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.

Aurora in Tatters, an alternative fairy tale

My writing friend Kim Walker https://nutsandcrisps.wordpress.com/2015/04/13/my-lovely-blog-hop/ has tagged me in this blog hop. My current work-in-progress is a novel with fairy tale aspects, so I thought it might be nice to post this short story, also based an a traditional story that we all know.

Aurora in Tatters

(A well-known fairytale in new clothes)

Deep in the long-ago, when days were long and the rivers were full of fish, there lived a reindeer herder, who spent the days running with his herd over the wide tundra. The joy of his life was his wife, Anushka, and their baby daughter, Aurora, named for the flickering curtains of light that hung in the midwinter sky.

In the summer, Anushka rode alongside her husband and shared the work, and the baby was wrapped in richly embroidered garments and lashed to her cradle, which hung from the back of the largest reindeer, so that her earliest memories were of snow and trees and the yellow grass and tiny flowers of the tundra, all swaying and moving in a rhythm of hoofbeats punctuated by the sound of harness bells. But one day, when Aurora was still a young girl, Anushka sickened and died. A reindeer herder cannot manage his herd alone, so Aurora’s father took another wife: a strong woman with half-grown daughters of her own.

The woman was a good worker, and handled the reindeer well, although she preferred not to sully her hands with domestic work. Her daughters were spoilt and idle, and the lazy girls would beat and pinch Aurora until she agreed to do all their chores for them. When Aurora tried to speak up, her stepmother scolded her for her wicked lies. Her father looked at her with sad eyes and said, “Aurora, it’s not like you to complain,” and for his sake she tried not to respond to her sisters’ spite.

Not long after, Aurora’s father also died and she was left alone in the world apart from the stepmother and the wicked stepsisters. Now the work really began. There was mending and weaving to be done, and the dense, colourful woollen embroideries of the Sami, until her fingers bled and ached. There was cooking, and collecting fuel, to keep her sisters warm and fed while they lay before the fire and gossiped about this one, or that one who had caught their fancy. And of course there were always the reindeer. Aurora’s strong, young fingers were ideal for teasing out burrs in manes and coats, for reaching deep into straining bodies to ease the birth of calves, or just as a comfort for youngsters to suck on when they were first weaned.

The mother could not run the herd alone, and the sisters had learned nothing about the beasts, so it was for Aurora to check hooves and antlers, soothe sore joints and groom hides, comfort the weanlings and gut and strip the carcasses of mothers that had not made it through the dangerous hours of birthing.

There was no new clothing for Aurora, no footwear when her feet grew, no rich, decorated holiday coat or fur-lined hood to comfort her days. Her clothing grew grey and ragged with use, and her breath froze on the lining of her hood, so that on winter days the icicles jangled and rattled against her face. The sisters spoke of nothing but the coming summer gathering, when all the herds come together and there is feasting and dancing. This year the son of the most powerful herder would choose his bride at the solstice celebration. There would be a great dance, all day and all night, to find out which of the young women had the strength of body and will to make the best match, and both sisters fancied themselves as the chosen one.

Come the day, Aurora was exhausted. She had been up all night, sewing through the long, long hours of midsummer half-light, and had completed her sisters’ festival coats with moments to spare. They had shown their thanks with a pinch and a kick as they left the tent, swept away by their mother to enjoy the day. Aurora lay on the floor, too tired to move, and closed her eyes – just for a moment. Her eyes shot open again at the sound of a voice. She scrambled to her feet and turned to face the woman who had just pulled open the flap.

Her figure said she was young, but her face was lined and full of experience. She was dressed from head-to-toe in embroidered finery, white on white, and the absence of colour was somehow more beautiful than the colourful work Aurora had spent her best talents on that morning. Her mukluks and hood were made of a sumptuous, buttery-white fur. Her eyes were black, and bright. Aurora had never seen her before.

She held out her hand and Aurora took it, bemused. “I am Anelka,” she said, “and you are my sister-daughter. I have come to bid you join the dance.”

“No, no,” Aurora protested. “I can’t go to the dance. I have nothing to wear.” She pulled her rags around herself and hung her head.

Anelka gestured to a bag that lay at her feet. “I had thought you younger,” she said, “but you are thin enough. I think these will fit.”

Aurora upended the bag and out poured the most gorgeous embroidered garments, made of finest wool and bearing her own family’s sigils and designs – the narwhal, the tundra lily and the great ice bear. The clothing fitted her perfectly. At the end her aunt slid her own feet out of the beautiful ice-bear fur mukluks and passed them over to Aurora, along with the bear fur hood. Aurora’s fingers, tired to the bone, ached as she tried to tie the laces and her hands shook.

Anelka knelt and tied the laces for her. Then she handed Aurora an otterskin bottle. “Drink it,” she said. “It will help.”

Aurora tipped the bottle to her lips. She tasted lichen, herbs and the strong, harsh spirit the reindeer herders brewed, distilled over ice in the bitter winter nights. She drank. The concoction worked like magic – dispelling her fatigue and filling her with confidence. Her cheeks flushed and her eyes brightened. Throwing her arms around her aunt, she hugged her hard, then ran as fast as her legs could carry her to join the dancing.

It took half the night for her to work her way in to the central group. All round her, the older members of the gathering were failing, one by one, and settling down to drink, and talk, and watch the young ones dance on. At around midnight, her elder stepsister gave in, stumbling to the side and sinking to the ground. Groaning, she clutched her ankle and moaned, “if only I had not worked so hard today. I am sure I could have lasted the night.” Her sibling lasted scant moments longer. Her complaint: “I am sure the ungrateful child has made my mukluks with a wrinkle in the sole, and now I have a blister.”

Aurora danced on, blissfully unaware, shaking out her plaits and stamping the ground down under her strong, long, never-tiring legs, shedding her layers of beautiful clothing as the hot summer night wore on. As dawn fluttered across the sky, the half-light broadening into the golden glow of a new day, she raised her head and at last everyone could see her face as she met the eyes of the man for whom they were all in competition. They were the only dancers still standing. He was tall, not a youth but in the first strength of his manhood. His grey eyes warmed as he looked on her, and he held out his hand. “So, it is to be you,” he said as he lifted Aurora’s hand above her head and turned her in a full circle, so that all the people could see her.

Aurora dipped and twirled in this final step of the dance, but as the drums thudded into silence and the singers’ voices fell she stepped away. Her voice rang out clearly over the heads of the gathered crowd, although her words were directed to the man who stood before her.

“I thank you for this dance – I will always remember it. I am sure you would make a wonderful husband, but I am not ready to marry. I am going with my aunt into the deep north to hunt the great ice bears. Perhaps when I come back we can dance the summer dance again, and we will see who has the strength to finish.”

Her partner gave no sign that he was disappointed. His face was grave as he bowed his head to her, although a smile quirked the corner of his lips. “I shall look forward to it,” he said. His hand rested, briefly warm, in the small of her back as he escorted her to Anelka’s side, and he bent and scooped up the pile of her discarded clothing and handed it to her.

His father joined him, and the two reindeer herders, old and young, stood and watched the women walk away. They moved lightly, like wild animals themselves, through the reindeer and the herds closed around them. As they disappeared from sight, the younger man bent to pick up something lying at his feet. He laughed. In his hand he held one, beautiful, ivory-coloured bear-fur mukluk.

TCC cover art front_MG_4463 edited

Making the Best of Things – Part 5.

Making the Most of Things

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

Part 5 – Christmas Day

Yawning, Annette throws back the bedclothes and puts her feet out onto the mat. It has been snowing most of the night. She opens the curtains and peers out into the morning twilight. A few flakes are swirling in the air outside her window, and the clouds are low and sullen, with a yellowish tinge that presages more snow to come. She hopes it won’t spoil their lunch plans.
Saf is well settled in her corner. During the night she’d pulled part of her fleece blanket over herself, and now peers from under a tartan counterpane. Annette shuffles out to the kitchen and makes a cup of tea. She leans against the kitchen bench while she drinks it, watching the light gradually increase outside and the snow flurries come and go. Everything is coated in white, and the houses and yards of the town are softened by snow. It’s a picture-perfect Christmas scene. The Bartholomew kids are out in their back yard, trying to roll the snow up into a snowman-sized lump, but its consistency is slightly too wet and it keeps collapsing. They give it up and begin to throw snowballs instead.
Saf emerges, grumbling, and eats breakfast, while Annette pulls on her clothes, and hunts out a warmer scarf. Just one visit this morning; then she can settle in to a good book, before it’s time for lunch.
Aggie’s already opening the door before they reach the end of the path. Behind her, two black noses poke into the cold air, twitching like fury as they read messages on the wind. Saf whines a greeting, and they reply with yips. Max sits back on his haunches and scratches behind an ear, and Aggie steps to the side to allow Saf to enter.
“Greetings of the season and all that,” she says, as Annette makes her way into the hall and pulls off her hat and mitts.
“You too.” Annette hugs her friend, briefly. It’s about as much affection as Aggie can stand. “All set for the day? What time do you think Malkie will emerge?” Aggie’s brother is not known for his early rising habits.
“He’s not here.” Aggie’s comment is short, and clipped back, as if there’s more she’d like to say but she’s resisting the urge to say it.
“What happened? Is he okay?”
“What happened is that he phoned me at nearly midnight last night, merry as Old Nick, and told me he was staying with a mate in Glasgow. “Sorry, Ags, got a better offer. Have a Merry Christmas and a Happy whotsit etcetera etcetera.”
“Oh, Aggie. I’m sorry.”
“I’m not. Better off without him, the little git.”
“So, you can come out to lunch with us, then?”
“No, I’ve made my plans. I intend to stick with them. There’s no point in letting all that food go to waste.”
“Oh, Aggie. Don’t spend the day on your own. Come out and enjoy yourself with us. The food will keep until tomorrow.”
“No. I’ve made up my mind.” Aggie’s expression is obdurate. Annette knows that face well. She’s pushed things as far as she can. The best move now is to back down and walk away quietly, leave Aggie to mull things over on her own. She breaks the tension of the moment by pushing a parcel into Aggie’s hands. “You shouldn’t have.” Aggie stumps into the living room and picks up a package from under the tree, beautifully wrapped with a handmade card. Like everything Aggie does, this parcel has been thought out and planned over, to the last curl of ribbon.
She sees her friend to the door, Saf following without demur. Annette sets off down the path, holding her hand up in front of her face to waft away the snow, which is already falling more thickly. At the gate she turns and looks back, but Aggie’s already closed the door and gone back in.


Outside, the pub looks the same as always, or perhaps a little cleaner on account of its coating of snow. The street lights are orange halos in the greyness of the afternoon, the light already beginning to fade out of the sky and the snow clouds thicker than ever. Annette’s pleased she decided to leave Saf at home. It wouldn’t have been fair to make her sit in the cold porch while she was inside enjoying herself. The dog is happy enough tucked up in bed with a bone to gnaw.
In a corner of the porch, half-hidden under the coats on the rack, is a wire cage with a dog bed inside it. Sugar sits there, wearing a fetching tartan coat with a sprig of artificial holly hanging off her collar. She’s pleased enough to see Annette, and comes forward for a tickle around the gills, but she soon settles back into her cosy spot. Her spot is well sheltered from the draught, and she seems quite content to sit and wait for Sara’s return.
As Annette pushes open the door into the bar, a warm fug of hearth fire, whisky and dinner wafts out to meet her. Sara’s there, tucked in at the head of the table, and seated with their backs to her are Val and Chantelle. Their party is set up at one end of a solid wooden table that could easily seat ten. Annette sinks into the seat opposite Val and waves her hand at Michael, who is waiting on the adjacent table.
“Hi Mum. What’ll you have?”
“Blackcurrant schnapps for me. What will you have, ladies?”
“We’ve ordered our own,” says Val. “We talked it over before you arrived and decided we’d each keep our own tab.”
“Fine.” Michael bends down and kisses her cheek, and she reaches up to stroke his arm. “Happy Birthday, Mike.” He swans off to fetch her order, detouring to a woman on the far side of the room who has her hand up. The room is almost full. Their table is the only one that could possibly fit in another party, and Annette hopes selfishly that no-one else will be joining them. It’s nice to have the table to themselves.
The appetiser is a shared plate of titbits, both hot and cold, and by the time the four of them have cleared it up the blackcurrant schnapps has made a warm pocket in Annette’s tummy. She pours herself a few centimetres of wine from Val’s bottle, and sits back to await the main course. Turkey trad with all the trimmings is how Michael had described it, so she’s not expecting any surprises, but she’s looking forward to it nonetheless. Half the pleasure of eating out, anyway, is not having to do the cooking yourself. She doesn’t mind how mundane the meal turns out to be.
The lights dim and Michael appears, holding back the swing door from the kitchen. A procession of people emerges, bearing serving dishes. The other diners ooh and ah as the procession passes them: both waitresses, the sous chef, and Donald himself, followed up by Michael with a bottle of claret and a corkscrew in one hand, and a gravy boat in the other. Donald carries the largest dish, on which rests a resplendent roast goose. The others carry a small ham, studded with cloves and an assortment of roasted and steamed vegetables.
With a flourish, Donald places the goose in front of Annette, and gestures to his staff to set down the other dishes. The four women are agog; Val’s grinning from ear to ear. “Donald, you’ve done yourself proud,” she says, reaching out to snag a chestnut.
“Not my doing, Missus.”
A small, cold draught crosses the room as the outer door is opened and shut, and a moment later Aggie Matchum slides into the seat next to Annette’s. Michael is there, ready to lay out her cutlery, and offers her the claret to sample. She nods her thanks at him, and he fills her glass and sets the bottle down on the table.
Aggie pulls a little, ruby pot of cranberry sauce from her pocket and plonks it down on the table, then looks round at the faces of her friends. “What?” she says. “It’s not like I could eat it all myself.”

Making the Best of Things – Part 4

Daisy

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

Part 4 – Christmas Eve

Val sets the phone back on its charger and sinks down on the chair in the hall. A fat tear rolls down her nose and drips onto the floor as she puts her head in her hands. That’s it, then. All her family Christmas calls over and done with.
She didn’t at all mind turning down the invitations from her eldest children. Their houses, and their lives, are cold and unwelcoming to her. Neither chick nor child between them – two arid marriages focused around work and money. She’s sorry not to be seeing Anne, though. That home is warm and welcoming, an untidy clutter of children and domestic disorder that’s somehow comforting.
Of course, she can visit Anne anytime, and will probably see her early in the spring, but it isn’t the same as seeing the kids at Christmas. At least she doesn’t need to worry about the gifts – she’d sent money to Anne, to buy what the wee ones most needed. They’ll get their presents tomorrow, all gathered together with Anne’s parents-in-law, who live next door.
Chatting to Anne today, and hearing the children’s voices down the phone, has reminded her how lonely it’s going to be tomorrow, waking up to Christmas alone. Still, it’s far too late to change her mind now. Besides, there’s lunch to look forward too, and the company of her friends. It could be far, far worse.
Pulling herself together, she takes her coat down from its hook and calls Karma. A walk will serve to clear the cobwebs away.

It’s dank and bleak up on the hill, and the women’s breaths puff white in the cold air. The weather is still and calm, though thick, yellowish cloud on the horizon promises fouler weather to come. Four of them stand, conversing quietly, in a tangle of dogs and leads, as Aggie forges up the hill towards them.
She’ s holding both leads in one hand, and a plastic shopping bag in the other. Just for a change, Max and Fliss are not barging each other or jostling for attention. They trot side by side, tonges lolling, all their attention focused on their mistress. They are so interested in the bag she is carrying that they pay no attention to the other dogs, even when Karma lets off a ghastly howl.
As they come abreast of the group, all the dogs begin to show interest in the bag. Aggie holds it high as Sugar leaps at it.
“Oh, no you don’t. This is for your Mum. You don’t get it till later.” Pulling open the bag, she distributes four Christmas parcels, wrapped in brightly coloured paper and labelled with the names of the dogs. She distracts the dogs by offering each of them a treat in turn, and they line up obediently to receive it.
All except Karma – who takes advantage of the other dogs’ absence to lunge at his owner. Val jerks back, but Karma has managed to get his teeth into the parcel. He pulls away and begins to growl as he worries at the parcel, shaking it fiercely.
The parcel breaks open, and its contents fly into the air. A confetti of bone-shaped treats scatters over the roadway, and the pack of dogs descends on it, gulping the treats down before anyone can stop them.
Moments later, the road is clean, and six very happy dogs are sitting at their owners’ feet, bright-eyed and satisfied. Karma wears a doggy grin the size of Christmas. Val shrugs. “Oh, well, I suppose that’s one way of handing them out!”

Saf comes bounding in from the garden, and pokes her freezing wet nose into Annette’s palm. She runs her fingers through the dog’s ruff and, feeling wetness, grabs the dog towel and gives her a quick pummelling. Saf leans against her and huffs in pleasure.
As she straightens up, Annette looks out the doorway at the gathering darkness. Streetlights and Christmas lights punctuate the night, but the sky is low and heavy without any stars. There’s a wet smell on the wind, and she wonders what the weather will bring tomorrow. Surely those are snowflakes swirling in the garden?
Later, in the deep, small hours of the morning, Michael rises quietly and sets off to work. A cold curl of wind enters the house as he leaves and disturbs Annette’s sleep, but she only rolls over and begins to snore again. Snow deposits a coating of white on his shoulders as he begins his walk down the road towards the harbour.

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