Category Archives: Short story

Sea Shell

A short story for Miranda Kate’s sixtieth Flash Challenge, which this time does me great honour by using one of my own photos.

mnc divider

© 2017 @wombat37Georgiana Harvey sat outside the Cove Cafe, sipping lukewarm, watery tea, and watching the sunlight flicker across the wide waves. The tide was going out, slowly revealing wet sand, shining pebbles, tiny scuttling crabs, and the giant metal shell that sat on the beach near the cafe: a spiral, steel sculpture large enough to climb into. Twice daily it was swamped by the tide, water spurting from a blow-hole as the water rose, before the shell became completely submerged. At low tide it became completely visible.

Georgie did not need to check her watch – it would not be long now before she could walk down to the beach and clamber into the structure, as she did every day. She would, as usual, listen to the sounds of the sea from outside, and read the words that the artist had etched into the metal. The time she spent in the shell was precious. In there, she could forget, for a beautiful moment, her life of drudgery, and instead imagine faraway worlds, and dream of escape to a life of adventure. It was as if the shell was imbued with an unusual, hidden, power. She believed that without her daily tryst with the steel shell on the beach, she might go insane.

Georgie’s reverie was interrupted by a woman sitting down heavily beside her. She was short, with a shock of pink hair, and wore a uniform of dark blue. Georgie did not recognise the insignia on her shoulder.

“You have to run,” the woman hissed. “She’s coming for you.”

“I beg your pardon?” Georgie snapped. She was not pleased to have her fanciful musings interrupted.

“Run, you fool!” The woman whipped her head to the left. “Shit! She’s here!” She jumped to her feet, knocking her chair backwards. “RUN!” she shouted, and took to her heels.

There was a sharp sound, PFIZZ, and Georgie’s teacup exploded, shattering in her hand. She jumped up, bewildered. Had that been a shot? She looked to the left, eyes wide, heart thumping. A dark figure in a wide-brimmed hat stood by the sea wall, pointing a glowing blue tube at her. The figure’s hand twitched and a thin line of sapphire light speared from the tube. PFIZZ. The teapot on the table shattered. A sharp shard of china flew across Georgie’s cheek, slicing open a deep cut.

In panic, she twisted and took to her heels. A blue line flew over her shoulder and hit the ballustrade in front of her, sending fragments of stone flying. She swerved towards the beach, taking the steps two at a time. The cut on her face hurt, and she felt warm blood mixing with salt tears of fear and running to her chin. She sobbed, and jumped the last few steps.

As her feet sank into the wet sand she turned left. PFIZZ. The mud and pebbles by her feet exploded. She squealed, and twisted the other way, towards the shell. That was it. She could hide there. Her shell would protect her.

Sand and small rocks flew from her feet as the sprinted towards the metal spiral. One of her sandals flew off, but she dare not stop to retrieve it. Her heart pounded, her breath tore at her burning lungs. She flung herself inside the wide mouth of the shell and collapsed. As she lay, panting, on the cold, wet metal, she looked back at the entrance, fearing the arrival of the figure in the hat. Instead, the pink-haired woman’s face appeared.

“Sorry about this,” she said, then spoke into her wrist. “Activate.”

The inside of the shell began to glow, then in a blinding, impossibly- white flash Georgie was gone. The shell was empty, wind whistling coldly through the metal. A person in a broad-brimmed hat walked up to the pink-haired woman.

“So,” she greeted the newcomer with a salute. “That’s how you got to the future, Commander?”

“Yes, Sergeant Lolo. Thank you for your help.” The Commander put down her plasma-rifle and ran her fingertip down the old scar on her cheek. “God, that young girl is so terrified right now.”

“Time Force wouldn’t exist without her, though.”

“I know. This day is sewn into the alpha timeline, but still, I hated doing that to myself.”

Tempus fugit tardius,” Sergeant Lolo quoted the Time Force motto. “What’s next, Commander Harvey?”

mnc divider

My thanks to @mistressboom and @pariahsickkid for the use of their names. Cafe Cove exists, in Cleveleys, close to the Mary’s Shell sculpture on the beach. It’s by Stephen Broadbent, and is totally worth a visit, as is his Sea Ogre nearby.

Advertisements

A Painless Death

No attribution foundHere’s a short story I wrote for Miranda Kate’s Mid-Week Flash Challenge – Week 56, inspired by the picture on the right there.

A shadow crossed the cave mouth. Wolf raised his immense head and eyed the newcomer. A boy, draped in the red cloak of a supplicant. Wolf gave a low growl, and the boy stepped forward. Wolf nodded his permission for him to speak.

“I am looking for a painless death, Uncle Wolf,” he said, eyes downcast, looking at the sandy ground.

“Ain’t no such thing, sweet boy,” said Wolf, his voice deeper than summer thunder. “All death causes pain, even if that pain ain’t your own. How would your ma feel?”

“She died bringing me into this world.”

“Your friends then?”

“My knife is my friend.”

“Well, then, me? It always hurts me when one of my subjects dies. What of my pain?”

The boy looked him in the eye, a brave move. “If the pain is not my own, then I do not care.”

Wolf smiled at the temerity of the lad. “Well, now, there’s a selfish point of view.”

“You say that as though selfishness is a bad thing.”

“Oh, I make no judgements, sweet boy,” Wolf said. “I ain’t a creature worthy to set his self above others. If those same others choose to lift me above ‘em, who am I to argue? But don’t ignore what I’m saying here – death is pain. That’s its … what’s the word, now … essence.”

“Pain is my friend.”

“That’s told plain by the scars that criss-cross your arms. But you’ve named two friends, now. Knife and pain are …” Wolf’s low rumble quietened as the boy’s grey eyes glared angrily at him. It would be a pity to waste such furious passion. The boy’s rage, if harnessed in the correct way, had the capability to do great good. Of course, such refinement would take time. Wolf sighed, a sound like a dying hurricane.

“Yes, you’re right,” he said. “Metaphorical friends don’t figure. Tell me then, why do you now seek oblivion, rather than, as you have before, the exquisite release of slicing your own flesh?”

“There’s no point.”

“Point?”

“To any of it. To existence. Or at least, if there is a point, it is to gain pleasure from the things we do, for as long as we breathe the air.”

“And now you gain no pleasure? Not even from cutting yourself?”

“None. I enjoy nothing. I do not laugh. I do not smile.”

“Does the warm sunshine not make you glad?”

“No. And before you ask, a spring breeze is nothing to me, nor the laughter of girls. All the world is empty and dying.”

“Then, sweet boy, I pity you. And … I grant you your pain-free end.”

The boy smiled, and bowed his head to await a killing blow from Uncle Wolf’s massive paw.

“My decision pleases you?” The boy nodded. “Then you can still feel pleasure. Yes, I grant you a painless death … when you are ninety-seven years old.”

Cats and Dogs

This week's prompt is a photo taken by Gen Harris. These are her dog and cat.You’ve heard the expression “raining cats and dogs”, right? Here’s a little thing I wrote for Miranda Kate’s Mid-Week Flash Challenge – Week 51, inspired by the picture on the right there. The cat’s real name is Willow, and the dog is Lily, but I think Abigail and William work better for the story.

mnc divider

<the light tattoo of rain on glass>

“Go on, then.”

“In that storm? No. You go on, then.”

“Nuh-uh. I’m a cat. Cats don’t do rain.”

“Cats don’t do anything.”

“We do! We do sunshine and warm laps and high places.”

“Don’t forget selfishness, you’re the best at that. Cats don’t do anything useful.”

“Tell me, of the two creatures here, which one can work the window latch?”

“Hmph.”

“Which one, William?”

“Hmph.”

“I can’t hear you.”

“You can, Abigail. It’s you, OK?”

“Then we are agreed. My job is to open the window. Your job is to go out in the rain.”

“And get soaked.”

“One job each, William. That’s fair, isn’t it?”

“Hmph. I suppose.”

“Oh don’t sulk. Let’s get this over with. There, the window’s open. Off you pop.”

“I don’t think I can carry both bags of treats. I only have a little mouth.”

“Then fetch mine and go back for yours. Then we can work on opening them.”

“That’s two trips, Abigail! I’ll get even wetter!”

“Once you’re wet, you’re wet. And you can shake yourself dry. Dogs are good at that.”

“We are, aren’t we? Dogs are good at stuff just as much as cats.”

“They’re certainly good at being gullible. Off you pop, William.”

“OK!”

<the hiss of rain on the path between greenhouse and kitchen>

“I’m back! Here’s yours, Abigail. I’ll just pop back and get mine.”

“Take your time, William, take your time.”

“Gosh, this rain’s cold.”

<the cadence of rainfall and a soft click>

“Abigail! Abigail! Abigail!”

“What?”

“You’ve shut the window again. Let me in, I’m soaked!”

“Not a chance. It is cold. And who wants to eat with the stink of wet dog in the air?”

“That’s not fair!”

“You said it yourself, William. Cats are the best at selfishness.”

Freedom’s Promise

A short story inspired by Miranda Kate’s Midweek Flash Challenge No. 49.

mnc divider

Created by Norwegian artist Erlend MØrk.“He’s not secured the lid!” hissed Rimbaud.

“What?”

“The lid of your jar.” He jabbed his finger against the thick glass, pointing above my head. “He’s forgotten to latch it. You could push it off!”

I reached up and ran my fingers across the perforated lid. The giant removed it occasionally to drench us with water, or to poke us with sharp objects, or to drop fire into the jar to make us dance. He secured the lid afterwards by snapping a metal catch, but perhaps this time…

I pressed upward gently; the lid lifted. A simple push and it fell to the side. I sprang to the thin, glass lip of the opening and unfurled my wings, stretching them wide, luxuriating in the caress of air on membranes that had been too long folded against my body in the cramped jar. By the trees, that felt good.

The interior of the crate that held the jars was dim, but I could make out some shapes. Above my head was the heavy cover. There would be no shifting that. I might be strong for my kind, but was still too small to budge such a substantial sheet of metal. There were a dozen jars in the crate, each with a sprung metal clasp to hold down the lid, each holding a prisoner. Their pale faces watched me as I perched on the rim of my jar, no doubt envious of my escape.

Down to my left, Rimbaud watched too, a grin on his pretty face. He blew me a kiss, and gestured to the side of the container, to the pale glow of an opening that we guessed was to allow air to reach us. My eyes widened. The metal clasp on his jar was also loose. The giant had been careless on his last visit.

It took me but a few moments to free Rimbaud, and we moved to the opening in the wall, mouthing our apologies to the other prisoners. Holding hands, we entered the passageway beyond. It was entirely circular, the walls and floor smooth, hard, and allowing a translucent glow.

“It’s good to touch you again,” Rimbaud said, squeezing my hand. “I’m scared. Are you scared?” I did not answer. “Are we doing the right thing? Death may await us along this path. At least in captivity we live, and our love endures.”

“Love without freedom is like wings without flight.” I closed my fingers on his, briefly, but my mind was on things other than reassurance. We could hope that this air tunnel led to freedom, but it seemed unlikely, given all that we had endured since our capture. Starvation and torture had taken me to the end of my sanity. Even the smallest chance of escape was worth grasping, and if this air-tube did not lead us to freedom after all, I would take my own life. I had suffered enough. We are not made for captivity, our kind.

The passageway ahead forked. Rimbaud and I looked at each other.

“There are two ways,” he said. “Which shall we follow? Perhaps one leads to escape, and the other to danger?”

“Let us each follow one. That way we will know the right path. Walk for five hundred heartbeats. If you have discovered nothing by then, turn around. We meet back here and compare findings.”

“Very well,” he said. His wing-tips caressed mine. “Be careful.”

I took the passage on the right. I have been walking for five hundred heartbeats now, but I do not turn around. I am close to open air. I can sense it. I smell leaves and grass, sunshine and summer breeze. Ahead of me an opening appears – I see trees against a blue sky. I almost run out of the opening.

I stand on a flat circle of earth, blinking in bright sunshine. All around me are breeze-blown birch, but between me and the trees is a wire fence that surrounds the bare circle. It extends above, too, a net across the blue sky. Behind the fence, staring at me, are giants. Scores of them, grinning, drooling, eating and laughing. I clutch my ears as a deafening voice booms, putting small birds to flight from the trees above.

“Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to Fairy Wars!”

The giants cheer, a horrifying thunder. Across the circle of earth, I notice a second entrance set in the wire. Another of my kind stumbles into the light. It is Rimbaud.

“Two creatures enter!” the voice bellows again. “But only one will leave!”

Rimbaud’s eyes brim with tears. He looks directly at me, and I can sense the love he holds for me, rooted deep within his soul. Those wide, innocent, beautiful eyes are now haunted by despair at the sudden ripping away of freedom’s promise.

“Bids are now being taken for the corpse of the loser!”

Rimbaud shakes his head, slowly, and collapses to his knees, wings handing limply around him.

“Which of these magical creatures will earn their freedom today, and which will die? Place your bets now!”

I bare my teeth. By the trees, if this is what it takes to earn my freedom, so be it. I will not – I cannot – return to captivity, torture, and life in a jar. Rimbaud looks startled as I unsheathe my claws and launch myself at him with a scream.

Fergus

A little thing that I wrote five years ago while sitting at the end of Seatown harbour in Gamrie. My sincere apologies to any Scottish readers, especially those who live there, for my poor attempts to capture the atmosphere of that wonderful place.

DSCF0767The light was fading rapidly now, sapphire to cobalt to indigo. The agreeable sunset apricot tint had faded from the clouds overhead and now they were simply battleship grey. The sea remained calm, but the surface began to chop as a cool breeze picked up, bringing the delicious scents of salt and seaweed to the shore. Gulls, waders and kittiwakes filled the dusk with their last raucous shrieks, whistles and mock laughter.

A maroon smudge smeared athwart the horizon was all that remained of the day’s sun. In the near distance Saltire Craig, a small jut of rock no bigger than a trawler, rose black out of water the colour of molten lead. Pale grey smudges spattered its surface. They swirled and wheeled occasionally about the tattered Bratach na h-Alba, the Banner o’ Scotland, that fluttered bravely atop its lonely pole, as it had since planted there by some hardy Scottish brave some time ago.

High on the lookout platform at the sea end of the harbour pier, Fergus eased his bony buttocks on the rusting bollard and stretched out his legs, feet poking out over the edge of the harbour wall. Inside his clumsy old boots he wiggled his toes, and imagined how good they’d feel with sea-water sluicing between them.

A loud splash echoed across the water, startling him. He peered into the murk, seeing nothing. The sound had originated from the other side of Saltire Craig, out of his sight. What could be large enough to make that noisy an impact with the water? Dolphins, perhaps? Or maybe old friends?

He gazed out at the ending day. Sunset always calmed his mind, soothed his soul, helped him to settle for the life he had now. On either side of the bay the headlands were already mussel-black. The vast dimming sky grew steadily darker.

Fifteen feet below his boots the waves lapped quietly at the weathered stone that protected the vessels safely tucked away behind it. More squealing gulls circled the end of the pier, curving pleasing arcs below his feet. Above his head a tiny red light winked on and began to flash.

DSCF0744A small white boat rounded Saltire Craig, its engine popping quietly as it crossed towards the harbour entrance. The boat was small, big enough only to carry two at most, yet now bearing but one passenger. Fergus could read the name painted on the prow – “Maighdean-Chuain”.

The single occupant raised a hand to Fergus as he passed and entered the placid waters beyond the sea wall. Fergus lifted his own arm in acknowledgement. It was good finally to feel included after all this time. His peculiar arrival in the village all those months ago had caused many to keep their distance at first, yet now even that extraordinary day was fading from memory. Village folk tended to live in the present rather than lingering on what was past. Folk here had finally started to show friendship to Fergus; yes, and acceptance. He scratched his grey beard and pulled the ear-flaps of his plaid charity-shop hat down over his ears. Getting chilly now.

He pushed to his feet, old muscles complaining. He wobbled a little in a gust of wind and steadied himself on the stanchion that held the harbour light aloft, before slowly descending the curved steps down from the lookout point. He ambled along the dock to where the small boat had tied up, and peered down at it bobbing on the shadowy water.

There was enough light left to see that the man in the boat was gutting a freshly caught fish on an upturned blue crate. A sharp knife, expertly wielded, slit the belly open. Fingers were deftly inserted and slid smoothly inside to pull out the guts. These the fisherman flung into the water for the flocking, shrieking gulls to fight over. He glanced up at the dock.

“Fergus,” the man nodded, laying his cleaned fish on a plastic bag beside him.

“Robbie Gamrie, is that you?” Fergus peered uncertainly down into the gloom.

“Aye, so,” Robbie confirmed “Got mysel’ a couple of late haddock.”

DSCF0528Robbie lifted a second wriggling fish and whacked its head on the side of the boat before laying it on the blue crate and sliding in his knife.

“Well done, there,” Fergus said. “What kept you out so late?”

“Forgetfulness. I was miles away, daydreaming like a bairn. I’d likely still be out there, but a noise brought me alert.”

“The splash? Aye, I heard that. Big splash, it was. Did you see what made it?” Hope glimmered briefly in Fergus’ breast.

“Nay, it was behind me, whatever it was.”

“Hmm,” said Fergus, slightly disappointed. “Too big for a bird, anyroad. Could it have been dolphins, think you?”

“Maybe. They… or silkies, eh?”

Fergus could hear Robbie’s grin in the tone of his voice. Robbie didn’t believe in silkies, despite the name of his boat. Not many did, nowadays.

“You’ll have had your supper?” Robbie asked him.

“Ah, no. I’ll have a rollie when I get in.”

“Rollie be damned. You’ll need warmth inside you if you’ve been perched up there for long. Here, catch.”

A dark shape flew up from below to hover briefly before Fergus’ eyes, shimmering a little in the harbour light. Fergus snatched out a hand to catch it before it fell back. The fish was cold and oily, the flesh yielding beneath his fingers as only fresh fish does.

“Got milk, Fergus? Butter and pepper? Get that inside your oven, then get it inside you. It’ll do you a sight more good than cold bread.”

“Thanks, laddie, I appreciate it.” Fergus nodded farewell to Robbie and walked off the harbour, taking the shore path towards his tiny cottage, the haddock hanging limply from his fingers.

Fish for supper. He remembered a time long ago when supper had always been fresh fish. He did not eat it half as much these days, and the gift from Robbie was a pleasant surprise. Fergus was not inclined to take Robbie’s advice on how best to prepare the haddock, however. He would not bake the fish in milk. Tonight he would eat the fish raw, just like the old days.

The Train Now Arriving

'Dead End' by Keith AlexanderI open my eyes. The train is moving slowly, the steady, paced rhythm of the wheels doing its damnedest to lull me back to sleep. In the afterdoze, I wonder where I am.

“Ah, you’re awake!” my companion says.

“Yes,” I say. My tongue is dry.

“Here, clean your mouth.” The man sitting opposite hands me a small plastic bottle of water, which at least refreshes my tongue, if not my dream-befogged mind.

“You looked dead to the world when you got on,” he says, “and just collapsed into the corner there. Don’t worry,” he gave me reassuring smile, “you didn’t snore.”

“I’m sorry,” I say. “I don’t …” I look around. The compartment seems fairly nondescript, though rather old-fashioned. Bench seats face each other, and above them are luggage racks and faded paintings screwed onto the wall. To my right a sliding door gives onto the corridor. To my left, through the sash window, a wide expanse of sunglinted mirrorwater reflects a steel-blue sky. The only other person in the compartment smiles, lines crinkling his periwinkle-blue eyes.

“My name’s Charon,” he says.

“Ah, after Pluto’s largest moon?”

“In a way, yes,” he says, his eyes flashing. “You’re an astronomer?”

“I’m not sure,” I say honestly. I try to think. “I can’t even remember getting on the train.”

“Oh, dear. Mind you, it looks like you came a long way to catch it,” he says, pointing at my feet. They are filthy; bare, blistered and bleeding. “You should clean them.” He passes me a white handkerchief, almost dazzling in the intense sunglare that streams into the compartment. I pour a little water onto the cloth, squinting against the brightness.

“It’s not that bright,” Charon says. “You just have the dust of too many memories in your eyes, refracting the light. You should clean those, too.”

I begin to rub at the grime on my feet, staining the pristine cloth brown and black.

“The handkerchief’s a metaphor, clearly,” Charon says. “Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass. I think it was Chekhov that said that, wasn’t it? Oh look, we’ve arrived.”

I look up. I am alone in the compartment. Outside, a railway station glides into view, all picket fences, milk churns, flowerbeds, waiting rooms and porter’s barrows. As the train slows to a halt, I see Charon standing on the platform in a guard’s uniform, holding a red flag. Behind him an ornate metal sign displays the name of the station, and suddenly I realise where I am. Charon blows a shrill whistle.

“All change!” he shouts. “Purgatorium! This is Purgatorium!”

Miss Pink Sings The Blues

APhoto by John Paul Palescandolo & Eric Kazmirek short piece for Miranda Kate’s flash challenge using the picture on the right there. The title was a gift from my lovely friend @sparkleytwinkle, though obviously since she’s not a Forties blues singer in New York the protagonist is not her.


Miss Pink almost purred at the ethereal light that cascaded through the arched blue-glass roof. The old subway station was all curves, from the roof to the track and platform curving on a tight bend. The space would be perfect for her new venture, The Pink Blues Club. The station had been closed at the war’s end, three months ago, and sold off cheaply by a City Hall desperate for funds. The proceeds from her last record had easily covered the cost.

She could just picture it; the platform could be extended over the tracks to form a wall-to-wall floor, a bar would run along the inner wall, a small stage at this end, private booths around the curve at the other. She was willing to bet that the arched roof would give great acoustics. She cleared her throat and sang:

Willow weep for me. Willow weep for me.
Bend your branches down along the ground and cover me.
Listen to my plea. Hear me willow and weep for me.

Lord, but the sound was glorious! She could just imagine a packed Pink Blues Club, glasses clinking, blue smoke curling upwards, happy punters chattering, dancing and spending money, Dizzy playing up a storm behind her. She smiled at the vision. A high sound pierced the silence and echoed at the far end of the platform, around the curve. It sounded a little like a child, laughing. She waited silently for a minute, but it did not repeat. Damn her imagination. She should not have chosen that song. It brought back memories of two small bundles wrapped in black, and being covered with earth beneath a willow tree on a cold, rainy night. Miss Pink shuddered. She had started to hope that those memories might be buried forever. She considered leaving to find a bar for a big, dirty martini, but she had always hated to leave any song unfinished. It seemed as though it would hurt the song’s feelings to leave the end unsung. She snorted at herself; it was only a song after all. Nevertheless, she took a deep breath and threw herself into the second verse.

Gone my lovely dreams. Lovely summer dreams.
Gone and left me here to weep my tears along the stream.
Sad as I can be. Hear me willow and weep for me.

There it was again, that laughter … and now it was joined by another child’s voice, giggling away. Miss Pink jumped a little as two small shadows emerged from behind a rickety booth at the distant end of the platform. God in heaven. The figures skipped along the platform hand-in-hand, laughing. As they got closer she saw they were boy and girl, perhaps three or four years old. What on earth were they doing down here? Where were their parents? Come to that, how had they got down here? This place was locked up tighter than a rat’s fanny. Now they were closer she could see that they were dressed in simple black smocks, and skipped barefoot along the cold stone platform. It was winter, for Christ’s sake, what were their parents thinking of? The children halted before her. They were, she had to admit, remarkably pretty, although their hair could have done with a brush. The boy gave a small bow, and the girl a charming little curtsey.

“Hello, Mother,” they said in unison.

Whisper to the wind and say that love has sinned.
To leave my heart a sign and crying alone.
Murmur to the night and hide her starry light
So none will find me sighing, crying all alone.

Miss Pink’s blood pounded in her ears. Her fingers trembled. Ice pierced her heart. No. No, this could not be; it was impossible. These children had broken in here somehow and were playing some sort of malevolent game.

“Who … who are you?” she asked.

“You never did give us names,” the girl said. “You just squirted us out, smashed our skulls and buried us beneath the willow out back.”

“God in heaven!”

“Oh no,” said the boy, in a tone far beyond his apparent years. “Quite the opposite, in fact. It’s beyond time you paid for the innocent blood you spilled that night.”

“Far beyond,” the girl said. “And look: here comes your train now.”

The rust-red rails began to sing, and a hot wind was pushed out of the tunnel behind Miss Pink.

“But I was … I was in a panic, terrified!” Miss Pink said. “Your father left as soon as he found out I was pregnant. And I was unmarried – if people had found out, my career, my life, would have been ruined. The shame, you see. People don’t forgive that sort of thing.”

“You stole our lives from us that night,” the boy said. “Now it’s our turn to steal yours.”

Miss Pink spun about as the noise from the tunnel rose to a screech. A subway train emerged from the dark mouth with a roar. The driver grinned at her, rotting teeth in a naked skull, and in utter despair she read the destination board: ‘The Flames of Hell’.

Willow weep for me. Willow weep for me.
Bend your branches down along the ground and cover me.
Listen to my plea. Hear me willow and weep for me.

Professor Cuthbert’s Remarkable Vessel

PierA new short story inspired by @teddy_red @_polyhymnia @MoorseyL and @jtlovell1979, and written for Miranda Kate’s Midweek Flash Challenge using the picture on the right here.


“We’re here,” Lovell said. “Remember that the Professor might not be what you expect.”

“An eccentric professor?” I said. “What are the odds?”

“Just let me do the talking.” He pulled a handle by the door and a bell rang somewhere inside the cottage. It had taken me much guile, and not a little expense, to persuade Lovell to effect an introduction to the mysterious Professor Cuthbert. Many of the incredible inventions that we now take for granted as we approach the twentieth century originated in the mind of the reclusive Professor; the fountain pen and the gramophone to name but two miracles of the modern age.

When Lovell had told me at the club that he knew the Professor personally, I was determined to elicit an invitation to visit. Who would not want to encounter such a remarkable mind? To ask a hundred questions, and perhaps be made privy to what was coming next? It had taken me no little time, but finally Lovett had agreed to take me to see the Professor, and after a long railway journey and a bumpy ride in a brougham, we stood before the front door of a small country cottage in rural Suffolk.

In response to a second tug of the bell-pull, the door opened to reveal a woman with a cloud of grey hair held flat by a pair of goggles pushed back over her forehead. She wore a leather apron, a man’s shirt and trousers, and she held a hammer in her left hand. She seemed to me to be very old indeed, perhaps even into her fifties.

“Jamie!” she cried to Lovell, “How lovely to see you!” Her lined face crinkled even more as she smiled broadly.

“Good afternoon, Catherine,” Lovell said. “I hope you don’t mind, but I’ve brought along a friend who has been dying to meet you.”

“Not at all,” the woman said. “You’re just in time for afternoon tea. There are more than enough scones to feed a regiment. Do introduce me to your chum, dear boy.”

“Of course,” Lovell grinned at my shocked expression. “Catherine, I would like to introduce you to my friend, the right honourable Cecil Tilbury Moffat. Cecil, please meet Professor Catherine Cuthbert.”

“But you’re a woman!” I blurted out.

“He’s very observant, isn’t he?” Professor Cuthbert said to Jamie.

“Don’t let that vacant expression put you off, he really is a big admirer of your work. Cecil, where are your manners? Doff your hat.” I lifted my topper absent-mindedly, staring at the woman in front of me.

“Is that so, Mr. Moffat?” the Professor asked. “Which of my inventions caught your interest first?”

“You’re wearing trousers!” I babbled. The Professor and Lovell burst into laughter

“Come,” the Professor commanded. “You have arrived at an opportune moment. I am in sore need of a person of just your height to test my latest invention. And then we shall have scones.” She led us around the house and through a back-garden jungle to a large wooden shed. Projecting horizontally out of the left wall of the shed was what appeared to be a garden fence, clearly very securely attached for it stuck out some six feet above the flower beds. Professor Cuthbert struck a pose as if demonstrating a particular clever trick performed by a music hall prestidigitator.

“Ta da!” she said. I stared at her. “Well?” she asked. “What do you think, Mr. Moffat?”

“It’s … a very nice shed.” I was bewildered. Lovell had warned me of eccentricity, but even so. The Professor sighed and stood normally.

“Put him straight, Jamie,” she said. Lovell grinned. He was enjoying my discomfort far too much.

“This shed,” he said, indicating the shed, “is not a shed. This is Professor Cuthbert’s remarkable vessel to facilitate the exploration of the echoing cosmos above our heads.”

“What?” I said. I realised that perhaps that was not the considered response that might be called for, so I spoke again. “No, what?” I said.

“Young man,” Professor Cuthbert said. “This is an airborne vessel. It uses the invisible power of magnetism to free it of the bonds that bind us to this earth.”

“It’s made of wood.” I suggested, helpfully.

“Yes, well spotted, for a metal vessel would interfere with the magnetic forces needed to lift it beyond our atmosphere. This, my deliciously vacant chap, is a craft that will travel into space itself. A space-ship, if you will.”

“A space-shed?” I ejaculated.

“Ship,” said Lovell. “Space-ship.”

“Now, young man,” the Professor said. “Would you be so kind as to do me a favour? Would you please enter the craft and sit in the pilot’s seat? Jamie is way too tall, and it is imperative that I adjust the outer buoyancy cogs to allow for the weight of a passenger.”

“And then shall we have scones?” I asked.

“And then scones, yes,” she said.

“Very well,” I agreed. “What would you have me do?”

“Go inside, and sit in the seat before the window. Put on the air-helmet that you will find there, and then just sit back and enjoy the pleasant view that you will have of my cherry tree.”

“That’s all?”

“That’s all. I shall make my adjustments, then call you out for scones once I have finished. Whatever you do, however, do not touch the red lever.”

“I shall certainly venture nowhere near any levers, madam,” I promised. I entered the shed, and wound my way through a clutter of equipment to what was clearly a captain’s chair by the shed window. On the chair sat a large glass bubble, presumably the Professor’s air-helmet. I removed my hat and put the helmet over my head. It was surprisingly comfortable, although it took some time to get the thing the right way round so that I could see. I sat in the captain’s chair and looked out of the window.

The Professor’s cherry tree was nowhere to be seen. The Professor’s garden was nowhere to be seen. The shed now hovered high in the arched heavens. Miles below a vast sweep of sunlit cloud swept across the surface of the planet. Somehow, I was now many leagues above Suffolk. But … how? I lifted my top-hat from the hat-peg. The red hat-peg. Or, as I now realised it must be, the red lever. I had inadvertently launched the space-shed with my hat.

What next? I had no idea, but now that they were out of my reach I truly fancied a scone.


Spaceship”But Wombie,” I hear you ask, “How on earth did that picture inspire this story? What has a jetty to do with a Victorian inventor?” When you get no inspiration, try a different angle – I just flipped the picture … and there my tale was: a wooden spaceship floating above a cloud-cloaked planet. Tricksy.

For those keeping track. Well, OK, me.

just the booksYes, yes, I know you could go check the “Buy my books” page, but to be honest can any of you be arsed to do that? I doubt I’d bother. With that thought in mind, here’s a list of my published books so far (of course there’s much more Wombie out there in Kindle standalones, stories in magazines & the like, but it would take YONKS to list them). If you fancy reading any of these books, find them on Lulu or Amazon. If you already HAVE read any, thank you and I love you and please leave a review somewhere.

WARREN PEACE: Novel. The Magnificent 7 with fur. “Warren Peace got me through the day”.

FOG: Novel. Sexy, funny, violent – Best Mystery, 2016 #Siba Book Awards. “Had me gripped from page one”.

CUBIC SCATS: Essays. A smorgasbord of Northcentric nonsense & recipes. “Where did you put the bread knife?”

MOTH GIRL v THE BATS: Novella. Steampunky sci-fi fun. “There’s a real excitement to this work”.

BLOOD ON THE GROUND: Short stories. A dozen dollops of wicked whimsy. “Good reading even for a scary cat like myself”.

SOUL OF THE UNIVERSE (editor): Stories inspired by music. “This collection will captivate you, pervade your senses and absolutely enchant you”.

CUTTHROATS AND CURSES (editor): An anthology of pirates. “The greatest assortment of pirate stories anywhere”.

MURDER AT WOMBAT TOWERS: Private novel with a limited print run.

HUMAN 76 (editor): Collaborativer. Fourteen authors take you on an unprecedented post-apocalyptic journey. “Thought-provoking, layered: a real gem”.

THE MUSEUM OF WHITE WALLS: Forty-one monkeybonkers tales & three poems. “The only book for you if you want to see this quote on the back cover”.

Beneath the Clock at Timothy Whites

A short love story for Miranda Kate’s Midweek Flash Challenge.

 I first met Midge beneath the Timothy Whites clock about a week ago. In the blackout it is sometimes difficult even to see your own hands, let alone other people’s, and she’d walked right into me. It was the first night of my week’s leave, and I was lonely as hell. When your whole life consists of sitting in a Halifax bomber with six other chaps, interlaced with periods of drinking yourself semi-conscious in the company of those same men, going on leave comes as a bit of a shock to the system. It’s hard to know what to do with the silence, for a start.

I am the bomb aimer; the bod who actually pushes the button to drop the bomb. I must admit I’ve never thought too deeply about what I do. I push a button, the bomb slides silently through the darkness, and an orange flower blooms below to delight the stars that look down. The thought that there might be people down there has never entered my head.

That evening I’d been to the cinema to see ‘The Stars Look Down’; a slow film about injustices in the mining community. Margaret Lockwood is in it, but even her considerable charms had proved insufficient that night to retain my interest, and I’d left half way through. The blackout was in full force, but a hazy half-moon cast enough of a glow to see. Or so I thought. Her fists caught me full in the family jewels, and I’m afraid to say I let out rather a girlish squeak.

“Oh, I’m terribly sorry,” she said. “I didn’t see you. Is that an RAF uniform? Very good for hiding in the shadows, isn’t it? I usually carry a little torch, but the battery ran out.” I fell in love with her voice before I even saw her face. And her scent; a heady crescendo of sandalwood, amber, clove and bergamot.

“Are you quite alright, Miss..?” I left the question there for her to answer, or not. My heart did a little twist when she did.

“My name’s Midge,” she trilled. “Well, it’s Margaret really, but that’s only ever used by Mother when I’m in her bad books.”

“Flying Officer Hillary Fields,” I bowed, though I doubt she could see.

“Well now, Flying Officer Hillary Fields, perhaps you might assist a lady in distress? I seem to have got myself turned around in the dark. I was trying to find the cinema.”

Squadron Leader Charlton always berates me for my reticence with ladies; for not grasping opportunity when it is presented to me. “War is the biggest uncertainty there is, Hills, my boy,” he’d said that very morning, “and in uncertainty lies endless possibility. Promise me, when you’re in The Smoke you’ll grab the very next opportunity that presents itself.”

With these words in mind, of course I turned on my heels and escorted Midge to the cinema. Of course I paid for us both to go in and watch the film that I’d walked out of an hour previously. And of course I saw her home safely afterwards, and arranged to meet her at a small cafe the following afternoon.

Every day after that we met beneath the Timothy Whites clock. We visited art galleries, museums, and more than one cinema; Midge had a bit of a thing about Michael Redgrave. One sunny day we went boating, and one evening we even went dancing. Me, dancing! This woman had freed a pilgrim soul in me that I did not know existed. Over the course of six days I fell for Midge hook, line and sinker. This very afternoon I bought a ring from a backstreet jeweller in Soho, and had smiled to imagine Midge’s face when I dropped to one knee to present it to her. I heard the bomb go off, funnily enough, a low muffled roar beneath the traffic noise as I left the jeweller’s. Just the one bomb, most likely dropped by a straggler from a raid many miles away.

The Timothy Whites clock was shattered, though half of the face still clung defiantly to the remains of the brickwork. The Timothy Whites building itself had been transformed into rubble. Midge, who had been waiting for me as usual beneath the clock, had been ripped apart as a German pushed a button, letting slip a bomb into the darkness, and an orange flower bloomed below him. War doesn’t even know that we’re here, and it won’t notice when we go. War is uncertain, and the stars look down upon the tatters of my dreams.

%d bloggers like this: