I watched my jailer die painfully on the ground, clutching his chest. I thrust my arm through the small view-hole of the locked door and made a claw of my hand, gripping and twisting the air, so that he would die thinking that it was my magic stopping his heart, rather than his clogged arteries.
He had just locked me away in my cell again after my mandated seasonal view of the sky. The King himself had pronounced my sentence some years ago: “The traitor is to be locked, secluded, in our dungeons, for the remainder of his life. His cell will have no view of sky, nor any other natural thing. On the first day of every season he is to be taken outside for one hour and shown the sky, the forest on the hill, and the lake in the valley. He is to hear birdsong and the wind, so that he will remember, over the rest of his unmorrowing dark days, all that I have taken from him.”
As a punishment, I had to admit, it was genius. To view the world’s beauty briefly, only to be shut away again for three long months, over and over: that is true torture. The silence was the worst thing: my jailers, ugly, unkempt men surrounded by a miasma from their own filth, were not allowed to speak to me. There were two of them, working alternate turns of duty. In an attempt to lighten my heavy days, I called them both Susan. They did not possess the wit to care.
Susan Fatbastard would turn up on the first day of Spring to relieve Susan Wartynose, take me outside in manacles and leg irons for my ‘freedom hour’, then spend three months keeping me alive with perpetual rat and squirrel stew, dried smoked meats, hard biscuits, and pickled vegetables. On the first day of Summer, Susan Wartynose would return to relieve Susan Fatbastard, bringing with him another three-month supply of preserved foods. And so it continued, always the same monotonous grind.
Until today, the first day of Autumn in the fifth year of my confinement. Susan Wartynose had toddled off down the hill for his three-month break, and Susan Fatbastard had just brought me back inside after showing me a milk-grey sky, a forest aflame with golden foliage, and the courtyard clattered by hailstones that bounced high from the ground, like maggots fried in a too-hot pan. I did not care about the bad weather. I was outside, and it was glorious. All too soon, Susan Fatbastard had put me back in the cell, given me some salted fish on a tin plate, removed my irons, and locked the door.
“Thank you, Susan,” I said, at which he grabbed at his chest and fell, making a sound like a queen falling from a turret window six floors up and hitting the flagstones below like a hefty bag filled with vegetable soup. The little cell key dropped to the stone floor, where it lay next to him, tantalisingly in view but out of reach. If it really had been my magic stopping his heart I would have made damn sure he died inside the cell.
“Peter, some advice please?” I called. Peter is my friend. He is a rat, but he is very intelligent, has a quick wit, and can provide sparkling conversation on dark nights. Over the years he has become a close companion. He speaks to me in my head, and but for him I think I might have gone insane and started hearing voices that were not there.
Peter appeared from his hole in the corner, ran over to my salted fish and began to eat it. “What is it, Fartsack?” he said.
“Bit of a problem,” I said. “Susan is dead.”
“Does it matter?”
Peter considered this, then spoke with a wisdom that can only come from experience, like a man who went blind from looking at a solar eclipse without one of those boxes with a pinhole in it, and now goes around the country warning about the dangers of looking at a solar eclipse without one of those boxes with a pinhole in it.
“No,” he said.
“Right. So, the thing is,” I told him, “I’m locked in here—”
“As, as you say, per. Actually, you know, I can’t actually remember now why I’m locked in here? I wonder what crime I committed?”
“The king caught you diddling the queen, and if you ask me you should count yourself lucky that you’re still alive. He threw her out of the turret window, six floors up.”
“Oh, yes, the queen! She beguiled me with her lady parts. Such a lovely woman.”
“Until about a foot above the ground, I imagine she was.”
“Anyway, the problem: Susan Fatbastard is dead, and therefore unable to feed me. I can see the cell key, but I can’t reach it. I will soon begin to starve. Susan Wartynose will not turn up until winter, at which point…” I found it hard to state the obvious.
“At which point death will lie upon you like a December frost.”
“Learn your Shakespeare, Fartsack.”
“Can Shakespeare help me here? Does he have any ideas? Do you have any ideas?”
“Yes, I have many ideas,” Peter said. I knew I could rely on him. “For instance, how confident of victory must the Swiss have been to include a corkscrew on their army knife?”
“No, I mean something a little more relevant to me?”
“Don’t eat too much cheese. It can clog up your bottom-hole.”
“I swear, I will shove that fish right up your bottom-hole if you don’t take this seriously.”
“Okay, sorry. Then yes, it seems to me that you have two options.”
“Excellent. What’s the easiest?”
“Wait morosely for starvation and death.”
“Let’s put that one on the back-burner for now. What’s the other one?”
“How big is the cell key?”
“Remarkably small, actually.” I indicated a couple of inches with my finger and thumb. “It’s a very high-tech lock. There’s no way I could pick it.” I lifted Peter up so that he could look through the opening in the door.
“I see,” he said. “Then this might work. You won’t like it, but it will mean you get to keep on living.” I put him back down and he cleaned his whiskers.
“Go on,” I said.
Peter outlined his plan, and he was right. I did not like it. I did not like it one bit. The only part I did like was that I would be alive and free at the end of it, rather than keeping Susan Fatbastard company in death.
First, Peter had me fashion a rough knife from the thin metal plate – once he had finished the salted fish, of course. This I achieved by bending the cheap metal to and fro until it split, then, using rags torn from my bedding, binding the two halves together to form a point and a ragged edge, with a cloth handle. It was no Swiss army knife, but it was, more or less, a knife, and it would cut. It was the cutting that bothered me, actually. It was obvious I would need a mighty determination born of an unquenchable desire to stay alive. Did I desire to live? Damn right I did. Was it unquenchable? That remained to be seen.
“I think I’m ready,” I told Peter. “Which one?”
“Of all your fingers, you might think your diddler is the most useless. But no! Your little finger is particularly important in a strong grip, and hand surgeons agree if you’re going to lose one, the index finger is the best one to lose. Proximal phalanx. Fifty millimetres, about two inches long.”
“When did you become a hand expert?”
“When you’ve eaten as many corpses as I have…” he shrugged. If you’ve never seen a rat shrug, I can recommend it. It’s a fascinating sight. “So listen – it’s easy to cut into flesh and tendons, which your fingers barely have to begin with, but getting through bone is trickier. You need to find and split the joint cleanly, severing the ligaments and tendons.”
“Oh God. Are you sure a rat bone wouldn’t work?”
“Bugger off, Fartsack.” Peter backed away. “Get on with it. The longer you leave it, the weaker you’ll become.”
He was right, of course. I had to do this. I sat on my bed and lay my left hand flat on my small table. I emptied my lungs, then drew in the largest breath I could. I jabbed the knife-point deep into the base of my left forefinger. Blood oozed out.
“Cut through the flesh!” shouted Peter, jumping to the table so he could see. “Slice the flesh from around the knuckle!”
“Damn! Ouch! Fuck … rist’s sake, that hurts!” Despite the agony burning along my nerves, I sawed through the flesh to the bone. There was so much blood, so much pain. My head began to spin.
“You have to externalise the pain,” said Peter. “Name five red things you can see.”
“Blood!” I spat through the pain. “Blood, blood, blood and blood! There’s nothing else red in here, it’s all bloody blood!”
“Then tell me what you saw outside this morning. Five things. Then find the joint between the bones and cut down. Hard.”
“Bright flags, king’s colours,” I said. It was impossible to see anything but blood.
“High metal fence,” I said. Peter lapped at the edge of the crimson pool.
“Beyond the fence, trees, the forest,” I said. The metal edge dipped slightly, into the space where the bones joined.
“To the west, a distant horizon,” I said. I took a deep, sobbing breath and heaved down hard on the knife. It suddenly cut clean through to the table.
“Freedom,” I said. Tears wet my face, and I tasted blood where I had bitten my lip, but I was suddenly very calm, possibly from shock, possibly from casting my mind into the outside world.
“One word,” said Peter, taking the severed finger in his teeth and pulling it away from my hand. “Bravo.”
I wrapped my hand tightly in bedding, to staunch the bleeding. The pain throbbed like a bastard.
“It’ll stop bleeding soon,” Peter said. He was right, if by ‘soon’ he meant ‘after four days of intense torment’. In the meantime, he kindly stripped my finger-bone of flesh. He did offer to let me eat it (I would need the strength, he told me), but I could not face that horror. And so I began to use my rudimentary knife to whittle the cleaned finger bone into the shape of the key I could see on the floor outside my cell. It was a slow process, but by the time Susan Fatbastard started turning green, leaking bodily fluids, and stinking to high heaven, I had carved a close facsimile of the cell key.
I held my breath as I slid it into the lock. I need not have worried, it worked perfectly. I swung open the cell door and stepped outside. I went to kick Susan Fatbastard but Peter stopped me.
“Don’t!” he piped. “What if your foot goes inside him and releases all sorts of putrid liquids?”
“Ah yes, that would rather spoil the moment. Thank you, my friend. Hey, are you coming with me?”
“I’d better not,” he said. “The missus is waiting for me. I’ll see you to the gate though.”
We circled around Susan Fatbastard’s corpse, and walked to the front door and the outside world. I pulled a clean tablecloth from a table as we passed and redressed my hand, thrusting it under my right armpit to keep the pressure on the wound and the pain manageable.
Outside, the sun shone, and the sky went on forever. I grinned my joy as I crossed eagerly to the gate in the high metal fence that surrounded the courtyard. I pulled. I pushed. The gate did not budge. It was locked.
“What a shame,” I said, only with far more swear words than that. “I suppose the king did not trust Susan Fatbastard not to just run off and leave me to rot.”
“Wait,” said Peter, peering through the gate. “I can see the key, look, on that hook out there. It’s huge, far too heavy for me to lift.” He gave me a curious look. “It’s about the length of a man’s forearm.”
Those of you who have read my Madame Monvoisoin’s Emporium of Extraordinary Adventures will know that the Pont Marie over the Seine in Paris features in both volumes. Above is a screencap from the TV show Versailles, showing what the bridge would have looked like in the 1670s. Note the buildings piled onto the bridge – Pascal’s coffee business would have been on the other side, in the thoroughfare).
The show is wonderful, by the way. I, an old man, totally fell in love with their version of Madame de Montespan, but I’m really glad that I didn’t watch the show before writing my own story. I’m pretty sure it would have over-influenced what I was writing. I WAS influenced by the woman herself – the actual Montespan’s memoirs, written 350 years ago, are available FREE for your Kindle.
I’ve long wanted to write a villanelle (eg “Do not go gentle into that good night” by Dylan Thomas, or “Mad Girl’s Love Song” by Sylvia Plath). Here it is, inspired by the lovely force of nature that is @ShamblesAndFuss . I suspect it could also do with one more polish once I’ve let it rest for a few days.
Naked she sings on a hot sunny day.
The river drifts soft, slow as sluggish air.
She makes me think of buttercups in May.
Unhurried water drifts petals away.
She threads tiny blooms in her sunflower hair:
Naked she sings on a hot sunny day
A cloud of birdsong, a piping hurray,
She lies me down in fern and bedstraw.
She makes me think of buttercups in May.
Weightless with youth as new lovers we lay,
Entwining excited, breathless and bare.
Naked she sings on a hot sunny day.
Her name is long gone: lost in yesterday.
Her song, though, remains with me everywhere.
She makes me think of buttercups in May.
Decades disappear, I return to today
Through dusty years back to the photograph where
Naked she sings on a hot sunny day.
She makes me think of buttercups in May.
I cannot abide this place any longer. From my first observation of that distant globe, a glorious blue jewel, and through all subsequent examinations, I have realised that my time on this ugly metal world, in this tainted city, would have to end soon. How could I possibly rest content in this quagmire of filth, corruption and religious fanaticism, when there exists up there an entirely new world, just within my reach, ripe for exploration?
After two years of ceaseless effort, the means of my departure is almost within my grasp … despite the recent setback. Fossick was a fine young apprentice, and a dedicated laboratory assistant. I miss him enormously. Oh, you cannot appreciate the keening anguish I suffered as I pulled his entrails from the main plaza’s great statue. Worst of all, I realise now that it was my miscalculations that cost the lad his life.
How could I have been so dense? The scientific principle is sound, I am sure. Using my patented Sunsplode Device – an explosive of the highest magnitude – a thick wooden box can pierce the heavens and travel the distance needed to reach the stars. How stupid of me on the first trial not to include a protective layer of lead.
But the past is exactly that, and it is time to move on. I have today hired a new assistant; a drunken old crone named Hilde, who will make the next test flight tomorrow morning. I will place the reconfigured Sunsplode Device beneath the box, and ignite it from a distance. Fortunate Hilde will be the first traveller to soar to that beautiful new world.
Once there, she will communicate with me via smoke signals when it is safe for me to proceed there myself. She is, of course, a bit nervous about climbing into a box perched upon a mighty explosive, but a pint of aged gin should be enough to put her fears to rest.
Tomorrow, then – to the stars!
An old man stares.
His face is wrinkled, bewhiskered long.
His thoughts are clear.
He sees in my eyes his summer song,
his air-filled youth
when laughter bubbled like liquid birds
joining the high
murmuration of his lovers’ words.
He sees a day,
skyglimmer on a green river slow;
kiss him in turn in buttersun glow.
Still, now it’s late.
His slipswift days are nearing their goal.
A sigh. A nod.
Silent acceptance of this last role.
A brief tale inspired by @purplequeennl’s Midweek Flash.
AMARANTHINE adj. 1660s, coined by Milton.
1. Of the amaranth flower.
2. Eternally beautiful and unfading; everlasting.
3. Deep purple-red.
Maintenance duty is my favourite task. As Chief Engineer it falls to me to ensure that The Queen runs smoothly, day after day, providing for and regulating the lives of the population. No-one but me knows her on this level. No-one but me can look inside and see just what makes her tick. No one but me can adjust her servos exactly the right way and make her sigh with contentment.
I stroke my fingertip along the slender lines that run down her spine from the nape of her neck. They reflect the light with a metallic purple sheen. My fingers rest where the lines come together, just above the swell of her buttocks.
“These allow you to cast spells, I know that,” I say, “but I’ve never been able to figure out exactly how.”
She turns and catches my gaze. “They translate and transfer magic between my mind and my body.”
“I know that, but the how of it escapes me. It’s of no matter, Majesty. They are beautiful.”
She smiles. I move my hand around her hip to her belly, and trace the deep scratch in the metal of her abdomen. I lie down and nuzzle my cheek against a dent in her shoulder.
“I could repair all of this damage, you know.”
“No,” she says. “I like to show the world what I’ve been through. The battles I’ve fought in order to continue to serve.” She kisses the scar on my neck and smiles. “Just like you.”
If you’ve known me a while, you’ll know I love the Celia Johnson / Trevor Howard film ‘Brief Encounter’ from 1945. A true classic in all senses of the word, a romance of its time, a tale of physical innocence and emotional adultery. Inimitable. Or at least, that’s what I thought until yesterday, when I discovered it HAD been remade, with Richard Burton and, as that typical, plain, ordinary Forties English housewife – um, Sophia Loren. I mean WTF?
I watched it this morning, and kids, it was awful. I mean, I like Burton and I like Loren, but here they were woefully miscast, desperately under-rehearsed, and unbelievably stilted. The secondary parts (Stanley Holloway’s Albert, and Joyce Carey’s Myrtle, so beautifully drawn in the original – “Now look at me Banburies all over the floor!”) are here mere cardboard cut-outs, shouting away in the background. I think their only director’s note must have been “Wait until the main actor starts talking then just give it some welly.” John Le Mesurier is a welcome exception, bringing a little gravitas to his two minutes on screen despite appearing to be half-pissed.
The film as a whole is brash, noisy, ugly and horribly seedy – at one point Burton slobbers over Sophia’s tits; and don’t start me on that white headboard – Burton’s thickly-applied hair dye will soon make a mess of that. There are no interesting camera angles, or lighting, to underscore the narrative. It’s as if my dad had persuaded Burton and Loren to visit our 70s South Yorkshire home and filmed them with his little cine camera.
There’s no magic here. None. Avoid it and instead join me in watching the original yet again.
Pop your chestnuts on an open fire, me hearties, it’s time for #TWANTA2020 to shove another tree up another fairy’s frock and display its shiny balls for the eleventh year in succession. I hope this year in particular, Twanta can offer at least a little joy and much-needed respite from the horrors of pandemic and Brexit. I reckon we’ll need BIGARSED patience as postal services struggle, but I will attempt to ameliorate that by assigning comparatively nearby Twantees wherever possible.
For the uninitiated, those taking part in Twanta send a cheap but fun Christmas gift to someone that I nominate, possibly a complete stranger, and in return they receive a similar pressie from someone else. Those who send the gifts can choose to remain anonymous, hence “TWANTA” – TWitter secret sANTA, see? As usual I’ll link you here to the blog post from @davidtims which beautifully sums up the spirit of Twanta.
FOR NOW, JUST TELL ME IF YOU WANT TO TAKE PART so that I can add you to the TwantaTwenty master computer here at Twanta Towers.
I’ll give people a couple of weeks to join, and shortly after that you’ll receive the name of your Twantee by DM. Old hands of Twanta will know all the following already, but for any newcomers here’s a summary of how the whole thing works. Terms and conditions apply. Steep hills may go down as well as up.
You must have specifically asked @twanta_hohoho (or @wombat37, the puppetmaster) to take part, and I must have confirmed that you’re accepted before you can join in. I reserve the right to reject anyone that I suspect of being dodgy – this is due to one or two wobbles in the past when some twazzock refused to actually send a present once they’d received theirs. If you are unknown to me, you can still join in and be welcomed enthusiastically, but I may ask you to post a selfie of yourself raising your right hand and swearing fealty to the Twanta Code.
Make sure you follow @twanta_hohoho on Twitter. He will follow you back (it’s me really, but don’t tell the little tweeters. Let’s not spoil the magic, eh?). DM your address to him so that he can pass it on to your own Secret Twanta when everyone is linked up. I do remember some of your addresses from last year, but once #Twanta2020 is over I will delete the addresses of those who ask.
Tell me if there are any mortal enemies that you don’t want to be linked with. We don’t want to be responsible for any “incidents”. You can also make other special requests (e.g. if you’re allergic to chocolate, or perhaps you don’t want to post anything to a different country). We are a benign Twanta, and will accept all reasonable requests.
Very occasionally things go awry, and when that happens Twanta Fairies step in to send a gift at short notice. Please, therefore, also let us know if you would be happy to be a volunteer Fairy, should any be required (though that’s only rarely necessary).
Once @twanta_hohoho has everyone’s address, he’ll DM you to let you know to whom (grammar) you should send a gift, together with their address. You might want to spend a little while researching the recipient’s timeline to find out a little bit about them. Yes, that’s a bit stalkery, but you’ll be able to make your gift more personalised that way.
Buy a pressie for your twantee (as the recipients have somehow come to be known) and send it to them. Mark the envelope #TWANTA2020 so they know what it is. Let @twanta_hohoho know that you’ve posted it (so I can keep track in case anything goes missing). It’s entirely up to you whether you remain anonymous or expose yourself *snigger*.
You should not spend a fortune. Small, fun and imaginative is the rule of thumb, but don’t send an actual thumb. That would be hideous. I recommend spending no more than a tenner, though in the end, of course, it’s up to you. The photographs accompanying this post are of some previous gifts, should you need inspiration.
When you receive your own #TWANTA pressie, again let @twanta_hohoho know. Challenge yourself to wait until Christmas Eve or Day to open the thing. Harness your willpower, young warrior.
When your willpower fails, take a photo of your gift ready to post on Twitter on Christmas Day. Post it then including the hashtag #TWANTA2020, so that we can all follow the fun, and I’ll reveal each person’s gift-giver, unless specifically asked not to.
Don’t worry – I know this seems a lot, but I’ll hold your hand throughout. Have fun, and, if it all goes tits up, remember that it was originally all the idea of that @captain_doodle, and have a go at him. Not me, oh no, leave me alone.
New to Twanta this year? Having trouble separating your twanta from your twantee? Completed your trifecta yet? Got no bloody idea what I’m talking about? Then this section will save you from social embarrassment akin to leaving the public loos with your skirt tucked into the back of your knickers. As actually happened to me once, but that’s a tale for another time.
TWANTA – this word has two meanings. Firstly it is the all-encompassing name for the whole cosy event itself, although usually with the relevant year attached to its arse (eg #TWANTA2020). Secondly, the Twanta is the person sending a gift. It is the Twanta’s own choice whether or not to remain secret.
TWANTEE – the person receiving said gift, with a smile and a song and possibly other things beginning with ‘S’.
TWANTADOR – general term for anyone taking part, bless their little cotton reindeer socks.
TRIFECTA – the magic three milestones achieved by a TWANTADOR who has (1) sent a gift, (2) learned that it has arrived, and (3) received their own.
TWAZZOCK – a dirty rapscallion who fails to send a gift as promised.
FAIRY – a good-hearted TWANTADOR who volunteers to step in and provide a gift at short notice for anyone who falls victim to a TWAZZOCK.
TWANTAVERSE – every bloody thing to do with Twanta. Constantly expanding.
EPISTLETOE – a hand-written letter included with the gift to add a virtual Christmas kiss and a personal touch. Not to be confused with camel toe, which is something entirely different.