coffee. The old lady sniffed. “Nobody told me we were not to eat,” she said, covering the rounded shapes with a muslin cloth. “No point everybody dying of hunger to save some children we don’t even know.”

“Baba!” Maryika was shocked. “There are children who can’t even go to school, or buy medicines if they have conditions like diabetes. Their families have lost everything. We’re just trying to help them as much as we can.”

Baba looked her over, black eyes shining in the heat of the kitchen. She poked Maryika in the arm and made her yelp. “I thought you didn’t like the idea?”

“It’s a good idea. There’s a real need. It’s just… I think Andre’s afraid it won’t feel like Christmas. And so am I, really.”

Baba’s face softened. “It will still feel like Christmas,” she said. “I can promise you that.”

She turned back to the stove. Maryika sat down at the table and watched her grandmother bustle around the kitchen. Upstairs there was a muffled concussion as Andre banged another door.

Baba turned back and pushed a mug across the table towards her. Maryika sipped the hot milk, smelling of nutmeg and cinnamon. It tasted like childhood. She closed her eyes, lulled by the sound of Baba’s voice. “Tonight you will dream a wonderful dream. You will be part of the miracle of Christmas.”

Maryika opened her eyes again to see Baba gazing at her, al the wrinkles of her face deepening as she smiled. “Now go talk some sense into your brother, before he knocks the whole house down in a rage.”

Maxim Lyotov stood at the window, looking out over the landscape but seeing nothing. Sonya was crying again. He couldn’t bear it. He had to bear it.

She had received the news yet again of her failure to conceive. It wasn’t anybody’s fault. The doctors had done their best, but for no particular reason it seemed that she could not bear a child, or he could not engender one. Their bodies produced sperm and egg as required, and the two seemed perfectly happy to merge and produce embryos, but one by one each implanted pregnancy failed.

Worst were the attempts which seemed to be working. Sonya would begin to bloom, trying all the while to deter conversation about the baby, superstitiously behaving as if talking about the pregnancy could be fatal, only for it to end in blood and pain, long before the child began to properly grow. This time had been easier – no sooner begun than ended – but she was still devastated. She was exhausted with the process, and he couldn’t stand to see her distressed any longer.

Today he’d told her that there would be no more attempts. He forbade it. They were not meant to have children, and that was an end to it. Now she was crying over his cruelty. Maxim clenched his fists in his pockets, by long habit concealing his emotions. He’d learned from experience that success came more readily to a man who seemed steady and controlled, free from passion.

He was the last, and now anonymous, prince of a tiny principality once swallowed up by the great Soviet, and now released into the grasp of one of the new countries: shaky, half-imaginary nations invented by Stalin, peopled with incompatible tribes and ethnicities, struggling to find cultural identities of their own. There was no room for princes, or titles, in the new reality.

Old blood still counted for something, though. It had got him into a good English-speaking school. He’d worked hard at the school, where the other pupils knew him as Max Winterson. They’d guessed, some of them, that he was from somewhere to the east of the European continent, but he’d never discussed his roots. ‘High born family fallen on hard times’ was a label that could have been applied to many of the boarders, and it didn’t make him stand out.

Brains and hard work had got him into Oxford, and out again, with a double first: into the diplomatic service and eventually to the post of UN Special Envoy to S___. The post was not without its rewards, including a generous salary which paid for the flat in Vienna with its floor-to-ceiling windows, and for the repair and upkeep of his family’s dacha.

Maxim peered out of the window of the dacha at the forest edge a few metres away. Winter wasn’t the best time to be here, despite the comforts of a roaring fire and a bed heaped with furs, but Sonya had wanted to get away for Christmas. Somewhere they could be alone. He understood it, he supposed. Her emotions were too raw to expose to Vienna’s party season, and the night of the Christ Child’s birth was bound to be difficult for her, with its extra reminder of a baby, both loved and unloved all at once, crying out in a need that Sonya yearned to meet.

The stars were blurring as cloud blew in. At some point tonight there was going to be snow. Maxim turned away from the window and went to comfort his wife.

The night wind was cool off the water and Zander shivered, drawing his thin cardigan around his shoulders. Zoe crouched at his feet, feeding the baby. Hana was a tiny child, hardly strong enough to bear the weight of such a portentous name. Hope. The flower of their happiness, if they could only escape. The foundation stone of their new life, or so he told himself, straightening his spine and squaring his shoulders as befitted the head of a household.

Father had given the last of his money to the traffickers, staying behind to face his own likely death at the hands of the fighters of one side or the other; they were all as bad as each other. Why they were fighting, no-one knew any more. Only that each side believed they had God on their side, and were therefore ultimately unbeatable.

Life everywhere had degenerated into survival, and then incarceration in a prison the size of a city. Getting out of the country, getting to Europe, was the only way to ever escape the violence. The family’s life savings had paid for their freedom.

It had only got them as far as the border, though. There the traffickers dumped them into a locked room in a small house; two dozen or more children, thrown together by their common fear of the men to whom they had been sold. The traffickers said they needed more money. They let the children use a mobile phone, to contact their families. Some must have paid, because those children were removed from the house and not seen again.

Often it was the older girls who were taken, and, once, one of them was brought back. She hid in the corner until the traffickers left, and the younger girls went to her. Zander could not hear the story she whispered to Zoe, and when he asked his sister told him it was not for boys to know. The daily mobile phone calls continued. Zander’s father was trying to raise the money. He asked Zander to tell the traffickers that he would get it; they were to be patient.

The next day the men took Zoe. When they brought her back, Zander could see a terrible thing had happened, but Zoe turned her face to the wall and refused to speak to him. One of the traffickers had formed an attachment to her, and took her out again and again for a few weeks. One day, however, he pushed her back into the room with her face cut and bruised, and he did not come for her again. By summer it was obvious she was with child.

Zander knew he was supposed to reject her. She was unclean. She had lain with those men, those monsters. But it was clear that she had not had a choice. And besides, she was his sister, and he was responsible. At last his father had provided the money – borrowed or begged or stolen, Zander did not know – but it was enough for the next stage of the journey. They waited, on the darkest night of winter, for the boat that was to take them at last to safety and a new home.

Maryika lay snuggled into the warm depths of her bed, sinking slowly into sleep. She sighed, and burrowed deeper, as she closed her eyes.

She opened them on a vista of fields and forest, under a sky sprinkled with stars. Everything was dark except, with true dream-logic, the thing she was looking at. To begin with, it was three horses, grazing at the far edge of the field. It was night, and she couldn’t make them out clearly, but somehow she knew that one was white, one a fiery bay, and one golden as the sun with flaxen mane and tail. As she watched, Flaxen Mane lifted his head and came trotting towards her.

A movement caught her eye, and Maryika glanced to the left, into the face of a boy… a man… no, definitely a boy. He had the kind of ageless face that could belong to a male of twelve, or twenty-two, but surely no older. His eyes were brown, deep as peat bogs, and looking into them Maryika somehow knew that here was the oldest person she had ever met. “I am Nikolai,” he said, nodding to her. “Your grandmother told me you would come.”

Behind him was something that glimmered. Maryika focused on it, and saw that the boy was standing in front of a troika, harness in hand. Flaxen Mane trotted up to Maryika and pressed his nose into her palm, then moved towards the boy and stood before the troika. The boy fastened the harness, and the horse stood quietly until he was finished, whereupon he shook his head and a merry tinkling of bells rang out.

The boy whistled, and the white and bay horses came in their turn to be tied into the harness, either side of Flaxen Mane. The bay shook his red mane and snorted at Maryika, in a not-altogether-friendly fashion. The white stood calmly, its eyes fixed firmly on Flaxen Mane, taking no notice of the harness or the boy. Nikolai removed a scarf from around his neck and held it out to her. He wore another, identical – beautifully woven in patterns of multicoloured snowflakes out of some fine, silky material.

Maryika took it, expecting it to feel cool, but it warmed immediately in her hands. Only when she wrapped its warmth around herself did she realised how cold the wind had become. Its strength was rising, and there was ice in it.

The boy clambered aboard the troika and held out his hand to her. “Please,” he said. “I have a difficult task ahead of me, and I cannot complete it without you.” Maryika climbed up beside him, and he pulled a fur wrap over their knees and flicked the reins. She gripped the seat tightly, not expecting such a burst of speed, as they galloped over the frozen ground and into the air, over the trees, the fields, the tiny, scattered houses, far below, and out over a vast expanse of black water.

Up here the air must have been icy, and fat flakes of snow whipped towards them like a blizzard, but the wind was drawn aside as the three horses shouldered into it, leaving the boy and girl sitting comfortably in a calm, sheltered space. The troika dipped lower, and Maryika began to see movement in the dark waters below. The boy leaned his head towards her.

“There is a boat on the winter sea tonight,” he said. “A poorly made boat, owned by evil men whose only thought is to milk their victims for all that they can give before disposing of them. There are children on the boat; children who believe they are going to a safe haven, who do not know they are going to die.” Nikolai frowned, and for a moment an ageless light shone out of his eyes. “It is in my nature to want to change such things, if I can. Are you with me, Maryushka lisichka?”

Maryika ignored the endearment (he wasn’t the first to comment on the hint of red in her hair, and being called a fox by a stranger of indeterminant age was not something she wanted to draw attention to). But the thought of children, in danger, in the middle of the vast cold sea below them filled her with horrors. “Let’s do it,” she said, before she could change her mind.

She gasped as the troika dropped, hauled in the wake of the three straining bodies before them. In the inky darkness above the water the three horses shone with an inner light, white and red and gold, like a sudden sunrise. Below she could see a little boat, half swamped by the waves. There were already people in the water.

Nikolai snapped the reins and they went lower still, until they hung in the air just above the sinking boat. He leaned out and hauled a man into the troika. Maryika got down on the floor and reached towards a woman who was in the water. Their hands touched, but instead of grasping her, the woman thrust a bundle into Maryika’s hands and fell back, her head going under. The bundle wriggled, and a small child climbed out and disappeared into the back of the troika, which seemed larger than she’d first thought. There were already a half dozen or so people back there, and they were hauling others up to join them.

The woman who had sunk under the water suddenly shot up again, and Maryika grabbed her. She could see that the woman was being pushed aloft by hands and arms made of water. As the woman scrambled past her, Maryika saw that the water was alive with the bodies of women, all dark, all beautiful… all made of the same black water as the sea. Rusalkas. In Baba’s stories, they were figures of sorrow (drowned maidens) or fear (they would drag a traveller beneath the surface of their watery homes and keep him forever). She had never heard of them rescuing drowning people before.

Before her, some of the older and more able-bodied passengers were clambering onto the backs of the horses. Strangely, the horses’ bodies were growing, elongating, like the troika. No matter how many climbed up, there was always room for one more. With a frisson of fear, Maryika recognised another of her childhood nightmares: the water horse, able to carry its prey upon its back deep into the dark tarns and pools of the steppes, there to suck the flesh from their bones. As she thought this, the fire-coloured horse turned and grinned at her, pinpoints of red deep in its eyes.

She screamed, but the white horse glowed suddenly brighter, and Flaxen Mane shouldered the bay and bit its flank. The bay stood still in the air, its skin shivering, but tolerating the people on its back, who looked as frightened as Maryika felt. Those on the back of the white horse seemed to have fallen asleep.

Maryika reached again, to a young man whose white face was turned up to hers. The arms of the watery women were already around him, but instead of lifting, they were pulling him down. He struggled in the water, fear etched on his face. “No,” Maryika shouted, and reached again. Her fingertips touched his – they were warm, and very human.

One of the fluid forms drew up to the troika and hissed, “My sisters have claimed him.” Maryika shook her head and reached again. One shapely arm reached up and caressed her cheek. “This one has done great evil. He is ours now. Let him go.” The troika rose suddenly, and the young man’s form dropped away.

Maryika curled up around her distress as Nikolai snapped the reins and they began to move. She stayed that way as they galloped over the deep waters and up onto the shore. All she could see was that pale, terrified face sinking below the water, drawn ever deeper as the rusalkas put their hands on him, and she wondered what would have happened if only she had reached further, tried harder. They said he was a bad man, but perhaps he might have done some good, someday, if only she’d been able to hold on to him.

They landed as lightly as a feather, on a field adjacent to a great array of tents. The place didn’t smell very nice, but the people seemed glad to be back on solid ground, and stumbled away towards shelter. Nikolai held the reins in one hand and wrapped the other around her, pulled her into a hug. “The rusalkas saved many, tonight,” he said, “but they have the right. They will always take some.”

Maryika gulped and wiped her tears on her sleeve. The horses had returned to normal, trotting delicately across the air, glowing only slightly, and the troika had almost returned to its original size as well. But when she turned and looked she realised that there were still two children, clinging together and staring at her with huge eyes. Three children… she noticed that the girl was clutching a tiny baby, which had begun to wail.

Nikolai guided the troika down to a gravelled driveway beside a large house. There were still one or two lights lit, and there was smoke coming from the chimney. He jumped down and lifted the children onto the porch, leaning forwards to rap loudly on the door, before turning away. He leapt back into the troika and with a jingle of harness bells they were away, sweeping to the treetops as he gave the horses their heads.

“What is it?” Sonya crept down the stairs behind Maxim, who had lifted his old gun down from its stand behind the door. “Who would come at this hour?”

The front door creaked open and her hands went to her mouth. “Oh, the darlings.” She reached out and swept the boy into her arms. He was thin, and trembling with the cold. “Who are you?” she asked.

The boy spoke, and she did not understand a word, but her husband twitched in recognition. He spoke back, musical syllables falling from his lips. Then he turned to her.

“The boy is Zander,” he said. “He speaks Arabic – they are refugees, from across the water. He says their boat sank. There is more, but I don’t understand it.”

“Oh, hurry, get them inside. It’s too cold for a child to be out.”

Zander stumbled into the warmth of the hallway and sank to the floor. Behind him, Zoe flinched as Sonya reached for her, clutching her bundle tightly in her arms. The baby began to cry. It was cold, and hungry, and wet and, unable to decide which was the most distressing, decided to wail in earnest about all its miseries at once. Zoe deigned to allow Sonya to place her dressing gown around her thin shoulders, and walked on her own into the house, where she stood, clutching her daughter and looking around herself in wonder.

Maxim hung up the gun and went to poke the fire. Sonya paused for a moment, looking up at the sky, snowflakes melting on her face as she listened to the very far, very faint sound of harness bells. “Thank you,” she whispered, putting her hand over her mouth to quell her words as she closed the door and went in, but her heart went on saying it, silently. “Thank you.”

There was a flurry of wind in her face, and a soft rush of snowflakes brushed across her cheek like a windblown mane which was, perhaps, the pale gold of dawn that now brightened the sky. A single warm huff of breath redolent of straw and stables warmed her ear, and was gone. Maryika became conscious that she was standing on her own back doorstep, barefoot in the snow. The warm, bright scarf was still around her neck, and she held another in her hands.

The door opened, and Baba stood there, both hands wearing oven mitts, holding a steaming tray. Maryika slipped gratefully into the warmth. It didn’t seem strange that Baba was not at all surprised to see her. She lifted the scarf in her hands. “Look, I have a present for Andre.”

Baba nodded and turned away, to lift the next tray from the oven. She spoke over her shoulder to Maryika. “I told you it would feel like Christmas when it came. Now, put your apron on, babushka. You can crush the walnuts for the korolevsky cake.”

The End

The picture is a palekh-style illustration of a Russian troika (winter carriage drawn by three horses). You can get news about my writing at https://www.facebook.com/TheCalgaryChessman/

or follow me @alayanabeth on Twitter.

‘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.

Stormy Down

Chalk_Stone,_South_Downs_Way_-_Simon Carey wikimedia commons

Photo: chalk boulder on the South Downs Way, by Simon Carey from Wikimedia Commons.

Some years ago I wrote a short story inspired by my memories of walking the South Downs Way. I’m thinking of including it in an upcoming short story collection, but I’m no longer sure it’s good enough.

Let me know what you think.

Stormy Down

Simon’s breath hissed between his teeth as he climbed the steep, chalky path to the downland meadow. His calf muscles ached and clenched as he trudged his way upwards. Today’s leg had already been a long one, and he had to make a fair way further before night fall if he was to reach the end of the South Downs Way in time to meet Max and Tamsin. If he missed the car he’d be stuck with a long, complicated and needlessly expensive train journey, so he looked down at his feet and plodded on.

Pushing down on his knees at each climbing step, Simon forced himself up the last few feet of the climb and straightened up onto level ground. For a moment his vision faded into redness, and he could hear his heart thudding in his ears, its slightly irregular beat quickening with every indrawn breath, then settling back with the breath out.

He licked his dry lips, trying to stir a little saliva to moisten his mouth, which tasted of very stale chewing gum. Unclipping a bottle from his belt, he took a warm plastic-flavoured mouthful and swilled it round his mouth. Swallowing a second mouthful, he put the bottle away and looked around.

As heart rate steadied and vision cleared, he saw a broad upland field of thin chalky soil, sparsely covered with a sward closely-cropped grass. Stony outcroppings were scattered across the field, gleaming whitely in alternating patches of sunshine and shade as the wind swept clouds across the landscape. The grass was longer nearest the boulders, and seed heads nodded in the wind. There was no sign of any living thing, although trimmed grass suggested sheep and a yellowing bone by his feet supported this supposition.

The air was heavy with the threat of rain, and faint rumbles of thunder muttered constantly in the distance. His untidy hair, damp with sweat, clung to his face and he pushed it away with one hand, smoothing it back behind his ears.

The view trembled slightly as the heat of summer escaped the earth. Roiling black clouds moved steadily in from the east, and the sun gleamed through the shimmering air, bathing everything before him in a strange, brassy radiance. An uncanny feeling crept over Simon and he startled, feeling for a moment as if someone was standing right behind him. He turned, but there was no-one there.

He shivered and, shouldering his pack more squarely, moved slowly forwards, crossing the field diagonally. Chalk pebbles crumbled underfoot and the crunchy sound of his footsteps seemed loud in his ears although their echo was swallowed instantly in the heavy, deadened air. A shimmer of lightning illuminated the cloudbank ahead, and a loud roll of thunder indicated the storm’s approach.

Simon swallowed with difficulty, his tongue dry in his mouth. His skin prickled, and on his forearms all the hairs stood on end. Again, Simon felt he was being watched, and a light breeze signed across his skin, soft as a caress. He shivered again, more violently, and instantly a patch of goose bumps appeared on his left arm. He rubbed the spot, which felt hot and itchy, though his hands and legs were cold and shaking.

Eyeing the sky watchfully he continued to move forwards, feeling with every step a rise in tension. The meadow fell into semi-darkness as the fitful sunlight faded under the storm’s shadow. He felt his energy being sapped with every step, and his footsteps steadily slowed until he came to a halt. Head hanging, he let the pack slip from his back and fall to the ground. It had become very hard to breather, and Simon panted as he lifted his head and pressed a hand to his chest.

Suddenly, a great bolt of lightning smote the edge of the field. As its awesome power whited-out his eyesight, Simon could see imprinted on his vision a pattern of chalk fragments thrown up from the boulder that had been hit. A blast of almost palpable sound swept across the field and struck him where he stood.  He fell to his knees and grovelled as the deafening concussion swept over him. Strike after strike hit the field in quick succession, shaking the ground like an earthquake, and Simon curled up on the bony soil, wrapping his arms around his ears and tightly closing his eyes. He sobbed.

Simon lay at the centre of the great storm, shuddering as successive lightning charges earthed around him, deafened by the continual subsonic book of shock waves passing over him. His fear climaxed and passed over into a fatalistic calm: a steady and forthright acceptance. As his mind cleared, so silence fell upon the chalky field. Simon dared to open his eyes, defying the brilliance that played upon his clenched eyelids. His eyes widened. He stared.

All about him, lightning coruscated, sending multiple bolts from cloud to earth, earth to sky, as if in slow motion. The earth no longer heaved in protest, but tossed gently, cradling him with a rhythmic rocking motion.

Above his head, silver lights coalesced to form a shimmering vapour. It roiled and stirred, sending forth a glowing pseudopod to touch his face. Startled, he flinched and the light withdrew, returning to slide down his cheek and neck. Cool and silken, like water in a skin of light, it touched him and he shook.

Unable to move his heavy limbs, Simon lay and watched. Silently, a face materialised n the silver mist. Great lion’s eyes, lit with a topaz glow, fringed with a mane of light, stared at him solemnly. A shining face, ageless and innocent, looked down upon him. She smiled, and Simon felt his heart stop.

Colder and colder he was becoming, leaving the dense, earthly flesh behind. Gradually, he raised himself to meet her, and his body began to settle back and cool into darkness. She frowned. For a moment Simon felt uneasy, and strove to reach her. The silken mouth opened, and he felt her cool breath wash over him. An immense weight struck him in the chest, and its astonishing power swept him into oblivion.

Simon lay quietly, blinking slightly as the water ran into his eyes. He focused slowly on a streamlet of bubbling water, frothing over the white path into the mists. He could hear it chuckling below his resting place, at the edge of the field, where the ground fell away. A droplet of rain glimmering on a seedhead of rye captured his attention and he gazed at it solemnly.

As he came back to himself, he realised he was completely sodden and water from his hair was dripping into his eyes. Simon rolled slightly onto his side and raised his left hand to smooth the hair off his face. He winced at the initial movement, then gasped as pain gripped him. He felt as though giants had danced on his chest. Every muscle ached and tightened, as if he had run a marathon in his sleep.

Groaning, he rolled over and eased himself onto hands and knees. As he hung there a moment, marshalling his strength, he noticed his pack on the ground beside him. The straps were intact, but the waistbelt had been burned away and a great scorchmark marred the side pocket. Like Simon, it was now soaked and smelt odd.

Simon struggled to his feet, breathing carefully, and shouldered his pack. Wincing, he slowly straightened and looked out across the vale. Mist filled every valley, but above the clouds were clearing and a pale sun shone.

Far off to the north-west the dark clouds retreated, making their way to some other hilltop. A brief flicker of lightning teased at the edge of vision, and a strange expression passed over Simon’s face.

Carefully, he stepped onto the downward path, now a chalky rivulet, and began his descent. As he did so a thin rumble of thunder reached his ears and a breath of wind, soft as silk, caressed his face once before passing on, to set the grasses dancing.

©YMarjot

 

Norah’s Ark

Here’s a short story for a wet Sunday. I donated it to the anthology ‘Writing for Rescue’, which is raising money for an animal protection initiative in Romania.

http://www.amazon.co.uk/Writing-Rescue-Karen-Taylor-ebook/dp/B00QZEI4GC/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1460907620&sr=8-1&keywords=writing+for+rescue

writing for rescue

Norah’s Ark

“Come on, kids, the water’s nearly up to the doorstep.”

Norah balanced the twins on either hip as she wedged one foot and then the other into her Wellingtons. She wobbled as Japh made a grab for her earring, and then stepped off into the water sloshing past her front doorstep. Fortunately the 4-by-4 sat high on its massive tires, well above the water level in the road. At the rate the flood was rising, though, it wouldn’t be long before it was too dangerous to leave.

Sulie pushed past her and wriggled into the middle spot between the two car seats. She deftly buckled herself in, and helped Norah to secure the twins. Jemmy squeaked as his harness clicked shut, then giggled as Sulie tickled his tummy. Norah could feel the pressure of the water flowing down the road. It pushed against the back of her boots. She looked round to see if other neighbours were also evacuating, but all the doors down the street were tight shut. Perhaps they’d left already.

She took a quick head count. In the back of the vehicle Spot and Merry whined in unison, and she could hear the guinea pigs scratching in their travel basket. The lorikeets’ cage was safely stowed on the floor in front of the passenger seat, with plenty of room for Sam’s legs.

Sam. Where was he? A frown creased her face as she worked her way through her worry list. Food – check. Spare clothes – check. Pet supplies – check. Dogs – guineas – lories – rat…

Rats. That’s where Sam would be. She plunged back into the house, not bothering to remove her wellies. Give it an hour and the water would be through the whole lower storey anyway. This weather! She hadn’t seen anything like it in all the years they’d lived in Shottom-by-the-River. For the first time she realised what ‘by-the-River’ could actually mean.

Sam was upstairs, trying to secure the door of the rats’ cage. Pinky and Poppy were huddled together in a pile of straw, staring at him. It was as if they understood what was coming. Norah brushed the hair out of her face wearily before she spoke to him, trying to keep exasperation out of her voice.

“Sam, I thought we were going to leave the rats. There’s no room in the car. With plenty of food and water they can easily last a week.”

“No, I can’t leave them to drown.”

“Oh, honey, the water’s not going to come up this far.”

She injected a note of jolly confidence into her words, but to be honest her heart was with Sam on this one. Who knew what tomorrow might bring, or how high the waters might rise? He looked up at her, white-faced, one hand stubbornly wrapped around the handle of the cage.

“Come on, then. I’ll bring the cage and you carry their blanket.”

Sam stood on the doorstep as Norah waded to the car and deposited the rats on the driver’s seat. Then she carried Sam to the passenger side and decanted him carefully into the seat. “You’re a weight, my boy,” she said, hiding her fears under a joke, as she so often did. “Get yourself strapped in and I’ll give you the rats to hold.” Carefully she made her way back to the driver’s side. The water was already above the tops of her boots, and they had filled with water, the weight of them dragging at her as she walked.

She cast one look back at her front door. There seemed no point in closing it; the water was already lapping at the sill. She perched on the edge of her seat and pulled off her wellies. She tipped them upside-down, adding their contents to the ever-increasing volume of water sweeping down the lane. She shoved them under the seat, along with her soaked socks, and applied her bare feet to the pedals. As she snapped her seatbelt shut she made one final check that Sam’s seatbelt was done up, and the three in the back seat were ready to go. Sam draped the blanket over the cage on his lap, and the silent agitation of the rats calmed.

Norah resisted the urge to watch her house in the rear-view mirror as they drove slowly along the lane. It was only a house. All the important things were right here with her in the car – all but one. The 4-wheel-drive vehicle made short work of the two feet of water in the lane, and surged forwards as they gained the higher ground at the far end of the village. Ahead, perched on the top of the hill, she could see their destination.

‘The Ark and Courage’ had been a pub from time immemorial. No-one knew how it had come by its peculiar name. It was familiar ground to Norah, because before the kids were born she’d been the barmaid there, and then the proprietor’s wife. Now she came to him, bringing all the things that he cared most about in the world. “My wife, my kids, my animals. That’s what matters. Anything else is just window-dressing. You’re what matters to me.”

For the first time that day, Norah began to feel calm. She’d done what she needed to do, and now she wouldn’t have to cope on her own any more. If anyone knew what to do in this situation, Philip Noah would know.

He was there in the doorway as she pulled into the pub car park, striding forward to help Sam with the rats. Norah climbed out and went to open the back doors, but was delayed briefly by his hand on her arm and the warmth of his kiss. She smiled in relief at his kind, wonderful, utterly reliable face. “There you are, Mrs Noah,” he said. “What about this British summer, eh?”

Hearts & Other Dead Things

Out of the ordinary writing, to support an extraordinary cause.hearts-and-other-dead-things-finalSource: Hearts & Other Dead Things

A Study in Rojo Brillante

A bit of fun from my writing course – an exercise that was never presented to the class, since the video conference link went down. The brief was to imagine ‘what if’ the Spanish Armada had succeeded. What would Britain be like? Fast forward to the beginning of the twentieth century…

A Study in Rojo Brillante

The sturdy figure making its way through the darkened streets turned its collar against the damp cold seeping up from the river. As he turned into Calle Panadero he heard a faint thread of music, perhaps from one of the basement clubs, and smelled the fresh scent of coffee from the tapas bar across the road. The bartender stood outside the club, smoking a foul smelling cheroot whose smoke mingled with the river fog and the spicy aroma of the tapas bar to produce a fug of smog and smell that was the very essence of London.

“Buenas noches, Doctor Juan,” the bartender said, wafting a cloud of smoke across the street. The man crossed the road and peered into the bar. The evening was young, and as yet there were no patrons.

“Buenas noches, Manuel. How’s business?”

The bartender’s lugubrious face fell further. “Terrible,” he said. “Just terrible. This weather is so bad – if it isn’t raining then it’s smoggy, and no-one wants to sit at my nice kerbside tables and eat tapas in the fog.”

A further strain of sound swam into the street, and the man raised his eyes to the upper flat opposite. “And our friend?” he asked. “How has he been?”

“Terrible, also,” Manuel replied morosely. “He has been playing the flamenco again.”
The sound emanating from the house opposite definitely bore some resemblance to flamenco, with its driving rhythm and throbbing strings, but it would have proved difficult to dance to, as its melody swooped and faltered by turns, occasionally dying off altogether when an infelicitous conjunction of chords occurred. The two men standing in the street could clearly hear the wickedest of swear words interspersed with these flurries of sound. The man raised an eyebrow. “I see what you mean,” he said.

The bartender stepped into the bar and returned a moment later with two mugs of thick, black coffee, liberally sweetened in the case of the doctor, and presented them with a slight bow. With the coffees came a bag of fardelejos, small pastries redolent of almonds and lemon oil, still warm from the oven.

“Gracias. He needs all the sweetening he can get.”

“How is the case? Is it not going well?”

“The trouble is that there is no case. If I don’t find him a good mystery soon, I can’t be held responsible for the consequences. All I can say is that they will be much worse than a bad attempt at flamenco. Remember the incident of the matador?”

The bartender winced. He patted the doctor’s arm. “He is lucky to have such a good friend,” he said. “You will find him what he needs.”

“I sincerely hope so.” The doctor crossed the street, pausing halfway as a small two-wheeled carriage rushed past, drawn by a shaggy pony whose mane was the same colour as its driver’s evil looking moustache. The driver leered at the doctor and spat impressively, but missed as his vehicle thundered past. The doctor gained the safety of the opposite pavement and paused to readjust the coffee cups before pressing the latch and entering his house. The door clicked closed behind him, and as the bartender ducked back into his establishment the streetlights came on, illuminating the number plate beside the door latch, which read, in large brass letters, 221B.

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