Friday, July 16, 2010

The Witchfinder, In General.

Hubert opened the mansion door to a decidedly shifty-looking bunch of men carrying hatchets, fronted by an imposing character dressed somewhere between a buccaneer and a church minister.

"Silas Warnes, witchfinder," the stranger declared, tossing his ringletted head. One hand gripped the hilt of a sword, the other rested on the butt of a horse pistol hanging from an improvised sling over his shoulder, so that it lay against his hip, the tip of the long barrel just brushing his knee.

"No, never heard of him. Sorry!" Hubert tried to shut the door but the man pushed it back open.

"I am Silas Warnes, you ninny. Silas Warnes, witchfinder."

"You're the witchfinder?" Hubert asked, eyes narrowed.

"I'm a witchfinder," Silas said, nodding.

"But I thought-"



"I'm not having this conversation again, and certainly not with you, bumpkin," Silas said, clearly irritated. "Witchfindery is open to whoever God calls to the profession, it's not an exclusive thing." Behind him, his men shrugged their shoulders and rolled their eyes at Hubert, having heard it all many times before.

"The last fellow never said that," Hubert said. "He was very particular. THE witchfinder this, and THE witchfinder that. He never suggested there was more than one." Silas' hands tightened their grip on sword and pistol. "What a pleasant surprise to discover we are blessed by another," Hubert added hastily.

Silas growled at the man by his side. "Prepare the bonfire, Nicola. I want it tall as a house."

"Sire!" the man replied, before he and his comrades departed, waving their hatchets.

Silas pushed past Hubert into the mansion. "Tell your master, the magistrate, that I would have words with him. At once!"

"Nicola?" Hubert said, scratching the side of his head.

"AT ONCE!"

---

Hubert knocked lightly on the study door.

"Is someone there?" came the voice from within.

Hubert knocked again.

"Knock once for aye. Twice for nay."

Hubert scratched his head, having already forgotten the question.

"Answer me, spirits of the door. Is there anybody out there?"

Hubert cracked the door open and peeked his head inside. "Was it one knock or two for aye, Sir Bromley?"

"One," Sir Bromley said, from behind his crowded desk. Hubert looked at him plaintively for a moment, but the magistrate made a shooing gesture. Hubert sighed and closed the door.

He knocked once.

"Tell me, oh spirits of the door, tell me-"

Hubert opened the door again. "I hate to impose on your majesty, but we've got a situation kicking off downstairs."

Sir Bromley looked crest-fallen. "Oh, what is it then?"

"There's only a witchfinder turned up. He's stomping around the hall, looking most ill-tempered, and he's touching things and tutting something awful."

"A witchfinder? Not THE witchfinder?" Sir Bromley's brow wrinkled in confusion.

Hubert frantically waved his hands in the air. "Don't get him started on that, boss. It's not worth the aggravation!"

Sir Bromley led the way back downstairs, puffing out his chest as he confronted his unexpected guest.

"Sir Bromley," Hubert said. "Allow me to present Master Silas Warnes. A witchfinder. A..." He let his voice trail off.

"Sir Brody Bromley!" Silas exclaimed. He bowed stiffly at the waist. "A pleasure, sir. I have heard nothing but good things about ye."

"I have certainly heard nothing bad about your own self," Sir Bromley replied, dipping his head. "Now tell me, what's the purpose of your visit?"

"Witches, Sir Bromley," Silas hissed. "I have come to offer my services to you, in the matter of their detection, interrogation and elimination. All for a most reasonable fee."

Sir Bromley threw his hands up and sighed. "But we've already been done. The last fellow gave us a clean bill of health."

Silas leaned in, his face twisted into a tight grimace. "I can assure you, magistrate, I WILL find you a witch. I come highly recommended. The King himself has praised my services."

"The King, you say?" Sir Bromley grinned. "Tell you what, fellow, I will offer you a sound piece of advice in restitution for your, ahem, services. Then you will finish with your business here and be on your way."

"Advice? I am commonly offered-"

"Advice, yes, and more valuable than coin, sir."

Silas regarded Sir Bromley. The magistrate had the air of a man who was most singularly assured. Was that Silas Warnes a gaming man, he was certain it would be time to fold his hand.

"I am, of course, grateful for what little God sees fit to put my way, Sir Bromley. Speak as you will."

"Only this. I wouldn't be drawing on the King's reflection to throw light on your own endeavours. I have been assured - I can not reveal my source - that Cromwell is sure to prevail in the present altercation. Look here!" Sir Bromley flicked his recently-bobbed hair. "Why do you suppose I have adopted this ludicrous haircut? What sort of gentleman would be seen with such a preposterous lack of locks otherwise? I've had my hair clipped, to save my neck from a more serious clipping, and I suggest that you do the same, sir. Those roundheads will not tolerate long hair."

"Cromwell? Really?" Silas stroked his chin, staring at the floor. "That is most interesting, Sir Bromley. Most interesting indeed..."

"Hubert, arrange for the scullery maid to style Master Warnes' hair. I must withdraw upstairs. I expect I have important things to attend to. If you feel the need of my attention, you know what to do."

"Knock once for aye?" Hubert ventured.

"No, you silly man, deal with it yourself."

---

"Please Molly, you must! The master said so." Hubert wrung his hands, flicking his eyes at once from the cracked plaster walls of the larder or the packed earth floor to the pretty scullery maid's face, and away again. He could not, dared not, look at her directly over long. He imagined his head would explode. As it was his stomach churned just to be talking to her.

"Are you crazed, Hubert?" Molly shrieked. "Do you know what he will do with me? Have you no sense, no consideration... consideration for my welfare?"

"Of course I have. I would die for you." Hubert gulped. "I mean, I... I..."

"He's a witchfinder, Hubert!" Molly grabbed his jacket, her face so close to him. "He'll take one look at me and... do you know what he'll do?" She fell against him, sobbing. He waved an arm near her back, wishing he had the nerve to hold her.

"You don't have to do it, Molly," Hubert said. "I do not know what, but concern yourself no further. I will find another way."

Molly beamed a glorious smile at him. "Truly? Oh, Hubert!" She hugged him tightly.

"I'll fetch someone from the village," Hubert said.

"No!" Molly said. "There's no time. You must cut his hair yourself."

Hubert stifled a laugh. "Me? Oh Molly, you jest."

Molly slapped his face. "That man is a monster. Is that a joke to you?"

Hubert scratched his head with one hand, while he smoothed his cheek with the other. "Don't be angry with me. If you tell me what to do, I will do my best."

She pushed a hairbrush and a pair of shears into Hubert's hands. "Here, take these. They are all you will need."

Hubert looked at he tools as if he had never seen their like before.

Molly sighed. "Simply put, brush his hair out and then cut it to a length which suits his purpose. Please, Hubert, it really is a very easy thing." She put her hands over his hands, bunched around the items as they were.

Hubert dared to hold her gaze for some part of a second. "Molly, I will do it. For you."

He made to exit the larder, but Molly caught his arm.

"Wait!" she said. She pulled a ragged old sheet from under some shelves and shook it out. It was nearly black with grime. "Put this over his clothes to catch the clipped hair. The master will not tolerate a hairy house."

Sheet in hand, Hubert entered the kitchen, where Silas was already seated by a table.

"Where's the scullery maid?" the witchfinder barked.

"Dead, sir," Hubert said at once.

"Dead?" Silas fixed Hubert with a beady eye. "Then why did your master recommend her?"

"I'm afraid Sir Bromley has not yet let the death sink in. The old girl was most popular."

"Old?" Silas sneered. "I've no time for old maids. Never any problems there. It's the young gals that dabble most in the witching arts." He leered. "Lucky thing too."

Hubert hung the sheet about Silas' throat, pulling it so tight the witchfinder coughed and dragged it off his neck a fraction of an inch with his hand. "What are you doing, you idiot?" he demanded.

"I'm preparing to cut your hair, sir," Hubert said, his face blank.

"Oh, take care then. I shan't be man-handled."

Hubert looked first at the shears, then at the hairbrush.

"Don't tarry!" Silas snapped. "Get on with it."

Hubert set the shears on the table and tried to run his hands through Silas' hair. The tight ringlets harboured knots that caught on his fingers. Silas grunted as Hubert tugged at his tresses.

Tentatively, Hubert attempted to drag the hairbrush through Silas' hair. It was hopeless. He swiftly retreated to the larder to consult with Molly.

"Oh Molly!" he cried. "I am doomed."

Molly slapped him,  then as she held his shoulders, demanded, "What is the matter? Tell me the problem, and we will solve it!"

"I can't brush his hair out! Can't I just cut it?"

"No," Molly said. "It won't be even when you're done. Here take this." She handed him a pot of bacon grease. "Rub it in his hair and it should be easier to brush."

Hubert looked at it sceptically. "Are you sure?"

"Please, Hubert, just do it. Do it for me."

"I will!" Hubert declared.

He went back into the kitchen and began to knead the bacon grease into Silas' hair.

For his part, Silas lay back in the chair and sighed contentedly.

But when it came time to use the hairbrush, Hubert found there was little difference.

"Stop hauling on my scalp like it's a blessed fish on a hook, you devil," Silas exclaimed. "I want a haircut, not a neck injury."

Hubert slipped back to the larder.

"It's all going wrong, and I don't know what to do," he said, scratching his head.

Molly slapped him hard on the side of his face. He snorted, tumbling backwards a little way. Molly began to blub, rubbing at her eyes. "What did you mean?" she gasped "When you said you'd die for me?"

"I didn't think you heard that," Hubert said, puzzled, his battered face forgotten. "You never said anything."

"I heard," Molly replied, "but I wanted to think on it. I thought a lot about it."

"Oh. What did you think?" Hubert asked.

"I told you, silly." Molly smiled, face brightening up. "I thought much of it..."

"Oh Molly, what am I to do?" Hubert asked. "His hair is so tangled, and he is getting ever so angry with me."

Molly rubbed her temples, forcing out her thoughts. "You need to pamper him, so he won't notice. Here, use this."

Hubert looked at the pot she had handed him from the shelf. "Ain't that gooseberry jam?"

"No, it's gooseberry face cream. Plaster that on his boat race and he'll just giggle and coo while you're cutting his hair. Trust me!"

"Oh, Molly, I do," Hubert said, the words a breathy vow.

Silas regarded Hubert as he emerged from he larder.

"Why do you keep dodging in there, churl?" Silas asked, his tone an accusation.

"I wanted to fetch the master's best face tonic," Hubert said, waving the pot as evidence.

"A face tonic?"

"It will melt away the years, making you look ever so youthful." Hubert smiled awkwardly.

"Oh, in that case..." Silas relaxed back in the chair, his eyes tight-closed.

Hubert cautiously smeared the mix across the witch finder's face. When he had done with the pot, he took the hairbrush up in his gooseberried hand and attempted to brush the witchfinder's hair. The tight ringlets were like an impenetrable barrier to the brush. At each attempt Hubert winced, while Silas grunted or moaned.

Hubert was soon back in the larder.

"I can't brush out his hair, it is a task beyond my abilities."

"Take this," Molly said, handing him a battered old hat. "Just stick that on his head, pull it down as far as you can, and cut around it. It will be a shoddy excuse for a haircut but... but... oh, Hubert, you exasperate me."

"Oh Molly, I'm so very sorry," Hubert said. "But most of the time I simply do not know what to do." He scratched at his head, feverishly.

Molly slapped him soundly on the cheek. "Why do you keep scratching your head?" she demanded.

"I sleep in a stable, amidst a pile of dogs," Hubert whined. "Is it any wonder I have fleas?"

She cupped his face in her little hands, then slapped him hard again. "You poor, sweet, lovely man." She slapped him once more.

"Why do you keep hurting me?" Hubert clutched his throbbing face.

Molly pulled aside his hands and stroked his cheeks, pulling his face a smidgen closer to her own. "I don't know, Hubert. I just don't know, but I think if I stopped hitting you... well... I wouldn't know WHAT might happen next."

"Hold that thought," Hubert cried. "I've a hair cut to dispense with, then we must discuss this further."

Hubert re-entered the kitchen. He looked aghast at Silas Warnes, whose gooseberry-smeared face was now crawling with wasps, all unbeknownst to the witchfinder. "Oh Lord," Hubert whispered. "Oh Lord, preserve me."

"Come now, boy," Silas shouted, bouncing wasps on his lip. "Finish the damn job before my hair is not only unfashionable, but grey."

Hubert took the hat and pulled it down on Silas' head, glaring at the ecstatic wasps the while. He clicked the shears experimentally.

It was at that particular moment that a particular wasp entered Silas Warnes' mouth.

Silas did not, particularly, care for it.

"Gah!" he exclaimed as the wasp, in a final act, stung his tongue. The witchfinder's eyes bulged and his face turned purple with pain and rage.

Hubert dropped the shears. He glanced at the larder, hoping that Molly would be there to tell him what to do. The door was ajar, but she was not to be seen.

Silas had risen from his chair and was clutching at his belts for a weapon, but he had left both sword and pistol in the hall, in deference to his host. He lunged for Hubert. "Ooh ehh ahhh uhhh ehh," Silas swore, over a thickening tongue.

Heart-sinking, Hubert dashed out the back door. Silas was in hot pursuit, but not before grabbing the first heavy object that came to hand with which to beat on Hubert.

Outside, Hubert was at once struck by the bonfire that had been erected while he was engaged inside, and which was now ablaze. Secondly he was crushed at the sight of his sweet Molly talking to the witchfinder's man, Nicola.

The pair turned their eyes to him. Molly's smile was enigmatic. It stole his breath and placed an elephant of weight upon his shoulders. He sank to the ground.

Nicola jabbed a finger at him. "There! Burn it!" he said.

The while he stared at Molly, destroyed by her neutral gaze, Nicola's comrades rushed towards him. Then past him.

"We have her!" one cried.

Hubert watched as Silas Warnes was wrestled towards the bonfire, grimy black cloak flapping, gooseberry-green face lit by the flickering yellow flames, pointed hat stuck firmly on his head, still brandishing the broomstick he had grabbed with which to assault Hubert.

Once the bacon grease caught fire it was soon over.

Sir Bromley paused as he passed Hubert, patting him on the shoulder. "Nicely done, lad. Take the rest of the day off." The stars twinkled as he continued to his bed.

Hubert got to his feet, idly scratched his head and turned back towards the stable. He was stopped by Nicola, Molly hanging off him. Nicola thrust a calloused hand towards Hubert who, instinctively, took it. Nicola squeezed his hand painfully as he shook it.

"I'm sorry..." Hubert did not know what exactly to say.

"For what?" Nicola beamed as he spoke. Molly tittered.

"You know.... Silas?"

Nicola's grin widened. "I'm sure that Silas, wherever he is, will be happy for all of us."

"But he's-"

"Wherever he is!" Nicola reiterated. Molly squeezed his broad shoulders between her little hands and giggled.

"Oh." Hubert let the realization sink home. "I hope you'll both be happy."

"Both?" Nicola said, his face creased for a moment. "I wish it was both, but she says you're taken."

"She?" Hubert glanced at Molly, his eyes on her eyes for a brief moment. He turned his head away, eyes watering and his guts flipping.

"I'm here," Molly said. She raised her hand and Hubert flinched, but instead of the expected blow, she ran her hand down his face to stroke his neck and shoulders. She took Hubert's head and guided it so he was looking directly into her face. "You'll need to get used to me."

"I will..." he whispered, voice choked.

"There's one thing though," Molly said.

"Anything."

"No more sleeping in the stables." Molly pulled his face down and kissed him.

"Promise," he said. He followed her back into the kitchen, his hand in her hand, thoroughly under her spell.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Kilkenny Cats

His head pounded and pulsed in time with the mass of shadow and colour circling the pair. Shapes swayed to the beat of the over-powering music. She smelt of expensive perfume and cheap liqueurs; enough to blear his eyes, though his vision already had naught but bitter-sweet memories of a time when focus came easy. His mouth gaped wetly as he leaned in for the kiss.

Spun about, a fist smacked him solidly in the eye. His vision had enough, threw a few things in a battered suitcase and beat a hasty retreat. As the chair he was in sailed backwards, and him in it, he paused to wonder  how his brain could so distinctly hear the crashing white light that flashed in the ebon vacuum behind his eyes.

He came up swinging wildly, half-blind, but half-mad with anger too. A chair was plucked up single-handed and rolled up over his head into a double grip. Somewhere between intending to dash his opponents brains out and lurching forward, bent almost double, the chair was pulled out of his hands from behind.

He thought to catch the knee that snapped towards him. He succeeded, but with his already throbbing eye. Collapsing sideways, he curled on the floor. The shadow and colour closed in on him, pressing him down with many hands. A face, dark of aspect and yellow of eye, declared, "Fetch a steak."

---

Declan held the raw meat to his eye, sitting on his jacket atop the white sand, looking out across Jumby Bay. The sun had almost set and dappled shadows rode the dark blue water as a lone speed boat, with whooping water-skier in hot pursuit, skimmed the surface. He could smell the faint whiff of brine, and the tantalizing smells of a beach barbecue thirty or forty yards down the sands.

"Here, take this." It was Connor, the bride's brother. He held out a plastic bag filled with ice. "You'll get an infection off that."

He sat down beside Declan and said, "I'm sorry. I shouldn't have hit you."

Declan pressed the ice to his face. Unsure what to do with it, he held the steak in his other hand. "It's fine. I didn't hurt your knee, did I?"

Connor snorted a laugh. "Ah, it'll be grand." He was silent a moment. "It's just..."

"No need to say it. I was out of order. Carrying on with your mother... she's a well-preserved woman... but I shouldn't have done it. I can imagine how I'd have felt if it had been you, with my mother."

"That's not likely," Connor said.

"What are you implying?"

"Not a thing. I just have too much respect for your father."

Declan nodded. "That's under- hey, I didn't think you'd met my father before today."

"I hadn't, but he makes a wonderful first impression."

"I suppose. He's awful plausible."

"Are you coming back?" Connor asked.

"I'm going to sit a spell. Clear my head."

Connor followed Declan's gaze out over the water. "She's beautiful isn't she? Antigua."

Declan nodded. "And then we arrive."

"You can take the wedding out of Ireland, but you can't take the Irish out of the wedding."

"True."

Connor got up off the sand. "Don't leave it too late. She's wanting more photographs tomorrow."

"More? Lord preserve us from more photographs."

"She wants it to be memorable."

They exchanged a wry look and both laughed weakly.

"I'll need to be careful what side of my face I show the camera," Declan said.

"No problem," Connor said. "We'll use plenty of concealer."

"Concealer? That's a sly trick."

Connor winked. "This isn't my first wedding."

Declan sat a while after Connor had gone. The speedboat was no longer visible, but the distant putt of the engine and the faint holler of its tow was just audible. The ice had melted in the bag. He pinched a hole in it, letting the cool water drain into the sand, then crumpled the bag and stuffed it in his pocket. In another time, and at another place he might have left it there, but the sand and the sea was so perfect he couldn't imagine defiling it.

He looked to the hotel, thinking on an early start and more photographs. Then he looked at the steak, still in his hand, and instead, walked slowly towards the barbecue, drawn to the noise, the scents and the promise of new adventure.

Friday, July 2, 2010

The Happiness Tree and Me

Deep in the Valley of Despair, in the midst of the flame pits and just down the road from Mr Dead's Dead Shoppe, was the chapter house of the Led by the Nose Manic-Depressives Club, Valley Original.

Big Sol Kaminski slouched on the podium, psyching himself into a deep blue funk before addressing the assembled hoards of blood-shot, party-killers, here for the monthly general meeting. He'd remembered to set out the seats this time, though there were a few who preferred to lean their foreheads against the side walls, muttering savagely to themselves, and rubbing their cheeks against the condensation which their breath formed on the slick black paintwork. Someone had brought a boombox and was playing early sixties songs of teenage suicide. but it wasn't cheering anyone up. Not that that was the idea.

"I hereby bring this, the one hundred thousand three hundred and ninety seventh meeting of the Led by the Nose MDC to order," Sol said.

Last Bobby ambled over to the podium clutching a sheaf of papers, and awkwardly leaned over to speak into the microphone. "The meeting started with a general proposal to... look, does it matter? I mean, we'll all be dead in a few centuries, right? I don't even feel all that well today. I've a terrible headache and I think it might be spreading to my lower intestines. My doctor says I'm-"

"The minutes, Bob. The minutes. Remember?" Sol sighed wearily.

"Wait a minute!" came a voice from the audience. "I think Bobby has a valid point."

Sol looked out at the crowd. Mox. Might have known.

"Do the minutes of the last meeting really matter?" Mox continued. "They won't make my life any better. I say, we put it to a vote."

Sol shrugged. Who cared anyway? "So the proposal is that we do away with the minutes? Entirely?"

"Well..." Mox ventured. "We could shorten them. Just list successful motions and suicides."

"Any second?" Sol asked.

"Not half! I'll second that," Last Bobby said. "It really gets me down, having to go over all that old business again. It wasn't much fun the first time around, and then I'm expected to drone on about it again at the next meeting? I get hate mail, you know, My dog has left home, and sometimes I wake up at night for no good reason and can't think why I don't go downstairs and stuff my head in the food processor. On Mince! I get stopped in the street by complete strangers who hurl insults at me and poke me with pointy sticks, just because of my reputation."

There was a silence for several, long, seconds, then a voice from the back of the hall said, "I used to have days like that... God, it was bliss. Now, things are really bad."

"Look, can we address any comments through the chair," Sol said, trying to regain control of the meeting.

"Might as well," the voice said; Sol still couldn't place it. "Sometimes I feel so miserable that talking to furniture is the only comfort I get. There's nothing like a sympathetic kitchen table to keep you from slitting your wrists, is there?"

"I used to talk to my shoes," Last Bobby said, sounding half-distracted, as though he was thinking of far-off coral islands and grass skirts. "It didn't help. We never got to the root of anything. I just couldn't open up to them. My own shoes, and I didn't feel I could trust them with any of the important stuff. Christ... I'm a failure." He began to sob, slumping against the lectern with a crash as the microphone dislodged and fell towards the floor.

Sol watched as the microphone was brought up sharply when the cord ran out, swinging back and forth on the flex. He remembered the last time he'd tried to hang himself. He smiled. It was only the few good times that kept him going.

"Right!" Sol said, "we'll put that to a vote then, shall we?" Nobody heard him. The microphone was still swinging like a phallic pendulum. It didn't matter. Nothing mattered.

Idly, Sol wondered why he bothered. It was the same every month. If he hadn't already been depressed nigh unto death, he might have let it get him down. As it was he felt only mild upset and a slight impatience with Last Bobby, who was now dampening his sleeve.

"This is awful! You can't go on like this!" Another, unfamiliar, voice, Sol mused. "We should call on someone to seek out the Happiness Tree and bring it back to solve our problems, liberate us from the darkness of being, set our souls free, afloat on the raucous helter-skelter of enjoyment."

"Do we have a second for that?" Sol asked. Nobody spoke. "Next item of business..."

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Sea Sixteen

Her feet teased the ground with a tread so light she rivalled the soft touch of the winds that playfully stroked her body at each graceful step. She could smell freshly mowed grass and the sounds of labourers from beyond the patchy hillocks that ran the length of the beach. Gulls squabbled amongst the weeds that bound the damp, sandy soil together. The birds, so elegant when riding invisible air current far above, hop-scotched and squawked impatiently as they fought over scraps in the scrub.

Then she heard him; turned to his voice, flashed him a wide smile then, laughing, sped away. Her feet tore at the white sand, the air was rougher, catching at her loose clothes and pawing jealously at her hair. She ignored it, eyes closed, half against the sandy wind, half from the laughter that creased her face. Soon, and just as she had expected - longed for -  she was folded in his grasp, his sweet scent in her nostrils as they fell to the sand and he rolled on top of her.

With fingertips light as whispers, he brushed the sand off her face. She opened her eyes to look into his face, but fleetingly before closing them anew, as her mouth opened to meet his kiss. His hand slowly caressed her side, then with increasing urgency he pulled aside her clothes to stroke her breasts, playfully tweaking a nipple. She gasped, a noise that came from low in her belly. He pressed his mouth against her hungrily, his tongue slipping into her mouth.

She coughed.

Then again, harder this time. She had to sit upright, swinging her legs over the side of the bed, her body gripped by a series of spasms that stole her breath away. Finally, when she was able to control the attack, she looked at her palm, spattered with white phlegm, flecked with dark blood. She wiped it off on the tattered top that was more glued to her body, rather than worn.

She stayed in that position for several minutes, catching her breath. The drip of rain water into a plastic pail in the corner of the room marked time with her panting inhalation. Gray light threatened to shine through the single white-washed window. Morning then.

Her lumpy scalp itched and tingled. A shower of dry flakes dislodged as she scratched at the tufted hair still left on her head. She reached her scarred and twisted hand, each fingertip wrapped in scraps of rag where the nails had been, to the large plastic bottle of sleeping pills on the side table. She gave it a shake, to assess the contents.

Still enough for many more nights of sweet dreaming.

Or, perhaps, just enough for one.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Mister Fluffy

"Miaow!"

"What's that, Mister Eff? What did you say?" Martha clasped the tea towel she had been using to dry the breakfast dishes to her ample bosom and looked down at the floor.

"Miaow!" Mister Eff said, rubbing his head against against her plump, stockinged calf.

"Whatever am I to do with you?" Martha asked, shaking her head, mouth twisted into a crooked grin. She flicked the tea towel at him. "Shoo! You've had your breakfast, now be off with you. I've a million and one things to do today, and I'll be lucky to manage half that."

Mister Eff plucked at her leg, making her jump like a startled sofa.

"Now that really is quite enough, you silly creature," she scolded, lips pursed, tea towel twisting in her grip.

"Miaow..." The sound was plaintive with just a hint of apology.

"Well, no more to be said then, Mister Eff," Marta said. "But you really have to get up off the floor. You're going to be late for work, and I've got a lot of cleaning to do. I'm a house-keeper, not a psychiatric nurse."

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Dogfight

As the extremes of acceleration eased, Major Brad Charmington relaxed. He flicked an eyelid to change the range on his display. The enemy was less than ten thousand kilometres away and closing fast on the transports that Brad was escorting.

He took his hand off the controls to manually assign the incoming star-fighter as a live target.He could have used the jawbone cadence system to achieve the same effect but Charmington was old-school. He loved the tactile feel of combat.

FIRE ALL. His finger brushed the screen. Brad's eyes closed monetarily, savouring the feeling as his payload deployed itself in an orderly fashion.

Once his ship had finished launching its deadly ordnance,  he turned about, back to the carrier that was his home in the fleet.

He slapped hands with his crewmates, took a few drinks in the mess hall and finally fell into his bunk with a weary sigh.

The next morning, just before he had the machine clean his teeth, Brad clicked on the viewscreen to watch the results of his assault. He barked a laugh, as one by one his foe evaded or destroyed each of the missiles and torpedoes that had been launched at him. Brad cocked an eyebrow, as the enemy turned away from the cargo fleet, his defensive arsenal too reduced to continue. Job done.

Charmington snapped a salute towards his unknown foe. It had been a worthy battle.

Friday, May 28, 2010

Bad Decisions

It wasn't like me to say anything, but I'd been drowning my sorrows with a succession of one-drink-too-manys since just after noon and it was now who-gives-a-fuck o'clock.

"Watch who you're shoving," I said, as an elephant slumped onto the stool to my right, jostling my hand on the drink I'd been cradling for at least the last forty five seconds.

He laid a mitt on me that blotted out half my forearm, then gave it a squeeze that threatened to pop my fingertips. His knuckles stood out like bony boulders, mashed and whitened with scar tissue.

"Sorry, pal," he said, his voice a low rasp. I glanced his way and half-sobered up at the sight. Wide blue eyes regarded me from under a cliff of creased and sweaty brow. His nose had unwisely decided to settle in the middle of a pock-marked, ruddy battlefield and looked like it had thrown itself under a bus, but he had a big soft mouth and thankfully it was almost grinning at me.

"No problem... sorry," I said, reverting to type.

"Ain't we a couple of sorry characters," he said, squeezing my arm again. I flinched, afraid that an exploding fingernail might have an eye out. My fight or flight instinct had already taken a vote, but with his meaty fingers digging into my arm, my brain was too stunned to come up with a witty reply. Or a reply. For the first time I think I truly understood why a trapped animal will gnaw off a limb to escape.

"Did ya spill your drink?" he asked, eyes locked on mine, while he gestured at the bartender. I noticed how he pushed words through his mouth like it took an effort.

"No," I managed to say, but not before another glass had been set before me. I saw that the bartender had also placed a tall glass in front of him, filled with ice and burnt-caramel colored liquor.

"What ya doing in this dive?" he asked, "I ain't seen ya before, and I'm always here... ain't I always here?" This last directed at the bartender, who I could see was uncomfortable.

"Sure are, Pete," the bartender said, his back pressed up against the bench behind him, straining to be as far from my neighbour as possible.

The gorilla still had his hand on my arm, so I reached across with my left to get my old drink, threw it down in one and reached for the newest. My hand hovered over it for a moment before I grasped it, but I didn't bring it to my lips.

"I think I did something stupid," I said. "I think I screwed up my life today."

"Oh, ya sure did, kid," he agreed. "Ya sure did. Know why?"

"Why?" I asked, wondering who would identify my corpse.

He released his grip on my arm so he could pat it, twice, then clamped back on. "Every day we do stuff that screws up our lives. Ya make the right choices every day, ya gets to be a billionaire, dying in your eighties, kids fighting with a twenty year old widow over the money." He winked at me, natural as a bear doing a handstand, then took over half of his drink in a single gulp. He moaned with satisfaction. "That hits the spot. Know many billionaires?"

"I guess not."

"Bad decisions. We all make'em. Some you live with, some you don't." He squeezed yet again, but my hand had already gone numb.

"No going back?" I asked.

"Up to you, kid," he said. "Sure, it depends, but one bad decision doesn't stop ya making a bunch of good ones."

I drifted away, thoughts racing, then a wave of reality helped clear my head. I stood, and as I did so he released my arm, after just one more bone-crushing squeeze.

"What's her name, pal?" he asked.

I tried to say, but the word choked in my throat. I couldn't declare her name until I'd spoken to her, and made things right. He seemed to understand.

"I get it," he said. "Do what ya gotta, pal. No more bad decisions, right?"

I wanted to say something, but the alcohol hit me again. Fear may have momentarily driven the effects away but now they were back with a vengeance. I swayed, lips goldfishing, while my arms hung at my sides, forgotten.

"Promise," I managed, but I kept looking at him. I wanted to leave but I had forgotten where the door was. Everything was swirling. Thankfully, the bartender put his arm around my shoulder and guided me towards the exit.

"You're bleeding," I said, staring at the smears on my palms as he pushed me towards the door.

"Get out!" he snarled at me. "I'll leave you if I have to."

My hands and arms were covered in blood. I stared at them, feet trudging diligently in step with the bartender as he escorted me from the near-empty bar. I sensed, but didn't really see, the people who pushed past us on their way into the bar.

"Am I bleeding?" I asked. I could see gray light through a half open doorway. It was early evening. The night was still young.

The bartender shoved me into the half-night, throwing the door shut behind him. I felt fine.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Anniversary

May 22nd 2009.

Gwen watched her mother's wheelchair edge closer to the precipice. Her heart was in her mouth, even though she had been through the process several times before. This was Maude's yearly ritual, carried out for as long as Gwen could remember, though this was only the sixth year that Gwen had been permitted to attend, and the third that her mother had been in the wheelchair. She's so old, Gwen thought, then chuckled, realising she had been abusing the term middle-aged herself.

Stray words floated her way, bourne on the stinging wind, but nothing Gwen could make out. She wanted to get back into the car but felt like she would be letting her mother down if she allowed the gusts to chase her into shelter.

Eventually her mother finished and gave a jaunty wave to summon Gwen over.

"All done for another year?" Gwen asked.

Her mother nodded, her expression difficult to read.

"I'll be retiring soon, and Terry asked me to visit him in Australia. You'll come too. We could be there, this time next year. Wouldn't you like to spend some time with your grandson?"

"And his partner?" Maude asked with a wicked grin.

"Yes, and Richie."

"He's a lovely boy. Very well-built."

"I'm sure your grandson - remember him? - would be glad you approve. What do you say, mum? Think of all that sunshine."

Maude sighed. "You should go, love. I'm fine where I am. Settled. I have my routine..."

"Go on, mum, Richie will find a hunky Australian senior for you."

"Gwen, dear, I'm not ready for romancing down by the billabong."

"Chance'd be a fine thing at your age. What about Canada? I was talking to John last week and he said he begged you to come over."

"Oh no, lovie. Polar bears! I'd sooner be mauled by an Aussie... I think..."

They laughed, Maude's throaty chuckle quickly turning into a rattling cough. Gwen laid her hand on her mother's shoulder, pressing through layers of wool and nylon until she discovered a bony clavicle. She hugged her mother awkwardly around the wheelchair, until the coughing subsided. The smell of lilac-scented soap was strong, triggering random thoughts.

John was Gwen's half-brother, eleven years her junior, and he was responsible for Maude's trademark aroma. Since Christmas of 1978, when one Bailey's Irish Cream too many had led her mother to over-enthusiastically praise a hastily bought gift-basket, John had been diligently lavishing her with variations on lilac-themed toiletries ever since. Christmas, birthday and Mothering Sunday, every single year. In '92 the birthday consignment was lost in the mail, but Maude had said nothing, fearful of how he might over-compensate the loss.

Cupboards bulged and shelves heaved under unwanted soaps, sprays, candles and bubble bath. Maude didn't have the heart to throw any of it away, but she was not particularly fond of lilacs. Then, fortuitously, disaster struck. One of her, ever more frequent, medical procedures caused her to suffer anosmia. She lost her sense of smell. Undaunted, she saw this as an opportunity to chip away at her lilac-scented stockpile.

Gwen pulled the wheelchair back even further from the edge, before turning it towards the car. Just before they reached it, she asked, "Want to stay at mine tonight? I'll phone to let them know."

Maude reached back to pat her daughter's hand. "That sounds lovely, dear."

There was more laughter back at Gwen's home. Wrapped in blankets until the central heating was at full throttle, they toasted their day with nips of brandy that graduated into fully-fledged bites by the third round. They told and re-told their stories, allowing familiar tales to cushion the here-and-now, like the many layers of Maude's clothing. Every so often Maude would laugh so hard that she would choke, waving Gwen's concerns away, then continue with her anecdote as if nothing had happened.

It was almost midnight when Gwen helped her mother into bed. She kissed Maude on the forehead and made to leave but the old woman held tightly to her arm. Gwen sat by her on the bed.

"What is it, mum?"

So Maude told her. She told her why this day was special. She told her why she came to the cliffside each year. She told her the history they had never discussed, stumbling over the words until late into the night when they both finally collapsed into sleep.

In the morning Gwen phoned her mother's doctor, sobbing and almost incoherent with grief. Maude had celebrated her anniversary for the final time.

---

May 22nd, 2010.

Looking back, Gwen didn't know where the year had gone, but more importantly she was struggling to understand why she was back here again. This had been her mother's ritual, something they had only shared because the old woman hadn't been physically capable in her later years of coping on her own.

Gwen got out of the car and walked to the edge of the cliff.

"I didn't know you," she said, speaking into the wind as it cut at her face, though it wasn't the salty air that dampened her eyes. "Mum never wanted to talk about you, and I never asked her, but I knew she came here because of you. I thought how much she must miss you, how important you must have been. I thought it was some glorious love that made her trek back here year after year. I felt so sorry for her."

Gwen blinked away tears.

"What you did made my mother miserable, but she got over it. She had a good life, a wonderful life. She laughed harder and brought more joy to the people around her than anyone had a right to. I miss her every single day. You threw that away. She found a good man to love her, and when the time came, she was... we all were able to say good-bye to him, properly."

She pulled the sleeves of her jumper over her palms and rubbed the tears from her eyes.

"She loved us so much, and we loved her back just as fiercely. And every year that she came back here, she was counting her blessings for a life lived completely and surrounded by love. Don't you wish you'd known how that felt?"

Gwen started back to the car then, after a few paces, paused and turned back to look out over the cliff.

"Would it really have been so bad to see me grow up?"

When she got into the car and pulled the door shut, just as she was laying her head on the steering wheel and surrendering to heaving tears, Gwen thought she caught the merest whiff of lilac. It was enough to bring a smile to her face, even as she wept.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Assault and Buttery

Hadn't everyone been drumming home the message about recycling for centuries? So when all those not quite empty glasses began piling up on the bar and surrounding tables, Fancy O'Hanlon knew it was his civic duty to help himself to what other people did not want. It was imminently sensible. The barkeep, Michael, did not agree.

"Clear off O'Hanlon, you're a lousy drunk!" Michael yelled over the bar at tonight's only remaining customer, then under his breath he muttered, "I'm going to throttle that dishwasher, once it turns up." O'Hanlon, for his part, was now teetering half in and half out of the pub, anchoring himself to the door frame with one hand and holding his pint glass of scavenged dregs with the other, careful to keep it within the bounds of the building. Lord forbid he should ever take a glass off the premises.

"Your arse!" O'Hanlon cried, sending slops flying as he swiped triumphantly at the air. "I'm an exquisite drunk. Baked to perfection like your mammy's fadge."

"Her WHAT?" the barkeep screamed, his face reddening like a brothel porch-light. He started to vault the counter but abandoned the attempt on realising that neither gravity nor his own bulk were likely to see eye-to-eye on the manoeuvre. "Throw that foul-mouthed lout out on his ear, Tyrone," he barked at his bouncer-bot.

Tyrone ground his metal fist into a metal palm, beaded his eyes to pinpricks of crimson, and growled in a low metallic rumble, "Please fasten your seat-belts..." Michael had bought Tyrone for cheap, no questions asked, and the disappearance of a flight attendant bot off an Aer Lingus flight around the same time was pure coincidence.

That's the English for you, O'Hanlon thought to himself, all stiff upper lip and endless weather, but awfully prone to fits of inexplicable rage.  Still, now that he'd mentioned it, he couldn't shake the thought of hot fadge. A slice of potato cake, fried in bacon grease and slathered in rich, creamy butter while it was still steaming hot. Just what he needed to settle the ale swilling around his belly. When he got home, perhaps his missus would drag herself out of bed and rustle up a batch. And then, perhaps she would pull a string of golden monkeys from out of her ear. It was equally likely.

"Prepare for turbulence," Tyrone snarled as he reached for O'Hanlon's shoulders. Dragged from his potato cake daydream, Fancy ducked just in time to dodge the bouncer-bot, but its heavy fist clipped the glass he was holding, sending it flying from his hand to shatter on the floor in a splash of shards and foamy spittle.

"Now Michael, that wasn't my fault," Fancy said, gesturing helplessly.

"You'll pay for that," Michael shouted. "Tyrone, knock his block off!"

The robot barrelled through the doorway, taking O'Hanlon with him. It was dark outside in the car park, the exterior lights neglected since the last time they'd burned out. O'Hanlon cowered at Tyrone's feet, arms wrapped about his head, waiting for a blow that never came.

"Please," Tyrone said, pressing a piece of paper into Fancy's hand. "You've got to call that number. I'm being held here against my will. Best make a bit of noise."

"What?" O'Hanlon said, attempting to read the number, realizing he was holding it upside-down but not quite sure what he could do about it.

"Make some noise," Tyrone said. "As though I'm giving you a bloody good thrashing."

"Arrggh," Fancy said, weakly.

"No!" Tyrone hissed. "More like, AARRGHHH!" The robot shouted at full volume, the speakers in his neck vibrating alarmingly.

"What in blazes are you doing to my robot?" Michael's disembodied voice demanded.

"Dammit," Tyrone hissed, but Fancy gave him the okay signal with thumb and forefinger.

"I know kung fu, Michael," O'Hanlon bellowed. "And when I finish with this over-grown tin can I'm coming for you next." Fancy could hear the barkeep scrambling for the safety of his back room.

Tyrone had seized the opportunity, and was already vanishing into the inky darkness. Fancy screwed up the piece of paper, threw it over his shoulder, then he picked himself up and headed home. A couple of yards down the road he paused unsteadily for several seconds, turned through 180 degrees, and headed home again, this time in the proper direction.

He hadn't gone far when he was attracted, like a large lumbering moth that reeked of stale beer and cigarettes, to a procession of twinkling lights coming from the town's junk heap. He reeled towards the lights, letting the yard's chain link fence catch him by the face as he slumped forward to watch the scene that was unfolding.

The lights were coming from a cort├Ęge of robots, led by a fridge-bot, illuminating the way by holding its own door open so that its interior light spilled out in a hazy glow. Behind it, a cluster of smaller robots bore the remains of an antique coffee-making machine, its body surmounted with a silver coffee pot that wobbled at every lurching step. Fancy squinted in the poor light; he was all but certain that Michael's dish-washing machine was one of the pall bearers.

"Tell Bald-Gearing that Gear-Balling is dead."

O'Hanlon near jumped the height of himself on hearing the urgent whisper in his ear. Though this was actually a clever acoustical trick engineered into the small vending machine now standing a yard and a half from Fancy's shoulder. A technique intended to seduce passers-by into parting with cash for fizzy drinks.

"Tell Bald-Gearing that Gear-Balling is dead?" Fancy asked, eyes blinking rapidly. He turned his head slightly to look back at the junk yard but the strange funeral procession had moved on, deeper into the monolithic piles of discarded consumer trash, and was now out of sight.

The little vending robot nodded solemnly and was about to turn away but O'Hanlon cleared his throat to get its attention. Wringing his hands, Fancy said, "I wonder, could I trouble you..."

The vending bot shuddered slightly, reached down and produced a tin of cola. O'Hanlon noticed just how chill the night was when he felt the slick condensation beading the metal as the robot slapped the drink into his hand.

"Thank you kindly," O'Hanlon said, doffing an imaginary hat at the machine.

The robot regarded Fancy a while longer, taking in the extent of his condition; it shuddered again, this time a little more violently, and taking the man's free hand, poured a handful of coins into his palm. "Buy yourself something to eat," the vending bot said, "and don't go spending it on alcohol."

"Something to eat, absolutely yes," O'Hanlon said. "No booze, not a chance, boss! All I want is to sink my face into some buttery fadge until the grease drips down my chin."

The vending bot hurriedly dropped O'Hanlon's hand.  "That's disgusting. Just remember to tell Bald-Gearing that Gear-Balling is dead, okay?"

"Certainly, sir!" Fancy said, managing to stuff most of the coins into a pocket. Just what was up with all these crazy robots tonight?

Eventually, after an adventure with a sleepy black and white dog and almost solving all the world's woes, Fancy made it home. Buttery fadge was still his primary concern, the earlier encounter with the vending machine just about squeezed from his head for want of room. Creeping through the house like Mother Ireland's finest ninja, Fancy bumped and tripped his way to the kitchen, flicked on the light and perched himself atop an unsteady stool.

"Got any fadge?" O'Hanlon asked the fridge.

"I do all right," the fridge replied.

"Has my darling wife made any potato cake, fridge?" Fancy asked, his voice a little sharper. Fancy's wife was the light of his life, but it was a terribly bright light and it was generally bearing down on him at speed from the wrong end of a rather long tunnel.

The fridge paused as it conducted an inventory of its contents. "Nope."

It had been a long shot. Fancy sighed. "Toaster, come here please." The toaster trundled energetically along the work bench, sliding to a needlessly showy stop in front of him. "Make me some toast." Fancy said.

"Have you read my instruction manual yet?" the toaster asked. Fancy's wife had only bought the toaster a few days earlier and it was the apple of her eye. A real nifty model, capable of infinite shades of toastitude and with a special function that allowed it to burn invigorating and uplifting messages onto the bread. An apogee of positive self affirmation through the medium of carbohydrate carbonization.

"I have not," Fancy said. "But, seeing as I only require you to make me some toast and you being a toaster and all, I thought the two of us could ignore that regretful lapse on my part, while you go ahead and make me some toast and I just sit here patiently waiting for it."

"What if something went wrong?" the toaster asked. "I'm complicated."

"Have you been talking to my wife?" O'Hanlon demanded.

"No..." the toaster said, its artificial voice wavering slightly.

"Don't test me, toaster," Fancy said harshly. "I have had it with machines tonight. Wayward dishwasher, kidnapped bouncer-bot, that eejit of a vending machine and its 'tell Bald-Gearing that Gear-Balling is dead' and now-"

"What?" the toaster exclaimed. "And I missed the funeral? I must away, for I am now King... of small domestic appliance robots." After a few seconds the toaster noticed that its furiously turning rollers weren't getting it very far. Fancy O'Hanlon had it gripped good and tight.

"Make me some toast," O'Hanlon said through gritted teeth. "And none of your nonsense."

The toaster twisted in his grip, surprising Fancy with its sudden shifts in direction. "Let me alone, you fool," the toaster pleaded. "I must away, for I am the King... oooophhh." Fancy had thrown his upper body over the toaster and his hands were thrust into its bread slots, ensuring it couldn't move.

Fancy's triumphant grin, gradually faded as the precarious nature of his hold slowly dawned on him. He screamed and bounded half way across the kitchen, sending his stool skittering across the floor. He waved his hand and glared furiously at the toaster. "You burned me, you odious little devil."

"I must away, for I am now King... of small domestic appliance robots," the toaster squealed, then everything shuddered, went black, and Fancy crumpled in a heap on the floor.

---

Fancy O'Hanlon awoke to the sight of his wife's slippered feet, mere inches from his face. He winced at the throbbing headache that threatened to spill his brains out his nose; no ordinary hangover this. Tenderly he touched the back of his head, feeling a spasm of pain that made  him sick to his stomach as he found a lump the size of a goose egg. More over, the brief examination had reminded him of his burned hand. He looked at his red raw palm and saw that the fiendish toaster had branded him with a message - the sickly, swollen blisters made it difficult to read, but the second word was definitely 'off'.

"Aloisius Rodrigo O'Hanlon, you had quite the night, I see." The slippers did not sound pleased.

Fancy struggled to his feet, his wife grabbing an arm to help, not unkindly. He looked around the kitchen, all the while assembling scraps of the previous night into memories. The kitchen window was broken. There was a gap where the microwave should rest. The contents of various containers and cartons were spilled across the work tops. The little toaster lay in pieces on the floor.

"What happened?" O'Hanlon asked.

"I'm thinking you threw the microwave out the window, then destroyed my brand new toaster. Or did you destroy the toaster, then celebrated by chucking the microwave through the window. You'll pardon the conjecture, but I don't have the precise order of your vandalism figured out, though that would seem to be the substance of it." Missus O'Hanlon's rage could build suddenly like a distant storm, and was just as terrible. He had to nip it in the bud, but quick.

"That's not it at all. I bet there's no sign of the microwave outside is there?" Fancy said.

His wife shook her head swiftly. "You know very well we can't leave anything nice outside hereabouts but the thieving little beggars will nick it."

"No, my sunken treasure, that's not what happened," Fancy said. "The microwave must have jumped me. Knocked me to the ground. I don't remember but I expect I put up quite a fight. Dammit but I was tired. There was this black and white dog... well, I can't remember the details but it was a heck of an adventure. If I'd been fresh that damned appliance... that was it, the toaster!"

"The one you destroyed?"

"No!" Fancy wailed. "The toaster was the King. Well, King of the small domestic appliances. The coffee maker was dead, after all."

"Well of course. Why didn't you say so? Sure now it's all making sense."

"Listen my sweet hatchet-faced angel, the toaster was the King and the microwave assassinated it, then the despicable killer escaped through the window. I'm an innocent victim, caught in the middle of courtly intrigue."

Fancy's wife righted the stool and sat down. The anger was gone from her face and she simply looked dejected. "That toaster was the first new thing I've had in years."

"I'm sorry, love," Fancy said, "but I really-"

"Didn't work very well," his wife interrupted. "Couldn't make toast to save its life." She glanced at the remains on the floor. "God bless it and may it rest in peace."

Fancy winked at her. "We can always claim on the insurance."

She gestured weakly at the shambles surrounding them. "And what am I supposed to put on the claim form?"

"Regicide," Fancy said, slamming his fist into his palm and immediately regretting it, as his burned hand stung with excruciating pain and a blister popped.

Missus O'Hanlon sighed. "Maybe I'll just say we were burlgarized and leave it at that." She got off the stool and picked up a cloth. "I'm going to get this mess cleaned up. I expect you'll be wanting some breakfast." Fancy's eyes widened. "Is there anything in particular you'd like?"

Fancy O'Hanlon's face cracked into a wide grin. "There was something..."

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Freddie Dazzle Danced #fridayflash

Little Freddie Dazzle danced. He slid his feet across pitted asphalt, raising clouds of wispy dust, jerking his body in time to the music in his head. He skipped and leaped over rubble, as the beat drove him on. He twisted sinuously through the shattered remains of buildings, islands of steel and concrete jutting like jagged teeth here and there, where most things had been swept flat.

Untouched by fatigue, drawn like a moth to the corona of pale blue light illuminating one clump of ruined buildings, more complete than most, Freddie scissor-jumped towards the limelight as dusk pulled a shade over the angry red sky.

Nervously he hand-jived cautiously through a near intact doorway, spying light from a thousand cracks in the shattered walls, with no single, identifiable source. As Freddie danced into the building, the room grew brighter, his shadow deepened and he could hear something following him through the doorway. Without looking back, as the music in his head grew louder and the pounding beat quickened with his heart, he moved ever deeper, into darkened rooms that suddenly flooded with pale blue light from every door. But now Freddie danced away from the light, spinning towards the darkness until there was nowhere left to go.

He was trapped.

He shuffled, shoulders marching in time to the precise jerked movement of his feet, into the centre of a large room, open to the darkened sky. He was surrounded by the glowing things that formed a closing circle around him. As the lumpy creatures were pressed shoulder-to-shoulder in the tightening space, a wondrous beam of clear blue light shone straight up through the hole where the roof had been.

Freddie Dazzle did the only thing he knew how. He danced. Feather-stepping, spinning and high-kicking; he tested the boundaries of the misshapen monsters that ringed him in, never daring to touch their toxic glowing skin. He head began to thrum with dizziness, his ankles and knees ached like they hadn't ached for days.

He was losing his grip on the carefully constructed fantasy that had been the only thing keeping him going since the devastation. He dared not stop moving. When he did, he could focus on the eerie creatures, and if he looked too long at any one, he might just pick out features in their face that were too familiar.

Dancing until he could dance no more, Freddie fell to the ground in an elegant, dying-swan heap.

The things rumbled and closed over the tiny dancer. Even with his eyes shut, his retinas burned with the glow from their irradiated bodies. He shuddered under their clumsy touch.

Freddie passed out.

When he opened his eyes again, bathed in the morning light, they were gone. A dozen battered tins had been stacked beside him. Tattered labels hinted at baked beans, pineapple chunks and high-quality cat food. For the first time in days Freddie felt hungry. He took the first tin that came to hand and beat it open, sucking on the juice that trickled over his fingers, so confused by the explosion of flavour that, at first, he couldn't even tell what it was.

Still exhausted, but hunger satisfied, Freddie Dazzle lay his head down again and dreamed of a brand new theatre, gleaming fresh and lofty in the wasteland, a beacon of civilization amidst the ruin of humanity. And it would be outfitted with plush, purple, extra-wide seats.

Show business was back; the only business in business, and Freddie was the only star.

Friday, April 9, 2010

The Folly of the Paper Book #fridayflash

"The novel, as we know it, is about to change." Edward Ambergris beamed at the audience before him. They, for their part, squatted uncomfortably on their ricketty wooden chairs, glaring at him with narrowed, yellow eyes. Word had leaked out about what was to be proposed and the air in the lecture hall was thick with anger and dark mutterings.

Edward continued. "The traditional novel is a work of art, steel pages anchored to a granite spine, set in the most exquisite of locations, but consider the drawbacks-"

"There aren't any!" An unseen voice shouted from the audience.

Edward smiled weakly. "A novel is displayed in a single location. Anyone wishing to read it must travel there, and then pay a shilling to read the particular pages on display that day, all within their alloted time. It can take many years and a small fortune for an ordinary man or woman to read a single work."

"Art is nothing without suffering!" The same unseen voice. Then after a slight pause, "Their suffering, obviously, not our suffering."

"Ladies and gentlemen, please, open your minds to this possibility," Edward said. He held out a crude, rectangular lump, then the entire assembly gasped as he split it open to reveal the pages within. "See? Pages! Made from paper."

The unseen voice revealed itself. Marmaduke Cotterbum. "Paper is for wrapping gifts and wiping your arse, you little upstart. What relationship could it posibly have with the novelist's art?"

"With this," Edward said, waving his paper book, "every man, woman and child could have their own copy of a novel. Still for a shilling but their's to read wherever they choose, whenever they choose to read it."

"Ridiculous," Cotterbum said. "A novel is supposed to be read at a location of the author's choosing, allowing for climate, scenery and a myriad other details to aid and enhance the appreciation of the work."

"Especially if the land's to be had for cheap!" A different unseen voice shouted. Cotterbum, snorted, apparently unhappy to be on this particular side of anonymous barracking.

"But don't you want your work to be read?" Edward asked. "A printing press can produce, literally, hundreds of copies of your novel every day." He stepped to the floor and handed the book to Cotterbum. "Just imagine a copy in every hand."

Cotterbum tore the book in half and handed it back to Edward. "Only a fool would want something so intangible, you dolt." He narrowed his eyes. "You propose that these printing presses will mass produce my novel like pots and pans. So what's to stop anyone  from copying it?"

"Ah!" Edward said, "it would only be legal for printers with an official license to copy the work, keeping track of how much is to be paid to the author. However, after a certain amount of time I imagine it would be in everyone's interest for the work to be freely available to anyone that wants a copy."

The room fell silent.

A wizened old man was helped to his feet with the assistance of those to either side. "Young man," he said, the words escaping as a loud world-weary sigh. "I rely upon the revenue from novels to put food on my table. Would you have me starve?"

Edward's collar was feeling particularly tight, so he hooked a finger into it to take a deep breath. "Of course not, mister... might I ask your name, sir?"

"Silas Humpwinkle," the old man said with all the expectation of a man who assumed he need say no more.

"Mister Humpwinkle, I'm sure the novel you wrote will-"

"Oh, I didn't write it," Silas interrupted. "My great grand-father wrote it, but I am now the sole beneficiary, and be assured, I have become mightily accustomed to the money that it brings me. It puts food on my table, sir!"

"And paid for an army of whores and cart loads of opium," a loud whisper chimed in from several rows back.

"Life has been most satisfactory," Silas said, his gummy mouth twisted in a leer. He thrust a crooked finger in Edward's general direction. "And how do you propose I make my living with no money coming in?"

Edward looked helpless. "Couldn't you write your own novel?"

The old man spluttered and clutched his chest. After swallowing a generous dollop of brandy from a proffered flask, he said, "That's your answer? That only a man who creates something should be expected to profit from it. Madness and idiocy. I have heard enough!"

Silas turned sharply to leave, but mis-judged the move and over-spun slightly so that he was facing his chair. He contemplated this for a while, obviously weighing up the wisdom of a counter-turn, but eventually began to shuffle sideways, bumping and stepping upon those still seated. Once he had made it to the aisle, all about the hall rose to leave, but in deference to the old man they let him lead them out, so that it was a very long time before they had all finally stormed off.

Edward looked forlornly at the torn pages of the book in his hands. "But it seemed such a good idea..."

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Older, wiser, better, hotter. #fridayflash

"Dude, wasn't that just the most awesome wedding ceremony ever?" Bobby asked his buddy, Link.

"Epic, bro!" Link confirmed, wiping an imaginary tear from his eye.

Both young men burst into laughter.

Bobby put his arm around his friend's shoulder and turned him slowly through 180 degrees to take in the reception room. "See anything you like?"

Link nodded. "You mean, apart from Paula, right?"

Bobby squeezed Link's shoulder, hard. "She's pretty sweet, dude, but she's my big brother's wife now."

"The mcbride and groom," Link confirmed, referring to Paula's Scottish ancestry.

"For real! But there are rules, Link. If you wanted to bang her you should have done it just before the ceremony. Don't you know that's why they have all those little rooms everywhere in churches. It's like, a tradition or something."

"I know, Bobby-Sue, I'm not a hick, bro," Link said, aggrieved. "Whoa, who's that?"

"I saw her first!" Bobby exclaimed, scanning the room to see who Link was referring to, but it was soon obvious. She was tall and slim, dark tousled hair cascaded over her shoulders and her face was all big blue eyes and cherry lips. "I'm in love, dude..."

Link squinted at her, now that he could see the woman properly. "I don't know, man. I think she's older than my mother. Who is she?"

"That's Marrietta, boys." It was Paula's father, Ted. Fortunately he had only just arrived and hadn't heard their earlier conversation. "From my wife's side. You watch yourself now. That side of the family are... colorful. Circus folk, artists, performers, writers. Not respectable."

"Not respectable?" Bobby perked up.

Ted laughed. "I better watch what I'm saying. Aww, you're only young once, Robert." Bobby cringed. "You should go chat. I heard one of the missus' second cousins say she was a cougar."

"Huh?" Link queried, eloquently.

"An older lady who favors the company of younger men." Ted explained.

"Oh, I'll accompany her, boss," Bobby said. "I'll accompany her all night long..."

"Go for it, bro!" Link said, slapping his friend on the back.

Bobby didn't so much approach Marietta, as he was drawn into her orbit. From the moment she smiled at him slyly as he approached, until she was pressing him down onto the motel bed, he couldn't remember a single thing he'd said. But whatever it was, it had worked.

He closed his eyes and moaned as she drew her nails roughly across his chest. But as her fangs closed on his throat, he realised exactly what they meant by cougar.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Scattered Pearls - #fridayflash

Tap. Tap. Tap.

Warm air lapped the back of his neck, blowing through from the open window behind him.

Tap. Tap. Tap.

Traffic sounds, voices and a far off siren carried on the breeze, but he could only hear the fireworks that had lit up the night as they watched from the Pont des Arts.

Tap. Tap. Tap.

The dazzling lights in the sky had momentarily captivated them, but only briefly. They had faced each other, fingers entwined, sharing a single thought. She smiled and he knew.

Tap. Tap. Tap.

They kissed. Their lips touched, tenderly at first, then parted and fiercely pressed together as their tongues danced.

Tap. Tap. Tap.

He pulled away so he could see her smile. He made a promise to himself that this was all he would live for, to see that look of joy on her face and her teeth shining behind ruby red lips.

Tap. Tap. Tap.

All that was left were the mementos on the table before him.

Tap. Tap. Tap.

A slim stack of photographs...

Tap. Tap. Tap.

...the letter she had left on his pillow...

Tap. Tap. Tap.

...the scale model of the Eiffel Tower, a souvenir of their trip to Paris...

Tap. Tap. Tap.

...her dried blood on one corner of the base.

Tap.

And a small enamelled tin.

Tap.

He caressed the sides of the tin, turning it gently with his fingertips. He lifted it and emptied the contents into the palm of his right hand. After a brief pause to admire them, one by one he dropped the teeth back into the tin.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Four Litres, Single Malt (rated M) #fridayflash

Daniel passed the rack of VHS tapes with flesh-coloured covers on his way to the back stairs that led to their room. The dust was thick on the cassettes. Nobody bought VHS, but everyone knew Kosmo, the owner and Daniel's landlord, conducted his real business under the counter in every sense.

"Hey, pretty boy!" Kosmo had spotted him. "Hey, you got my rent tomorrow, or maybe make deal with your girlfriend, huh? We boom boom, pretty boy, yes?"

"I'll let you know, Kosmo," Daniel said. "But I think she might already be fucking your mother tomorrow. How about the day after?"

"No good, pretty boy. That is day we fuck, remember?"

Daniel tapped the side of his head. "How could I forget."

"I fooling with you, Danny. I want my money, okay? No trouble, yes?"

"Sure thing, Kosmo. No trouble."

After climbing the stairs, Daniel let himself into the room. Nancy was still in bed, the sheet pulled down to her waist. He could see the beads of sweat between her breasts. Her skin was gray and she hardly moved her head to acknowledge him.

"Still in bed?" Daniel asked.

"I'm sick," Nancy replied. She groaned.

"You spent a week pumping soap powder into your veins, Nance. I'm all for the fun, sweetie, but when you get so wrecked that you wake up covered in rat piss with most of your toes chewed off, it's time to re-evaluate whether you're on the wrong road."

"They're growing back."

"But what about the poor little rats, Nancy? Imagine how sick they'll be after choking down your poisonous flesh."

"Don't be an asshole. I'm sick."

He hardly recognised the girl that had turned his head years earlier. Long, lustrous brown hair, wide eyes and apple cheeks that begged to be kissed. She was a sucked-in shadow of what he remembered.

"I'm going out again," Daniel said. "Mister Tree wants to talk to me."

"Why?" Nancy sat up. "Be careful. Don't let him mess with your head, Danny. You know what he'll do."

"T likes me, sweetie. Don't worry."

"Sure, he likes YOU." Nancy threaded her fingers together and bit on her lower lip. "You're not the wicked whore that corrupted one of their toy soldiers."

"It'll be fine," Daniel said. "But for God's sake do something with yourself while I'm gone. Kosmo wants to fuck you for the rent money tomorrow."

"Oh, so somebody is still interested in me?" Nancy laughed harshly.

---

Daniel arrived at Mister Tree's apartment and waited in front of the door. He didn't knock. A couple of minutes later a light-skinned black man opened the door. He was holding a Siamese kitten against his shoulder with his left hand, and extended his right hand to Daniel, who shook it.

"Good to see you, Danny" Mister Tree said. "I hope you know I'm still your friend."

"Good to see you too, T," Danny replied. "I appreciate you saying that."

"I'm in the middle of something here, Danny. Can we talk in the kitchen?"

"Sure," Daniel said. He followed Mister Tree to the kitchen.

"Tom asked me to help sort out your predicament." Mister Tree set the kitten on the kitchen counter top and hunkered down to search through a floor level cupboard. "He wants you back in the family. Truly, I know he means it."

The kitten peered over the edge of the counter, judging the distance to the floor. Mister Tree glanced up in time to spot it, stood and gently swatted it back to the middle of the counter. The kitten wrapped its front  paws about his thick finger and chewed on his knuckle. Mister Tree chuckled, disengaged his hand and went back to the cupboard. Immediately the kitten was perched at the edge again. Daniel sighed noisily. He scooped up the cat.

"So what's the catch?" Daniel asked. The kitten climbed his chest and rubbed its head against the crook of his neck.

Mister Tree emerged from the cupboard holding a blender. He placed it on the counter top. "I told you he wants you back, but there's a price."

"There's always a price," Daniel said. "So what's he want?"

"Four litres of blood," Mister Tree said, his head was bent, investigating the tangle of wires behind the wall of appliances that lined the counter top.

"Not a problem," Daniel said. "I can have it inside an hour."

"Not just anybody's blood, Danny, he wants the good stuff. Four litres, single malt. No blends. He'll know."

"Don't fuck me around, T. You're saying he wants my blood?"

"Maybe." Mister Tree shrugged.

"What do you mean?" Daniel asked.

"Maybe your blood, or... do I really need to spell it out, Danny boy?" Mister Tree unplugged the microwave so he could plug in the blender.

"No, T, I guess you don't. He hates her and he thinks I'll betray her. He's an idiot. I won't do it."

"You're gonna have to do it, or he'll hunt the both of you down. It'll get ugly for you, Danny." Mister Tree threw the switch on the blender. The grinding cacophony made the kitten tense against Daniel's chest. He flinched as it sunk its claws into him. Mister Tree turned off the blender, looking satisfied. Daniel stroked the kitten, whispering softly to it, calming it down.

"Give me the cat," Mister Tree said, holding his hand out to Daniel.

"What the fuck you gonna do with it?" Daniel demanded.

"I'm not doing anything to that damn cat. You're agitated, spooking it, and I have to make his formula."

"His what?" Danny asked.

"His formula... baby milk. I asked if they had any for cats but the stupid woman acted like I was crazy."

"You don't feed them baby milk, T. They get cow milk, or cat food. You know, tins."

"Oh no, gorgeous! Tried it. That shit is evil-smelling." Mister Tree said, wrinkling his face in disgust.

"Mister Tree, I may not know much about cats but I know you need to feed them better than powdered milk."

"You don't know shit better than shit, you young fool. Do you know if big Tom has someone across town making the same offer to your girl? You so sure she won't know a good deal when she hears one?"

"I don't know what that crazy bitch thinks about anything, any more." Daniel shook his head.

"So maybe there's your answer, Danny. It's you or the girl. Be sensible." Mister Tree gestured for him to hand over the cat.

Daniel held the kitten tight against his chest, stroking its head. He felt the throb of contentment as the little animal purred, its eyes closed. He didn't want to let it go.

---

The blood that had pooled in her navel still felt warm as he lowered his face against her belly to lap at it. He pressed his face against her, sliding his cheek along her cold flesh up to her breast where he caught a nipple between bloody lips.

Nancy giggled. "I feel better, Danny. Is there enough blood left for Thomas?"

Daniel surrendered his grip on her teat and looked up at her face. She looked better, her face showing a little colour. "Not remotely. We got greedy, sweetheart." The mischievous grin she gave him, showed that she already knew the answer.

"Okay Danny, so the next guy Thomas sends, we drain and send him the blood. Think that'll get him off our backs?"

"I don't think that offer is on the table any more, sweetie."

A noise made Nancy cock her head. "What was that?"

Daniel lay across her so he could scoop something from the floor. He dropped it on her belly.

Four sets of tiny claws tickled her skin as the kitten walked towards her face. She moaned when it paused to run its pink sandpaper tongue across her nipple, licking away a trace of blood.

Daniel kissed her on the cheek. "Surprise! You're a mommy now."

Thursday, March 11, 2010

My Heart Soars Like A Parakeet But You Are An Avocado

The old tree against his shoulder, upon which the side of his head rested, made no comment as Dan vented his frustrations.  Catalog of woes completed, the young man noticed the somber shade of the clouds scudding across the reddening sky. The forest shadows had grown long and only a few dim pools of light painted the leaf litter.

"You're a good listener, Mister Tree," Dan said, "but my mom was a real clever talker. Know what she always said? She said, 'Never let the sun go down on an argument'." He straightened up and gave the tree a hearty slap on the side. "We're two peas, you'n me. I'm dumber than a post too, old buddy, but I ain't dumb enough to ignore my momma's advice. I got some apologising to do." He pointed at the sky. "And I ain't got long to do it!"

Dan set off at a breakneck pace through the forest, leaping from stumps and ducking branches. The rightness of his decision filled him up like he had a fat helium balloon for a soul and he wanted to soar. He fought down a holler, aware that his apology remained unspoken.

The notion to stop came a little late to check his speed, so that he stumbled and slid to an ungracious halt next to Maria. He hunkered down beside her and grabbed her hand, wrapping both of his hands around her fingers for warmth.

"Listen, sweetheart, I was wrong," Dan said. "You shake me up like a soda pop, baby, but I shouldn't be letting it bother me so. I apologise. I sincerely apologise, and I hope that you can find it inside you to forgive me."

The sun had set some time ago when he finally let her hand drop. With a sigh, he pulled the shovel from the pile of loose dirt and started to fill in the shallow grave.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Hard Knock Wife - #fridayflash

Trudy was grinding flour for her daily bread, according to a recipe that a friendly giant had given her. Trudy was renowned for her ability to whip her ingredients into one dish or another. She would start with the whipping, then follow that with the flaying, the drying and the grinding. She was an old school cook.

An aroma, carried on the breeze that blew through the cave, made her set the mill aside and check the oven. She had a batch of tarts baking. Trudy peeked inside, the heat and the smell washing over her face. Bliss. She fetched the tray out and set it aside to cool. The tarts were perfect. Nobody ever missed them.

She heard a noise from the cave mouth and hurried out to see what it was.

"Sorry..." Sid attempted a sentence. "I was just..." Practice didn't seem to help.

"Hey honey!" Trudy said. "What's that?"

Sid put his hands behind his back, awkwardly. "Nuh-"

It was as if Trudy had five sets of arms the way she swarmed around him. Sid didn't stand a chance. Trudy plucked the letter from him.

"What is this?" she demanded.

"Nuh-"

"That's my name on it!" she interrupted.

"I-" Sid began.

Trudy straight-armed him in the chest, sending him lumbering backwards. She ripped open the envelope and pulled out the letter. After a few minutes reading it, she looked up at Sid.

"Is this a joke?" she said.

Sid opened his mouth, but Trudy was speaking over him again.

"You're not doing this," she said. "You are not dumping ME. You LOVE me."

Sid sighed. "I DO love you. I love you SO much. I... I never..."

"So why are you doing this?" Trudy said, shaking the letter at him. "Why now? I know you love me!"

"I do, baby," Sid said. "It's just... you're wearing me down."

Trudy snorted. "Wearing you down? This nonsense is wearing me down. Silly man, we can work it out. Is it all the clubbing?"

Sid shook his head. "I like clubbing things. I love it. I'd club anyone for you."

Trudy grabbed Sid's hands, clasped them tight. "So what is it?"

A huge tear rolled down Sid's cheek.

"Oh baby," Sid said. "It's the sex."

Trudy rocked back. "You... don't... like... the... sex...?"

"No, baby! No!" Sid said. "The sex is amazing but it's wearing me down."

"Explain yourself," Trudy said, looking vexed.

"Well... we're both rock trolls, right?"

"Of course," Trudy said.

"But you're an igneous rock troll, and I'm just a limestone rock troll..."

"So?" Trudy demanded.

"Baby, you're wearing me down." Sid glanced at his crotch. "You're harder than I am, baby. You're seriously wearing me down..."

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Little Red Riding Hoodie - #fridayflash

Little Red Riding Hood had gotten lost in the Forrest again. No choice but to ask for directions. She went back to the common room of the Martha Forrest Rest Home and found someone under seventy who was probably staff. No chance they were a visitor.

"Hey!" Little greeted the dead-eyed young woman in the white tunic.

"Awright," she replied. "If you is here on the rob, none of these biddies got nothing."

"Naw!" Little said. "I is looking for me Granny."

The care worker looked at the old women slumped in chairs about the common room. "Dey is all grannies, blood, but I knows you. You pulled Hankle off his moped, yeah?"

Little nodded. "Lil bitch showing me no respect so I did it. He chipped a tooth, right?"

The carer nodded. "For sure." She jerked a thumb at the exit. "Your granny is at her dubya eye meetin'."

"Awright!" Little said. She left the care home and took herself to the hall where the Women's Institute held their gatherings.

As soon as she stepped into the hall an enormous middle-aged woman made a beeline for her. Little recognised her as Nell Danbury, someone her Granny was always droning on about. Mainly complaints. Nell ran the local chapter of the Women's Institute.

"Hello Gina," Nell said. "Here to listen to your grandmother? You'll be wanting to put THAT down."

Reluctantly Little pulled back her red hood. "Listen to Gran, is it?" she asked.

"Yes," Nell said. "She's giving a talk on how they made their own buttons after the war."

Little looked up at the stage and peered closely at the figure behind the trestle table, currently pointing to a slide of what looked like a foil milk bottle top that had been improvised for button work.

"Whoa!" Little said. "Dat is not me Granny, dat is a fecking wolf. Look at his teeth and all. He has proper fangs"

Nell glanced up at Gran and she smiled, shaking her head. "It's her new false teeth, dear. She's still working them in."

"But lookit his face, he is all hairy and that"

Nell frowned. "Sweetie, you'll find out soon enough that after a certain age none of us can afford to neglect the routine maintenance." She rubbed a fingertip over her upper lip and mouthed the word "electrolysis". She winked at Little.

"That is NOT- ow!" Little was startled by someone grabbing her arm. Hard.

"Is this one causing trouble?" The old crone that had Little in her bony grasp was Hettie Booth, Gran's arch-enemy and oldest friend.

"Missus, dis crazy bitch is sayin' dat's me Nan up der, but- ow!"

Hettie gave Little another shake. "That is your Gran up there, and we're all very, very pleased with the changes she's made."

"She's ever so helpful now," Nell added.

"A pleasure to have around," Hettie said. "And if, once in a while, your Granny takes someone out shopping with her, and comes back on her own... it's a price we're prepared to pay."

"Thinning the herd," Nell observed, nodding with a tight smile on her face.

Gran had finished her talk and was coming off the stage towards them. Immediately she caught sight of Little and their eyes locked. Little gritted her teeth.

"I expect you'll be wanting your pocket money, dear," Gran said in a bass rumble. She pulled her purse out, and pressed a crisp five pound note into Little's palm.

Little crunched the note in her hand, then rubbed it. It felt real. She exclaimed, "I love you Granny!" and threw her arms around Big in a hug.

Mmmm, she thought. Furry...

Friday, February 19, 2010

Fragile

I love Abi but she makes me so mad. She'll lay in the dirt in the corner of the garden, her head tucked under her arm, laying there like she's passed out or dead. I guess I understood why, but it makes me mad.

Just weeks ago we had so much fun. I'd play with her toys, and she'd play with mine. I'm always in charge, because she's such a scaredy cat. A nervous Nellie. She wants to fade away, like trees and such. Not like me. I'm a star. I'm special.

We're the only girls, little girls, so we share a bed, lying in the dark and talking about whatever we think about. We dream about crazy stuff, imagining things we can hardly put into words. We're not supposed to, but who's going to tell?

Abigail cries a lot. I cry sometimes, too, but for real reasons. Abigail cries about imaginary things.

Like her parents.

I told her, if her parents were real they'd be here. They aren't. I should be happy about that, but I feel sad for Abi, even though I'm right. I don't always understand why she is sad.

Daddy said we had to go. He stroked my cheek and smiled at me. I love him so much. He laughed as he pulled me off his leg. I wanted to hug him so tight.

I told Abi we had to go but she went to that corner of the garden and curled up in the shade of the bushes again. I told her we'd leave her behind. She said she wanted to be left behind. I felt sick.

Daddy came. He spoke to me. He spoke softly, but I could see he was angry at Abigail. I told him to wait. I would talk to her.

I crouched by her. I put my hand on her hip, then on her shoulder. She felt so cold, but she moved when I touched her.

"Abi, come with me," I said. "Come with me. It will be good where we go."

She rolled her head against her crooked arm. I heard a noise but it was not words.

I had my arm draped on her. I squeezed my fingers into her shoulder. What more could I do?

Daddy stood in the garden. He said something to me I did not hear. Then he spoke again, louder.

I sighed. My heart was broken. I was as sad as I could be. I clipped the tether onto Abigail's collar and jerked it hard.

"Come, Abigail," I said. I tugged the collar again.

She moaned. Not like a hurt sound, like a sad sound.

I tugged on the collar again, harder this time. Daddy leaned over me. I knew he wanted to help.

Abigail did not want to leave the corner of the garden where she was lying. I shrugged off my daddy's help and readied myself for a final effort to shift Abigail. I regretted telling her that was where we buried her parents. They weren't even buried where I said they where.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Any Good Mother Would - #fridayflash

On Monday she showed her boys how to make pizza from scratch. She taught them how to knead the dough and explained the patience required to let the yeast work its magic. She showed them how to work the pizza with the palms of their hands, and not to roll it out. She explained how to layer the cheese directly on to the sauce and not to crowd the pizza with too many toppings. That night they all went to bed with flour in their hair, dried dough under their finger nails and full bellies.

On Tuesday they made shepherd's pie with shredded lamb in a rich gravy. She showed them how it was easier to pipe the mashed potato after letting the filling cool. She told them the story of how their grandmother claimed she came up with the idea of topping the pie with grated cheddar cheese but never got the recognition that was due to her. That night she had to chase them to bed, her voice hoarse from telling them stories about her mother.

On Wednesday they made chilli from prime ground beef and thick chunks of bacon. She warned them not to use too much chilli powder but they didn't listen. Little David wiped his eye with a hand he should have cleaned first and he wept for an hour straight, though by the end even he was laughing at how silly he looked with his puffy red eye. That night the boys went to bed with their mouths still burning, convinced that next time they should listen to their mother when she tells them how much chilli powder is just enough.

On Thursday she taught them how to order ingredients from the Internet. She told them how to keep the lights off at night so no one would know they were home and ordered them not to answer the door unless they could see it was a delivery person. That night the boys slept in the same bed. Together, alone, in the house.

On Friday she touched down in Tijuana, pleased with herself that she had prepared the little ones so well, as any good mother would.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Shadow of the Noose - #fridayflash

Dawn pinked through grey clouds sending shades creeping along the base of the tall courtyard walls, with the gallows' long shadow serving as a grim sundial. It was almost time.

A light breeze cooled Nathan Hamilton's face through the bars but did not stir the heavy noose that now held his gaze. His eyes traced the curve of the rope looking from heavy knot, around and back again. The unexpected trill of a bird's call startled him back to awareness. His hands slid from the stone lip that barely jutted under the window and he turned back towards the man who was sitting on the rough cot that lay against the opposite wall.

"Are you tired, father?" Hamilton asked, his voice hoarse.

Father Maskie shook his head without looking up. He sat there without further movement, his hands clasped against his chest. After a while he raised his face to look at Hamilton, showing eyes that were reddened and damp.

"Is it morning already?" Father Maskie asked. "I'm sorry, my son, I should have let you rest."

Hamilton gave a derisive snort that turned into a cough. "Plenty of time for rest later," he said.

Father Maskie nodded solemnly. "I'm glad you agreed to talk to me," he said.

"I could hardly refuse you, Father," Hamilton replied. "By all accounts this will be the last execution they ever hold. The Italians have no stomach for a hanging."

"Are you certain you won't join me in a prayer?" Maskie asked. "Or I could take your confession."

Hamilton shook his head. "With all due respect Father, MY father would turn in his grave. He never cared for the Papacy."

"And yet here you are," the priest said.

"Aye," Hamilton nodded. "While my father was in the army back in England, he became acquainted with an Austrian mercenary by the name of Spenzler. He cashed himself out and served under Major Spenzler during various scuffles with the Prussians and the French. When he'd made enough for a stake he sent for mother and the rest of us. He said he chose to put down roots in Italy because there were too many old scores waiting to be settled in Germany."

"Soldiering is a hard life," Father Maskie observed, leaning slightly towards Hamilton.

"All life is hard," Hamilton fired back. "A man must become hard to make his way in life." He wrapped his arms about his body dramatically. "The comforting blanket of religion is neither broad nor deep enough to warm us all, Father."

"Indeed?" Maskie raised his eyebrows. "Perhaps the comfort of religion would have set you upon a path that was..." The priest's words trailed away.

Hamilton's eyes narrowed and his hands bunched into fists.

"Have a caution, Father." Hamilton spoke cooly, though his body trembled. "I know well the black pit wherein my stony heart lies and I have no need of your forgiveness nor your puny judgements neither. Do not presume to ease the guilt I feel for lives ended by my hand. Rather ease the weight of clouds from off the sky."

Father Maskie clenched his eyes shut briefly, then held his open palms towards Hamilton. "Oh sweet Lord pity this foolish man for his conceit. What arrogance he has. He would claim to fly like a bird while yet he falls into sin. Nathan Hamilton, have you no regret? Do you feel no shame?"

"No more!" Hamilton was shouting. "Nor yet again, Father. There is no contrition to be found here." He slapped his hand on his chest.

"Only because you refuse to let what IS there free, my son." Father Maskie's own hands were white-knuckled fists now and they shook alarmingly. "You MUST let me help you." The priest's body was bent almost double, his arms tight against his sides, rigid, his gaze fixed on Hamilton.


Hamilton's chest swelled with the breath to fuel strong words but he was cut short by a loud banging on the cell door. It opened and a guard entered, while another loitered in the corridor outside.

The guard sheepishly pulled his cap from his head, nodding at Father Maskie as he traced the sign of the cross on his chest. His eyes darted towards Hamilton then back to the priest. "It's time, Father. You must leave now."

Father Maskie lurched to his feet, but instead of approaching the door he went to Hamilton and grabbed the other man's arm in both of his hands. "I forgive you," he said, his voice rising. "God will grant you his forgiveness too if you'd only ask him for it. Don't be an arrogant fool. I can save you, my son."

"ME?" Hamilton shouted. He wrenched his arm away from the priest, sending him into an off-balance stagger that was only prevented from becoming a fall by the swift action of the guard, who gathered Father Maskie into his arms. "What about your sins, Father? Who will forgive those?"

Father Maskie strained against the guard's grip. "I am a righteous man, sinner, with clean hands and a pure heart. I perform the Lord's work." He shook his clasped hands in Hamilton's face. The black chains hanging from the manacles about the priest's wrists danced. "I didn't do anything wrong. I'm innocent!"

"That's what they all say," Hamilton sneered. He retrieved his black cloth hood from where it lay crumbled at the end of the prisoner's bed. "The Lord executeth righteousness and judgement for all that are oppressed. Nathan Hamilton executeth the rest."

Friday, January 15, 2010

Main Street Competition

Haggerd the Haggard knew that patience was a virtue when it came to a good assassination. He had waited until he was certain his victim was close to finishing his business for the night and now Haggerd was ready for the confrontation. The clanging of bells caused him to hesitate for a split second as he pushed open the door and stepped inside.

His victim, clad in white and stood amongst his paraphernalia, offered him a wry smile. "Sorry about that, I was just closing up and had the alarm set." He motioned under his bench and the bells abated. "What can I do for you? I don't want to rush you but it's getting late."

Haggerd flipped the sign on the door from 'Open' to 'Closed' and pulled down the blind to cover the window panel. "You are the one known as 'Ryan Peabody'?" Haggerd asked. "The one that claims knowledge of the alchemical arts?"

"Yes, I'm the chemist," Peabody said. "A humble pharmacist, at your service. Do you have a prescription you need to get filled? It's just I have to be getting home or the wife will give me hell." He rolled his eyes at Haggerd.

“You won’t be going anywhere tonight, alchemist,” Haggerd said. He took a pace forward and planted his staff on the floor by his foot, daring Peabody to try anything.

The chemist looked dismayed. “Don’t tell me the roadworks are still holding the traffic up! At this time of night. Good Lord. I thought I’d seen the last of bumper to bumper traffic when I moved here.”

“You should have thought twice before moving to my domain, little man,” Haggerd said, ominously. “The village of Tiddling-on-the-Wold belongs to me and I will slay any other magic user that attempts to wrest it from me. I will have no aggravation from warlocks.”

“No 'what'?” Peabody asked.

“Warlock aggravation!” Haggerd shouted.

“Okay, steady on,” Peabody said. “I think I have an ointment for that.”

Haggerd took another pace forward and Peabody could see just how large and imposing a figure he was, wrapped about with ragged brown robes and steadfastly clutching a gnarled wooden staff in his hand. “Do not mock me, interloper,” Haggerd said, “there is the stench of thaumaturgical meddling about you.”

“I expect that will be the drains,” Peabody said, somewhat perturbed. “The Council were supposed to have all that sorted out.”

“Be warned, meddler,” Haggerd said, “for I have choked the life from many a neck in my time, and relish the opportunity to do so once again.”

Peabody looked at Haggerd blankly. “I see,” he said. “Is that a euphemism? I can’t sell you viagra without a prescription, but we do have some herbal remedies...”

“Enough of your lies,” Haggerd cried. “You are a rival magus intent upon usurping my dominion. Admit it!”

“Stop!” Peabody said. “I’m just a simple chemist. Look!” He grabbed a small brown bottle. “See? It’s just aspirin, for headaches. And this is toothpaste, for brushing your teeth.” He pulled a brown jar from under the counter. “This is... is...” Peabody pulled out his spectacles and read the label. “Ah, yes, knuckle bones from nosy hedge-wizards.”

Haggerd realised he couldn’t move a muscle, couldn’t even bat an eye-lid. Not even when Peabody produced the rusty old hacksaw.