Ayup, fancy a new story, written just today? Written for Miranda Kate’s Mid-Week Flash Challenge. I turned the prompt picture on its side, which worked better for me.
Where was he, the utter bastard? It was Ginny’s fiftieth birthday, after all – a big, special, scary number – and where had Hector been all day? “Out,” was all he’d said that morning. No other explanation, just ‘out’. He’d been just ‘out’ every day that week. Her stomach felt tight, the ball of anger that had been growing there for seven days rubbing her frazzled nerves raw. ‘Out’, leaving her stuck in this tiny box of an apartment, itself in the middle of a vast box crammed with other identical tiny apartments.
Ginny stared out of the window at a wall of other boxes across the courtyard, a grid of cramped spaces that stretched from side to side, from below to above. They filled the window, those boxes, each one containing a life, or maybe two – there wasn’t enough room in these ‘bijou homes’ for more than two adults. Boxed lives, boxed dreams; lives without ambition, lives without a future. Like hers, trapped in her own tiny box, in her own insignificant, pointless life.
People who had ambition and a future would not live here. Not for them a closed-in existence, trapped by the four walls of work, sleep, food and death. The rich, the fortunate, the ambitious would all be out in the leafy, sprawling suburbs, thriving amongst nature, and with room to breathe.
It was approaching evening now. One or two lights had begun to appear in the wall of apartments opposite. She had been alone all day. Happy birthday, Ginny. Happy fucking birthday.
Where was Hector, anyway? His laptop was still here, so he wasn’t away writing somewhere else, like the library – somewhere where his imagination had the space to spark and to fizz; where perhaps he at least managed to find some breathing space. Maybe there was something on his calendar. She lifted the lid of the machine and watched the screen flicker into life. She’d cracked Hector’s password months ago. Seriously, Hector, who would use ‘password’ as their password?
Before she could open the calendar app the machine warbled to announce a new email, and flashed up the subject line: “Come and see me”. Ginny idly clicked the notification, and the email opened up.
“Hey, Hec, it’s on for today. If you can manage it without raising Ginny’s suspicions, please come over early. I’ll be waiting, you lovely man. Love, Miranda.”
What was this? Ginny frowned. Hector had been distracted, cold, for a week now, spending all his time ‘out’. Ginny had assumed he might be mulling over a story idea, but perhaps … was it possible? Could he be having an affair with this Miranda? Shit, he was, wasn’t he! Twat! The more she thought about it the more it made sense, and the ball of anger inside flared into incandescence.
The front door opened behind her, and Hector’s voice announced “Hi, Ginny, I’m home!” How fucking dare he? How dare he act normal when he was shagging some scarlet whore in another box? Her vision sparked with fury, and she grabbed up a heavy metal jewellery box. She swung around and smashed it against his head, hard.
“Bastard! That’s for fucking another woman on my birthday!”
Hector sprawled on the rug, a thickening pool of blood soaking into the rough fibres. Somehow she couldn’t bring herself to care. A knock at the door startled her. She opened it automatically, just wide enough to see a beautiful woman smiling eagerly.
“You must be Ginny,” she said. “Hec’s told me so much about you!”
“I’m Miranda, by the way. I’ve been helping Hec arrange your birthday surprise. Do you know, it took all week, going from apartment to apartment? You’re lucky to have such a lovely man. Oh, by the way, he forgot this – and that’s the best bit.” The woman thrust a small oblong box into Ginny’s free hand.
“He hasn’t shown you yet? The idiot, it’s almost time. Look, I’ll not keep you, he’ll be wanting to take you to the window. See you later at the party!” The woman pulled the door shut.
Ginny stared at the box the woman had given her. She opened the lid and found the most beautiful necklace, along with two first-class tickets to San Diego. She turned back to the window, and watched darkness fall outside while the lights in windows opposite came on, one by one, in a pattern of letters that spelled “I LOVE YOU. HAPPY BIRTHDAY.”
The continuing adventures of Sebaster the cat and Johannah the raven. You can read Part 1 here and then Part 2 here. The whole story, as far as I’ve written it by then, will appear in the soon-to-be-published “The Museum of White Walls : forty monkeybonkers tales and three poems”
The hellbeast sat on the windowsill outside and laughed.
“Sebaster!” Johanna scolded the laughing cat, “you terrified me!”
“God, that was hilarious!” he snorted, muffled by the glass but still audible. “You even did a little crap as you somersaulted gracefully into the ceiling.”
“A polite creature would not mention such things of a lady,” she huffed, returning to the inside sill.
“Cats don’t do polite,” he said. “Come on, shift your arse. Let’s get going.”
“But how? How did you suddenly appear outside? Was it a relocation spell? Perhaps you transmogrified yourself into a mist to slip through the keyhole?”
“Nah,” he said. “Catflap. Come on, buggerlugs, get out here and we’ll set off. We can pick up some food on the way.”
Johanna cocked her head and regarded the cat. He seemed serious about going out into the fog-shrouded world to search for Natty G, despite all the dangers that would entail. For one thing, there was the weather. At the moment it was so foggy that they could not even make out the trees at the far end of the stony lane that led up to the cottage. It was cold, too – and what if it rained? Where would they shelter? Would they be able to find food? Come to that, how on earth would they be able to find Bee Ewe Rye? Above all else, though, one particular thing was stopping her joining Sebaster outside. What on earth was a catflap? She would have to ask, and hope beyond hope that it was not some distasteful habit of his.
“What is a cat flap, Sebaster?”
“Oh! Little door in the big door. Just push it, you’ll see. Get a wiggle on – adventure awaits, JoJo!”
“Once and for all,” she said, exasperated, “My name is …” but the cat had jumped down, and she was speaking only to the fog. She flapped down to the door, and pecked once or twice at the square of plastic that she had always taken for a ridiculously low-set window. It moved in response to her taps, swinging a little on a top hinge. Johanna gathered her courage and bustled through, which proved surprisingly easy. Sebaster sat on the paved path nearby. The air was chill, and smelled of damp ashes.
Johanna hopped to Sebaster’s side, and the two set off, the onyx-feathered raven side-by-side with the powerful ginger cat, his marmalade-and-fire fur glistening with tiny droplets of fog-water. As they rounded Natty G’s herb garden, Sebaster said “I’ve had a thought.”
“Wonders never cease.”
“Go fuck yourself,” Sebaster said jovially. “No, I was thinking – can’t you just do a spell to transport us to Bee Yew Rye?”
“Well, no. You should know that. We are but familiars. We cannot actually perform magic; we simply assist Natty G as servants, spies, protectors and companions, aiding her on occasion by strengthening her magic when she bewitches enemies, or divines information, or turns one thing into a different thing. That is why she created us, after all. Ah, the day she created me was a mighty day indeed! I was mindlessly pecking away at the rotting eyes of a dead sheep when Natty G happened along. She willed me to open my mouth and she blew into me a fairy which gave me self-awareness and a command of language, along with a ridiculously long life-span.”
Sebaster was staring at her. “You’re pulling my plonker,” he said.
“I beg your pardon, I am most certainly not. Why, how came you into Our Lady’s service?”
“She bought me from that pet shop in the village; ‘One Man Andy’s Dogs’.”
“You did not have a fairy blown into you?”
“Like fuck, I did.”
“You do not suckle from the witch’s teat as a reward for helping with magic?”
“The who the what now? Natty G’s tits? Ew!”
“You don’t have a spirit name? The name of the fairy that was blown into you?”
“No, just the usual three names here; my regular name – Sebaster, my fancy name – Zingiber Officinale, and my secret name that only I know.”
“So you are not Natty G’s familiar? You are …”
“Just a moggy, yes. Sorry.”
Rather than just post the concluding part of Lindenbane here and link you back to the previous two episodes, I’m posting the whole story now to save you clicks. This is very much a raw version, so I would welcome ANY feedback, please, especially any mistakes you spot. Now read on, gentle reader.
What was that? Rick looked up from his laptop. The uncurtained window was dark, but for a light grey smudge: a small moth fluttering against the other side, bathing in the butterscotch glow of his desk lamp. He watched it for a while, but the soft wings brushing the cold glass made no sound. Rick went back to his writing.
There it was again. The whisper of something small scratching against the window, out in the spider-black night.
<scrit scrit scrit>
This CD of six songs (which makes it an EP in my book) was recorded live, and mostly in one take. The tracks are simply acoustic guitar and voice, creating a spareness that gives these melodic morsels of emotional oomph the space they need to breathe. You’re going to need two or three listens before you begin to realise the true depth and impassioned resonance of Liz Crippin’s songs. They speak of longing, love and lust; regret, remorse and rumpy-pumpy.
Her finger-picking guitar style melds with beautiful phrasing and intriguing, surprising chord patterns to provide a high, airy platform for Liz’s touching Welsh-accented voice to purr through the emotional gears. Sharp, intelligent lyrics reward more than one listen, too, as clever wordplay and metaphor are gradually revealed.
The title track gets into your blood. You’ll be playing it in your head for days. The pretty Rosie’s Song, a hymn of love for a beloved guitar, simply shines with beauty – listen to that guitar line, though, for a real release of endorphins. And if the unrequited longings of ‘Invisible’ don’t pull at your heart then you’re not a human being. If I have one criticism, it is that ‘Hurricane Girl’ needs more power in the chorus, as of a storm-driven wave hitting the shore. Perhaps, though, that was a limitation imposed by the recording conditions. I can’t wait for the album version.
I adore this CD. You will too. The Passing of the Years by Liz Crippin. Songs: Rosie’s Song, Monsters, Hurricane Girl, Invisible, You Don’t Know Me. Five happy wombats out of five.
Buy it here: http://lizcrippinmusic.com/buy-my-music/
I adore this photograph, taken in the 92nd minute of Bury’s game at Chesterfield on the 17th February. George Miller has just scored the winner as my beloved Shakers came from a goal down to win 2-1. I love the joy in the photograph, yes, and the endless smiles. But I am also intrigued by the variety of people and small dramas that it shows.
In the foreground, stewards struggle to prevent excited supporters getting onto the pitch to celebrate with the players. More fans, including a guy of huge beard in replica shirt, hurry down the steps to join the fun. Just in front of beardy bloke to the right of the steps, someone has fallen down and is being helped by other fans. In front of them, a man has the presence of mind to photograph the melee.
Over to the left a small boy, held in his father’s arms, raises his arm in celebration. Top right, a man is busy texting news of the goal to someone who might be anywhere in the world. Bottom left, the ball sits ignored for now. Bottom right, the referee watches impassively, making a mental note to add on an extra minute to the game to allow for the celebrations.
And no, I didn’t take the photograph*. I am, in fact, in it, between my daughter and Beardy Martin. Spot the Wombat.
*I took it from Twitter feed of @stephenthirkill
A little teaser from one of the stories in ‘The Museum of White Walls: forty tales of a world askew’, to be published soon.
“No, no! Listen,” Crow explained hastily, “The skinny bloke reckoned that this map would lead us to treasure. Buried here, where there’s a big ‘X’, near this pool that feeds down into the bay.”
“What does the ‘X’ stand for? Oh hell, it’s not ‘xylophones’, is it? Not much call for xylophones along the Skull Coast. No wait, it’s ‘xenopus’, isn’t it? You want me to load the Little Mavis with xenopusses.”
“No no no, the—” Crow began, then paused. “What the flaming hell is a xenopus?”
“African clawed frog. Produces eggs in response to the urine of a pregnant woman. Used for pregnancy testing.”
“Oh,” said Crow, pausing for a moment to consider the odd mind of his captain. “No, it does not indicate the location of a xenopus. The ‘X’ doesn’t stand for anything. It just marks the spot where the treasure is buried.”
“Then why didn’t they put a ‘T’, for ‘treasure’? That would make much more sense.”
“I don’t know why they didn’t put a ‘T’,” sighed Crow, “It doesn’t matter why they didn’t put a ‘T’. What matters is that the skinny feller said that here,” Crow’s grimy fingernail indicated a scratchy ‘X’ in the centre of the map, “is a treasure more valuable than gold coin.”
I have no idea who the other people are, although I *think* the stripy sexpot was called Jude.
Inspired by KJ Collard’s poem ‘The Eternal Muse’, this short tale will appear in my forthcoming collectioon, ‘The Museum of White Walls’.
I remember only shards these days. It’s all fading away. Except for a few things, most of my short time with Aoide has gone already, but the feel of her breath on my neck, the curl of her fingers interlaced with mine, the swirl of my mind when the side of her mouth curved in a half-smile – those things will stay with me forever.
We met at a party held in a large Georgian house. I had gate-crashed earlier that evening, looking for some mindless distraction to wrench my mind away from the latest job, and the desperate pleading in the target’s eyes just before I put a bullet between them. The Service pays its operatives well, but not well enough to completely erase the pang of shame that eats at our souls. I needed bright lights and noise to wipe away the patina of guilt, and the ever-growing thought that one day my Glock might just fire a bullet between my own eyes. This shindig promised lights, noise and more. It turned out that the celebration was for the eldest daughter of the house, who was about to get married to – God forgive her – a futures trader.
The family was hideously rich. A thirty-piece band played swing tunes, the champagne was Dom Perignon White Gold, and the food was magnificent. I had just made my selection from the menu for the first three courses, which oddly still sticks in my mind – miniature pastries filled with spiced cheese, a meat tile (pieces of veal, simmered, sautéed, served in a spiced sauce of pounded crayfish tails and almonds), to be followed by fig and ginger frumenty.
As it turned out I never even saw the dining room, for at that moment I saw her. Aoide; a pretty thing in a white dress, bobbed dark hair held in a circlet of silver, a graceful nose, and a full mouth with a delicious overbite. I’ll swear as she floated down the wide staircase at the other side of the room that she gazed at me directly with eyes large and ocean-pearled. I found it impossible to look away.
She half-smiled at me as she crossed to the stage, climbed up, and joined the band as they played “Serenade in Blue”, singing with a voice like liquid gold. As the final notes faded, no-one applauded, no-one took any notice of her song. She crossed to my side and took the glass of champagne out of my trembling fingers. I felt a tug in my chest as I gazed slack-jawed at the curve of her neck, the freckles spattering her bare shoulders.
She took my hand in cool fingers and led me outside into the warm twilight. Bats flitted and swooped, and an occasional travelling silence marked the flight of an owl overhead. Aoide spoke of the kinship she felt with the twilight creatures; the owls, bats, nightingales and moths – all the crepuscular dudes, as she called them, often heard, rarely seen. She felt the music in their sounds; the hoots, clicks and warbles all melding together into a magnificent vespertine symphony.
She led me to a walled garden, where the air caressed us with the scent of evening primrose, sweet rocket, phlox, honeysuckle, moonflower vine, angel’s trumpet and night-scented stock. Her hand on my shoulder nudged me to a chaise longue in a summer house, and there in the dark we talked like old friends. We laughed and lamented, spoke of our fantasies and our deep dark shames.
She confessed her envy of her two sisters; Mneme and Melete. For my part, I opened up more to Aoide than I could ever have imagined doing with anyone. I did not go into details about the Service, but she could see the fury raging inside me, the eternal struggle against a yawning maw of empty despair. Her eyes offered understanding and hope, but no pity, and I loved her for that.
She laid her head on my shoulder, her warm breath on my neck setting my mind awhirl, then she was kissing me, undressing me, seducing me there among the scented night flowers, our soundtrack the music of all the crepuscular dudes. I asked if she’d stay with me. She said that she would be with me always.
Afterwards, half dozing in her warm embrace, I wondered whether I should tell her what I did for a living, how many innocent lives I had ended, how many families destroyed. I questioned whether I would, after all, welcome the chill kiss of the Glock against my forehead. I decided that, unworthy though I was of the breath of life that Aoide had offered me, to turn my back on such sweet serendipity would be a disgrace greater than admitting to my iniquitous occupation as a destroyer of lives.
A bright future with Aoide flickered in my mind, but before it could grow into a warming flame I noticed that my back was cold. Aoide had gone. She hadn’t moved, or stood up – I would have noticed – she simply was no longer there. It was as if she had become a night-scent herself and drifted away on the soft breeze. As strangely as our union had begun, so too had it ended. I was devastated. A lifetime with her had slipped from my grasp almost before I had dared to dream it. An opportunity to turn my life to good things, missed.
I dressed myself and stumbled home, and though I visited the Georgian house time and time again, initially to enquire fruitlessly about Aoide, then later as a family friend and eventually as owner, I never saw her again. The agony of her abandonment swallowed my self-loathing whole, and suicide became less important than discovering what had happened to the girl who had seduced me in the twilight. I never did make that discovery.
I’m an old man now, and my memory plays tricks. If I did meet Aoide again, I’m not even sure that I would recognise her. Time can be a cruel tide to drift away on. However, the ocean of time has helped me to recognise one thing – after a million what-ifs and a lifetime of lost sleep, I have realised that our brief encounter wasn’t a missed opportunity at all.
In the half century since that night I have lived life as a good man. I left the Service behind and took a job as a gardener. I buried the Glock deep under my potato patch. I fell in love with a good woman – the daughter who had married, and then rapidly divorced, the futures trader. We raised two other good women, and we travelled the wide, mesmerising world. Yes, we lived in contentment rather than bliss, but who’s to say that’s not the better state? And, over time, I forgave myself. Aoide was the source of all of that. She breathed spirit and integrity into my lungs one twilit evening, and I’ll be forever grateful to her for that.
There have been difficult days, too. My wife died four years ago, my eldest daughter the year after. I cry sometimes. Occasionally, in the dark, I can still see the horror in a target’s face; smell the acrid pistol shot, the iron splash of blood. But then, every evening, I receive a remarkable gift. The moths appear, then the bats and owls – all the crepuscular dudes.
Then I remember her breath, her touch, a heartbeat, a tingle and a moment of dizziness. Aoide joins me every evening as the blanket of night settles about us. She is with me still and always, just as she promised that night long ago, and every evening at dusk I softly sing our song. When I hear that serenade in blue, I’m somewhere in another world, alone with you.
I’ve always loved churches, though God knows (sic) I’ve never been in the slightest way religious. To me, churches are simply havens of calm and relaxation, providers of aesthetic beauty, and sources of the occasional historical fascination. I sense no presence in there except the imagined ghosts of history.
There’s a coffee shop just inside, where I like to go for a small Americano after gym. It’s good coffee, and inexpensive. After my drink I usually wander into the main body of the church for a shufti at the Lancashire Fusiliers colours, and a quiet ten minutes just having a relaxing sit down surrounded by calm, untroubled by frets about the state of the world, or thoughts of jobs I have yet to do.
Here’s a point, though. Anyone seeing me sitting quietly in the pews might think I was communing with my god, when in my reality there is no such being. For an all-too-brief spell, I can be alone with my thoughts, unmithered by cats, spam callers, or nagging thoughts of how The Raven’s Wing’s Minstrel John and jongleuse Moss might break into a rich merchant’s house.
However … maybe that’s all ‘God’ is? Simply a device invented to allow us a brief respite from all the worries of this horrible 2017? If so, then I’m more confused than ever I was.