Category Archives: story
“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!”
A 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.
“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. 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.
”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.
Yes, 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”.
Another disturbing tale for Miranda, who likes them short. This one is here in its entirety.
I knew I had to have her as soon as I saw her. She was breathtaking. She was golden. Her skin gave out a faint glow; a sheen that was both powerful and sexual. She moved wildly, free of care, lost to the emotions of her dance. Her movements emphasised her shape; the roundness of her hip, the plumpness of her breasts. Her lips were slightly parted in a half-smile that sped my pulse, and an exotic difference to the cast of her eye drew me closer.
I wanted her. I was in a dark mood and I knew what I wanted, and I wanted her. The women, you see, it’s always the women. They awaken a feeling I don’t get from the males.
I waited until she was facing away from me before moving silently behind her. I grabbed her neck and forced her face down onto the pebbles. She struggled, of course, but my magpulse bracers always make any such retaliation fruitless. I pushed her face into the packed stones of the beach, and raised my machete. Three forceful hacks, and the wing came free from her shoulder blade. Her screams, as is usually the case when I obtain a new trophy, only added to the joy of acquisition. I gripped the root of her other wing, then looked up.
The blue sun was dipping below the rim of the ocean. I had watched her for too long before acting, and left myself with little time to get back to my ship. The nights on this planet could reach cryo temps remarkably quickly. Just the one wing, then. I lifted it to catch the last of the sun’s rays. It shimmered gold and blue and coquelicot. Even without its twin it would look magnificent mounted between the fin of the piscine girl I’d killed last, and that sex-frond from Anemone-3. I left her sobbing and dying, and swiftly reached the ship. I clambered through the hatch and pulled the wing in after me.
Now, where should I go next? There was a bipedal species near the outer rim, apparently, where the women only had two breasts and no sex-frond. Their planet circled a yellow sun, so I’d have to wear an EM-Veil, but it would be worth the effort to obtain a skin of that rarity. I flicked the controls and engaged the Magpulse Drive.
A very short piece for Miranda Kate’s Midweek Flash Challenge. You should totally go there and read the other stories. Maybe even write one yourself if the picture prompt makes you go WHOA MAMA like it did me.
“Imagine if you had clocks in your eyes and could see through time. Where – or rather when – would you look first? Would you draw down a hazy veil across the present and set your gaze instead to the dinosaurs? See for yourself the Titanic strike an iceberg? Or would you rather watch what really happened at Calvary, all those dusty years ago? Or something more personal: your own birth, perhaps?”
The professor peered across at me, eyes sparkling. I sighed, and hoisted my bosom more comfortably. “That’s very nice, Professor,” I said. Sometimes you had to humour him when he was in one of his excitable moods, all aerated and full of gusto. He’s as mad as a wet hen, but a proper genius. When it comes to science, no-one understands more, but with anything else he’s clueless. I folded my arms across my floral pinny.
“Very nice indeed, but I need a decision. Chicken or pork for your evening meal?”
“I can do it, Mrs. MacPherson!” he ignored my question, and waved a shiny object that looked like three forks taped together with a green pocket watch. “I can do it right now, with this! My calculations prove it!” he gestured towards his blackboard, a huge thing that blotted out any light that might have entered his study from outside. On it was a confusion of numbers and squiggles that only made sense to the professor. The front of his tweed waistcoat was covered by chalk-dust. I would have to pop that in the wash later.
“It has long been known that nothing can travel faster than light,” the professor raved, with nary a mention of chicken or pork. “I have discovered, however, that in certain circumstances, light itself can be accelerated beyond its usual speed. A gas of cold caesium, held within something as small as a simple pocket watch,” he waved his strange device once more, “and excited with a laser produces secondary ripples of light, leading to a wave distortion so large it causes the group velocity to become negative, which means the peak of the wave pulse appears to exit the gas before it enters! In other words, the light waves run backwards and we can see into times other than our own!”
“Chicken or pork, professor?” I persisted. “If I don’t get it in the oven soon it’ll be brawn sandwich again.”
“What? Chicken! Chicken, woman! What does it matter? I must commence my experiment immediately – but what should be my first port of call? I could watch Romans invading Britain, or perhaps look ahead to the unknown? Hmmm, perhaps…”
“Chicken it is,” I said, and left him to his experiments. Honestly, if it wasn’t for me I’m certain he’d forget to eat entirely. I busied myself in the kitchen for the afternoon; plucking and preparing the chicken, doing a little cleaning, having a small sherry, putting taters on to roast. When the meal was ready, I put his on a tray and carried it through to the study.
He was clearly dead, but I neither screamed nor dropped the tray. We do not do that sort of thing in Scotland. I put the tray down carefully and crossed to where the professor lay sprawled across his desk. His strange fork-watch device was attached to his eye, from which a grey fluid oozed. Beneath his hand lay a scribbled letter, which he had clearly been in the middle of writing:
These brief scratchings must serve as my final will and testament. Through hubris I sought to tread paths of scientific glory, but they have indeed led me to the grave – Thomas Gray had the right of it. My new time device works. It is a scientific marvel indeed, as proven by my first experiment. I had thought to look into the future, to see where science may take us in fifty years. What I saw, however, was my own end, brought about by the very device that I was testing. I can feel it now, pushing ever more forcefully against my eyeball. I am unable to disengage its mechanism. I fear I do not have long.
My house and all its contents I leave with gratitude for all her ministrations to the redoubtable Mrs. MacPherson, to do with as she wishes. I commit my soul into the hands of Almighty God, my final act on his earth.
Professor Fletcher Campbell, 3rd Marc…
Here the note ended. I sat down and ate the chicken.
Fancy forty-one tales and three poems from out of my head? Read tales of Robin Hood, torture, unicorns, death, poo, toffee apples, giant spaceships, stuffed dogs and more. With additional stories from the highly talented Alex Brightsmith, KJ Collard and Ellie Cooper, this collection might just burst all over you while you’re reading. So, you know, sorry about that.
One problem with publishing a collection of forty-one disparate short stories (and three poems!) is deciding what to do with the cover. Do you clutter it with references to every story, or just pick a few items? I decided to go a third way, and just embrace the title story. When Thom White graciously agreed to continue our association for a fifth book, I specified “spare, simple, almost brutalist” for the cover. Here’s what he made:
He did a brilliant job. I love how the fold between front cover and spine form the corner of a wall spattered with blood. That wonky ‘THE’ emphasises the original subtitle of this book: forty-one tales of a world askew. It’ll certainly stand out amongst a slew of other covers on Amazon, and be easy to find on your bookshelf. Notice also that my running man motif continues, here making his first appearance on the spine.
“The Museum of White Walls” will be available on Saturday, for Kindle and in paperback from Lulu (then a few days later on Amazon when it filters through). Thom, you talented bugger.
A short story for Miranda Kate’s Midweek Flash Challenge, which comes in at 770 words rather than the prescribed max of 750. I’m a rebel writer on a highway to hell, me, stuff your rules. The story grew from a seed planted by lovely Helen White, who likes stories with a beginning, a middle, and an end.
“You have to stop yourself, Helen,” Keith said. “See what your weapon wrought. It’s all gone. Everything: animals, plants, people … civilisation. No more schools, shops, churches. No vicars, no football players, no scientists. No children.”
“I know what’s at stake,” Helen snapped. “Every story has a beginning, a middle and an end. Mine is no different. Thanks to you I can go back to the beginning of this one and stop myself from creating the weapon that destroys the world. I’ll make a happy ending instead of, well,” she gestured at the surrounding expanse of bone and ash, scoured by an ice wind. “This.”
“You never told me how you knew where the bunker was,” Keith said, adjusting the straps of Helen’s backpack. “Nor how it happened to contain exactly the equipment I needed to build my time machine.”
“I didn’t, did I?” Helen smiled, and stepped through the rectangular portal into the past. Keith wondered how long the change would take. Helen would have a two-step journey back to her younger self, thanks to the limitations of his time device. She’d have around ten minutes at the half-way point, waiting for the temporal calibrations to reset. Then she would be able to return to prevent her younger self starting the chain of events that had led to the destruction of the world. He shivered as the image of Helen disappeared from the portal as it began to reset.
“Gan canny, lass,” he sighed, and sat on the cold, hard ground. He hugged his knees, and waited for the hell around him to disappear, replaced by a better world.
Helen stepped out into the middle of the story. Behind her the time portal crackled as it began the reset process. She felt warmer. Above, the sky was blue, and the road beneath her feet no longer shattered and melted. She was also, to her surprise, not alone. Amazingly it took her a full half minute to recognise that the person sitting by the side of the road was an older version of herself. She crossed and sat by her doppelganger.
“Well, this is weird,” she said.
“Tell me about it,” the other said. “I’ve been waiting for you. “I’m from …”
“A different timeline?” Helen rummaged in her backpack.
“Yes,” the other said. “I’ve been through once already, on the same mission as you.” Helen took two cheese & banana sandwiches from her pack and passed one over. The other ate it eagerly, cramming it into her mouth as though she’d not eaten for weeks.
“You found our younger self?” The other nodded, her mouth full. Helen continued. “You directed her away from creating the weapon?”
“I didn’t have to. She was never going to make that discovery left to her own devices. Remember? The professor who gave us vital information?”
“You’re right! Horn-rimmed specs, grey hair in a bun? I’d forgotten about her.”
“Well, it turns out … but let’s keep this short since we only have ten minutes. I simply stopped the professor from passing on the vital information. Voila! World saved.”
“So why are you here?”
“Turns out saving the world wasn’t such a great idea. Mankind sucked it dry anyway, destroyed almost all plant and animal life. And,” she checked her watch, “with the exception of a very few elite rich, people were enslaved. The food ran out and, well, those in charge began using people for food. Murdered on their fortieth birthday, and processed into chicken-flavoured goo. There’s no cheese and banana there.”
She looked at Helen with a grim expression. “You have to allow the weapon to be made, rather than condemn the human race to that horrific existence. Eventually nature will overcome the devastation and life will begin anew. Green shoots from seeds buried deep.”
The portal fizzed and crackled. Was it possible? Could there exist a future that was worse than the destruction of the world? Helen thought for a moment, nodded, then stood and entered the portal …
… and emerged at the beginning. Her younger self – oh so young, with her beautiful red hair – was at the far side of the laboratory, working at a computer. Helen took a white coat from behind the door and put it on. From the pocket she took a pair of horn-rimmed specs. She tied her grey hair into a bun and stepped forward.
“Interesting theory! Now, I have an idea that might just make your experiment work. And then I’ll tell you about the bunker.”
Poor Keithy, hugging his knees in the ashes of the world, forever at the end of time.