Happy Bloody Birthday

It’s not my birthday yet, and I’m not happy. It’s all Boris’s fault. He’s right that people should wash their hands but why did he have to choose that song. Now every bloody time I wash my hands that bloody song goes through my head.

I never liked birthdays. They were never great. The foster families tried. They usually planned something special but inevitably I’d mess it up. Birthdays bring out the worst in me. Some years it was so bad that I’d get moved on my actual birthday. I’d have got so worked up in the week beforehand that it would be the final straw that broke the foster camel’s back.

Can’t really blame them. Who’d want a kid like me smashing things up and kicking off. Imagine if we’d had covid when I was young. Having to singing happy birthday every morning and every night while washing my hands. I’d have been kicking off every day. I doubt I would have survived.

I take the razor to the bald sides of my head and clean off the stubble. Today might be a good day. I need to look my best. I notice that my natural brown hair is showing at the roots of my blue Mohican. I’ll need to die it again. If today goes well I might be able to afford to get it done professionally, then I won’t end up with blue all over my head.

I look round my shower shack. I hope this woman doesn’t want to use the toilet. I tip a bucket of water down the loo and give the sink a token wipe. The blue die stains look like bruises on the pale white porcelain skin.

I’m glad the weather is good. It means I can meet her outside. I don’t mind her seeing my workshed but there’s nowhere to sit. Nowhere to do business. I shake twigs and leaves off the camping chairs and brush bits off the table before going into the workshed to collect the cauldron.

God it’s heavier than I remember. I wonder if the table will be strong enough to hold it. I’m not sure so I put it on one of the stumps near my fire pit. It looks right on the stump. Proper witchy.

I wonder what the woman wants it for. Maybe she is a witch. Phoebe, it’s a proper witch’s name. I can’t settle. I can’t start a new project. Not until she arrives. Two hundred pound for a cauldron I found in a fly tipped dump.

Finally I hear a car engine. She pulls up in her fiat 500. It’s tiny. The cauldron will probably fit but she’s going to have to watch that suspension going back down the track.

She steps out of the car and I’m glad it hasn’t rained for days. Those shoes would be ruined if it had.

“Is this it? Ohhh it’s perfect.”

She stokes the cauldron’s rim.

“Have you got a stick? I want to see what it sounds like when you stir it?”

It’s easy enough to find a stick in these woods. I pass her a substantial length of hazel. She clatters it around the inside.

“Perfect.”

I decide to make some small talk. It’s supposed to help with sales. Not that I’ve got much experience. This is the first time I’ve tried selling anything apart from scrap and they don’t have much in the way of conversation down at the scrap yard.

“So what do you want it for? You’re not a witch are you?”

She laughs.

“Not me. But I’ve got three witches who need a cauldron.”

I nod as if that makes sense.

“We’re doing the Scottish play.”

It takes me a while to twig what she means.

“Oh. Macbeth.”

From her face I think I have got the wrong Shakespeare play.

“That’s right,” she says.

She puts her hand on the cauldron’s rim and tries to lift. She grunts with the effort and tries again with two hands. She doesn’t even get it to tip up.

“It’s as heavy as f…”

I manage to stop myself and moderate what I say.

“It’s got some weight to it. Solid iron.”

“It won’t work. We’d never get the thing on and off the stage. I’m sorry. You haven’t got anything lighter have you.”

I look around the yard as if pondering the question.

“Not at the moment. But I could make you something.”

“Could you?”

“Sure. Something just like this but lighter.”

“Actually it could be smaller if you’re making something bespoke.”

“Sure.”

“And it needs to look old. And the sound is important. It’s got to sound… big. Substantial, if you know what I mean.”

“Sure.”

I don’t know why I keep saying sure. It’s like I’m stuck on the word and can’t think of anything else to say.

“Do you want a deposit?”

“No bother.”

I say it without thinking. I just want to say something other than sure. I should take her money. But I’d only spend it. And then what would happen if I couldn’t make a cauldron?

She leaves without paying anything and without sitting down.

I lock up and get in the van. It’s going to be another collecting day. There’s no way I’ll find another cauldron but hopefully I’ll find some metal to make one. It’s strange having a commission. So far all my metal working had been for myself. Stuff out of my head. Strange twisted things that no one else is going to want, let alone to buy.

I scavenge my way around the back streets. There’s a fridge. You only get twenty pound a ton for the iron so they’re not worth collecting, but you can get two hundred pound a ton for the compressor, which is why some bastard has already taken it.

I find some wooden guttering. The wood is completely rotten, which makes it easy for me to stamp out the lead around the down pipe. Lead’s not the most valuable metal but it’s so dense even a small lump is worth collecting.

I search another pile and find a small length of copper behind a couple of those catering oil cans. I’m back in my van when I get an idea. Those cans could make the perfect carcass for a lightweight cauldron.

Back at my yard I sort the metal into separate bins. I’ve almost got enough copper to make a trip to the scrap merchant. Maybe tomorrow I’ll load up the van, head out on a copper hunt and come back via Allcan’s scrap yard.

I take the two oil cans into my workshed. They’re thin enough that I don’t need the forge. I use tin snips to cut off the rims. I then cut strips down the sides of one can and hammer it into a cauldron like shape. I use the strips from the second can to infill. I stand back and admire my creation.

It’s crap. It looks like a kids school project; a primary school kid. I dump it in the corner and decide it’s too late to cook. I take a trip to the chip shop.

The cauldron is in my head. I dream about it. I wake thinking about it. I chew it over while eating burnt toast. I collect it from the corner and turn it round in my hands.

I tap it against a block of wood and it dents. It needs to be more substantial. I fire up my forge and do some proper blacksmithing. I heat metal, hammer it, bend it. I file bolts and weld their heads on to steel bands that act like a skeleton supporting the soft tin.

I find an old bike wheel that’s almost the right size. I remove the spokes and trim the rim to fit. I fold the tin over the rim and with great effort force the iron bars into clasps.

It takes over a week to get it right. I work on it continuously except for the one sweep to collect copper which brings in enough money for a shopping trip.

Finally I place it on the log stump. It’s ready. I message Phoebe. The earliest she can come is the end of the week. I’m confident she’ll buy this one.

Her red car deposits her in my yard. I notice she’s wearing sensible boots. She goes through the same routine. Says it looks perfect. Taps it with a stick to check the sound and grabs the rim to lift.

“Fabulous. It looks so heavy and the sound is so rich that I can’t believe it is this light.”

“Yeah. It’s come out well. Took quite some fiddling to get it right.”

“We said two hundred.”

I must have pulled a face or something. I didn’t mean to. Two hundred is much more than I imagined. I mean this thing is nothing like the original cauldron. That was an antique and solid metal. This one is cobbled together from scrap.

“No you’re right. Let’s make it three hundred.”

She holds out her hand and I shake it in daze.

I offer to carry it to her car but she takes great pleasure in carrying it herself while exclaiming once again how light it is considering how heavy it looks.

“I don’t suppose you can make swords? We’re doing Romeo and Juliet next.”

“Swords?”

“For the fight scene.”

“Don’t tell me. I bet you want swords that look heavy but are actually light, that look sharp but are actually blunt, and that make a really nice clashing sound when you bang them together.”

“Oh yes. That sounds perfect.”

She pulls a piece of paper out of her bag. It has two swords drawn on it.

“We need two designs. One for the Montagues and one for the Capulets. These are just initial ideas. Having seen your cauldron I imagine you’ll come up with better ones.”

We sit on the camping chairs and hammer out the details.

It’s only now as I wash my hands before bed that I realise we didn’t talk about the price. That is probably a good thing. I reckon she’ll offer me more than I would ask for.

I lie in bed with swords cutting through my thoughts. She needs them by the first of August. I suddenly panic that I won’t have time to make them. I don’t know how long I’ve got.

I stretch out for my phone to check today’s date.

The first of June. That means exactly two months. The first of June. That’s means I’m exactly thirty years old.

Happy Bloody Birthday.

I smile. It is my birthday. And I am happy.

The people collector

“But that’s not how I want to spend the bank holiday.”

“It’ll be all right.”

You looked at me with a slightly raised eyebrow.

“It will. I bet there’ll be lots of interesting people.”

“Interesting to who?”

There was an obvious answer. Him. Dave. My friend who had invited us to one of his garden parties in York. Since we now resided in Bristol that meant either both going or spending the weekend apart, which didn’t seem right considering we’d been living together less than six months.

I don’t know where your reluctance came from but you were never keen on meeting Dave. It must have been something I said. The way I talked about him. The way I found it so hard to explain who he was or why we were friends.

You’ve only met him once. It was a leaving meal. He couldn’t come to our farewell party so arranged to meet us in town. You liked Wendy, his wife, although you said afterwards that you couldn’t understand why she was with him.

You didn’t like Dave, and it showed. When we sat down Dave was his usual charming self and asked all about your work as a beauty technician. I found it fascinating how much he seemed to know and how germane his comments were. You felt manipulated. You said that he was showing off; that he was degrading your career, making light of it and basically saying that what you did was so simplistic that with no training he could still understand everything about it.

Eventually he gave up on you. Your answers became more and more monosyllabic. I was surprised as you usually love talking about your work. I tried to help by giving you prompts; trying to get you to tell one of your fascinating and hilarious stories about things that have gone wrong. It didn’t work. You told the tale with so little relish that it was hardly interesting at all.

“I don’t want to be in his collection.”

“What do you mean?”

“I don’t want to be one of the interesting people he collects.”

I’d never thought of it like that. I wondered if it was true? And if it was then what did that mean for me?

“Interesting like me, you mean?”

You didn’t answer. You didn’t want to give me the satisfaction of scoring a point. You’d either have to admit that you were wrong about him collecting interesting people, or you’d have to admit that I was an interesting person.

I smiled.

“What?”you said.

“I must be interesting. Otherwise why would you be with me?”

You smiled and our impending argument was evaded.

“What if we don’t stay with Dave? We could stay with one of your friends and then just go over for the garden party.”

It’s was compromise we could both agree to. I left you to make the arrangements while I emailed Dave to say yes to the garden party and no to his invitation to stay.

*

Things didn’t work out as planned. Sometimes life gathers momentum and once you start the ball rolling you can’t stop it. You might be able to nudge it onto a slightly different track but that’s about it.

All your friends had other plans. Not one of them was in York over the bank holiday and what surprised me was that none of them offered to let us stay in their empty homes. Dave would have if he was away. I’m sure he would.

Plan B involved a hotel. That would have worked but I let the plan slip out and Dave insisted that we stay with him. We’d run out of excuses. You suggested that we play the sick parent card but we had both inherited morals that prevented it.

We arrived exhausted by the bank holiday traffic delays. Dave was waiting with a glass of whisky for me and a multitude of choice for you. You plumped for gin and tonic and then had to choose from the six flavours on offer.

Dave was incredibly sensitive to our tiredness. He pointed out our bedroom and encouraged us to make ourselves at home. He said we should just rummage to find anything we needed. Then he left us alone to relax with our chosen tipples.

I lifted my whisky, you clinked glasses with me.

“See. It’s going to be all right,” I said.

*

It was all right. It was even better than all right, especially for you.

Dave and Wendy lived a comfortable middle aged, middle class life in a reasonably well proportioned house with a surprisingly large garden. Dave had a secure post as a university lecturer teaching creative writing. It was somewhat surprising that he hadn’t been made a professor already. It was sure to come.

You assumed that’s where I’d me him. Personally I’d admit to a huge overlap between politics and creative writing but the university keeps the two in their separate silos. I actually met Dave through whisky, but that’s another story.

Wendy was an accountant and quietly got on with earning more than Dave. She didn’t talk much about her work but Dave found it fascinating, treating it like a foreign country full of charming local culture. He was like an ambassador, making introductions and encouraging everyone to visit.

In the morning I helped Dave erect a cocktail bar in their garden while you and Wendy focussed on food.

As we carried more crates of bottles through the kitchen Dave interrupted you, “Mike tells me you want to set up your own beauty business.”

“Hair and beauty,” you replied. “With my friend Tash.”

“That’s brilliant. I remember last time we met. You told me about your work in that beauty shop in Askam. I think you were really frustrated that it wasn’t your own place. You had so many ideas. While you’re here make sure you pick Wendy’s brain. She’s a real wiz on the finances. I bet it costs a lot to get a new business going.”

You nodded and we continued into the garden. Money was your biggest concern. It was the only thing stopping you. It was the only thing you talked about. I almost laughed when I next passed by and heard you and Wendy deep in conversation about interest rates, limited companies and tax.

Guests started arriving at three. We’d both changed into our party gear. You looked great in your green dress. I’d gone for a polo shirt and jacket. It was a little too warm but I liked the way the two worked together.

You’re more garrulous than me. I like parties where you get to talk in depth with one or two people. My idea of a good night is finding a Tory voter I can influence, or a communist with a capitalist heart that I can expose. I’m always drawn to people I disagree with.

The first to arrive was a poet you’d heard of. You even remember the title and first line of one of his poems. I watched a massive smile bloom on his face, which never faded throughout the whole night. Dave looked across at me and nodded with an almost smug expression, as if he had done something clever.

Your comment about Dave collecting interesting people caused me to step back and observe. The guest did include a collection of conventionally interesting characters. Unsurprisingly there was a large smattering of writerly types, and a good number of scholars from an eclectic variety of subjects. There were also musicians, artists and other creatives such as architects, dancers and sculptors.

But there were also plenty of what I’d call ordinary people. For starters there were neighbours. Almost everyone in the street turned up and the few I managed to encounter had jobs more like Wendy’s than Dave’s.

Then there were the other friends. Like me. People Dave had picked up over the years. I’d met many of them before. There was Phil, a retired office clerk who Dave met when he lived in Leeds. Anna, a mother, whose disabled child who was currently littering the garden with raucous laughter as he moved from group to group. Simon, as usual was sat in the corner nursing a beer. I met him many times. He never said much but Dave gave him such respect that you felt there must be something more to him than met the eye. One day I hoped to find out what it was.

There were many people I’d met through Dave who had become friends. Others I had to call friends because there was no other word that fitted. They weren’t colleagues and acquaintance was too slight a word.

I realised that was Dave’s gift. Somehow he linked people up in a way that meant you almost became family. These were people I could rely on. People I could contact at no notice and get their help. I had on many occasions; to decorate rooms, for informal legal advice, to speak as my guest lecturer, for advice on holiday destinations, to fix my car.

I spotted you happily chatting to a musician who you really should have heard of. I listened to enough of your conversation to realise you’d be caught in Dave’s net. The musician’s next gig was in Bristol and you offered our spare room. That was reluctantly declined but a plan hatched for a late night meal at our favourite Thai restaurant and I heard your phone beep as it accepted free VIP tickets.

*

I was still wide awake. I thought you’d dropped off, but you turned towards and told me someone called Max was going to lend you money to start your new venture. I wanted to know more but you were slipping into sleep. You sensed my anxiety and stayed awake long enough to tell me not to worry. You’d worked it all out with Wendy who had written up an agreement. It wasn’t a legal contact but it spelled out how the loan would work and anyway Max was all right. Dave trusted him.

I thought about Dave’s panoply of guests. A whole garden flooded with interesting people; from the man who cleaned Dave’s carpet to the Bishop of Knaresborough. Some of them were interesting in their own right, others, indeed the majority were made interesting by Dave. By his interest in them. By his unerring ability to find their spark and combine it with other flames in a wonderful conflagration that destroyed barriers and ignited possibilities.

I gently slipped out of bed. There was a spare dressing gown on the back of the door. I quietly descended the stairs secure in the knowledge that my chance of finding a good whisky was a certainty rather than a mere possibility.

Professor Magnus

“He always lands on his feet.”

“That’s not true. He always lands on someone else’s feet.”

They laughed, but not as much as they would have, if it hadn’t been their own feet getting trampled by Felix’s latest enterprise. Somehow it was them who lost money when the antique shop closed down. It was them who had to pay the outstanding debt to the electric company, the gas supplier and the local business rates department at the council. It was them who had to explain to unhappy customers that they wouldn’t be getting the items they’d been promised.

Felix walked away and as usual nothing stuck to him. He’d had fun for a few of years and all without risk. He’d got other people to put in the capital, while he’d simply been employed as the manager. Remarkably, his only financial consequence from the near bankruptcy was to receive a modest redundancy payment. He was lucky the business had lasted as long as it had. If he’d allowed it to fail a month earlier he’d have been entitled to nothing.

It wasn’t his fault that covid stopped people going out and that the hike in the cost of living highlighted what was important. Antiques were not on the list for most people.

Felix had one outstanding job before he walked away. It was one of his side deals. It wouldn’t go through the books, and anyway the sale wasn’t agreed yet so he was perfectly within his rights to buy the item himself. With the redundancy payment he should have more than enough in his bank account, even after being forced to buy the shop’s van at the full market value.

The van was already loaded with his meagre assortment of personal possessions. It had a full tank of petrol thanks to his foresight in topping it up before the business closed. All he had to do now was find Prospect Farm, which was nestled in the hills above Bourton-on-the-Water.

Felix ignored his satnav and drove straight past the turning for Lower Slaughter. He was already well over an hour late so another ten minutes wouldn’t make much difference. The drive had been harder than he’d anticipated. The sun now shone in a clear blue sky but he’d passed under two sleet storms and been stuck for twenty minutes without moving while the police sorted out a lorry that had skidded across two lanes of traffic.

Bourton was a charming village with a clear stream and manicured bridges all designed to lure tourist and encourage them to loosen their purse strings. He was surprised by how busy the ice cream shop was, and speculated on what it would be like on a sunny summer afternoon. For a moment he contemplated moving into the frozen dessert business but then noticed two other ice cream parlours both of which were closed, either due to covid or because the level of trade didn’t make them sustainable.

His coffee break turned into a full three courses of refreshment and consequently it was dark by the time he set off again.

His satnav didn’t complain about taking him back to Lower Slaughter or have any problem pointing him up the steep slope to Upper Slaughter. He then followed it through a few rabbit strewn twists and turns before it confidently announced that he had arrived at his destination.

Felix was not so confident. There was no sign of a farm or any other nearby habitation. The satnav seemed to think his destination was on his left. Unless the farmer lived in a ditch it was definitely mistaken. He edged slowly forward and was surprised to discover a narrow track hiding under a fringe of dangling willow branches.

He turned left and the willow stroked the top of the van with a sound like slithering snakes. Something bigger than a rabbit shot across the lane and into the hedgerow. Some kind of bird took off from a fallen tree and with two ponderous strokes of its wings lifted into the canopy. Ice filled the twin mud-lined trenches and cracked loudly under the van’s wheels.

The lane dropped to the right, crossed a small frosted stream and bent back on itself as it ascended again. After a few more twists he came out of the woods and suddenly had a reassuring view across the sheep cropped hills to the lights of Stow-on-the-Wold.

There was a fork in the lane. One path continued around the side of the hill. The other was more like a roman road leading straight up. He thought he saw a light and felt drawn in that direction. It didn’t look too steep and the uneven frozen mud would provide good grip for the van’s tires.

The trees closed in to form a natural tunnel. A dog barked and there was his destination. Prospect farm may have had a fine view at one time but now it was surrounded by dense trees.

A light came on in the porch before he had even turned off the engine. A man shouted a greeting and quietened the dog with one simple hand gesture.

“Mr Featherington. Good to meet you. I had a nightmare journey. Sleet. Snow. Accidents. God I never thought I was going to make it.”

Mr Featherington led Felix into a warm kitchen and very quickly placed a hot mug of tea laced with whisky into his hands. Felix looked around, automatically pricing the welsh dresser, the chinaware, the solid oak table, the chairs and the old farm tools hanging on the walls. If only the shop was still open. These were exactly the pieces that still sold, and in his experience farmers never appreciated the value of items that had sat forever in their homes.

“So. You want to see the Professor?”

Felix forced himself to contain his excitement.

“I’ll just finish this very welcome cup of tea. One moment.”

The Professor had been placed on a valueless coffee table in the main lounge. Felix knew from the moment he saw it that this was his golden opportunity. As Mr Featherington brushed dust off the original clothing his eyes sparkled at the thought of how much he could make on this one deal.

“It was full of rust on the inside so I took it apart and cleaned it all up.”

“You did what?”

“Nothing much. Just stripped it all down and welded supports on where the original metal had perished.

Felix couldn’t believe what he was hearing. This imbecile could have wiped thousands off the value with his clumsy fingers.

“Wanted to show you him at his best. Shall I power him up?”

Mr Featherington didn’t wait for an answer. He placed a large iron key in a slot and wound the clockwork mechanism.

“Don’t be shy. You just place your palm there and Professor Magnus Lightfeather will tell your fortune.”

“You mean he still works?”

“He does now. I must have inherited some of my grandfathers know how. I guess it was all those hours watching him at work when I was a kid.”

Felix had forgotten that this automaton had been made by Mr Featherington’s grandfather. Somehow he couldn’t imagine a world famous engineering genius working up here in the middle of nowhere.

Felix laid his palm in front of the professor and suddenly the model sprung to life. One hand swung across and gently tapped Felix in the middle of his palm. The other hand picked up a wand which it held upright and then stopped motionless.

“It’s stuck.”

“Be patient. Professor Magnus has to consult the spirits.”

Felix could hear the clockwork mechanism still winding and see the model’s closed eye lashes quivering. Suddenly they sprung open and the model seemed to be staring intently into his eyes. A shiver ran across his back as the wand began to move.

The alphabet and numbers were painted in an arc in front of the Professor. The wand started pointing at letters with a brief pause between each word.

be honest

Felix laughed, “That’s a good one.”

The wand didn’t stop. It continued its journey around the letter board.

o r   e l s e

“That’s harsh,” said Felix. “How do you programme the words into it? I think it needs toning down.”

“You don’t,” said Mr Feathrington. “To be honest I can’t see how it works. There’s all sorts of cogs and gears but I’ve no idea how it knows what to say.”

“So. The important question is how much you want for it.”

“I don’t really know what it is worth.”

“Well,” said Felix. “In this state…”

He felt a jolt in his hand as though he’d be stabbed by a pin or given an electric shock. He quickly pulled it away and watched as the wand tapped against the number 7, the 5 and then three times on the zero.  It didn’t stop. It moved to the letters and spelled out the words fair price.

Mr Featherington laughed, “Seventy five thousand for this old thing.”

Felix noticed the wand still moving and spelling out the familiar warning, or else.

“It is possible it could sell for that in auction. Your grandfather had quite a reputation for his automaton and this one is unique. But to be honest, I just haven’t got that much money.”

Felix found himself telling Mr Featherington all about the antique shop’s problems and was surprised to find himself driving away from Prospect Farm with Professor Magnus strapped into the passenger seat and his bank account only five thousand pound lighter. It was all that Mr Featherington would accept. It was enough for a new set of tractor tires.

Felix was relieved to get out of the country lanes and back to the main road. There was no traffic so he paused to consider his options.

“So where now?” he said out loud.

The professor’s wand burst into action – to London to make things right.

Felix turned left and drove for hours through the night. He parked in front of the antique shop. He no longer had keys so tipped his chair back and slept.

He was woken by a hammering on the window.

“You’ve got a damn cheek showing your face around here.”

“No wait,” said Felix. “I’ve something to show you.”

Felix wound the professor’s clockwork mechanism and stepped back. The model came to life before either of his business partners had placed their palm in the slot. The model was much more animated. Its head moved, its arms made elaborate gestures and performed magic tricks with silk handkerchiefs before the moving wand spelt out an invitation to the palm reading. The reading itself was unlike Felix’s own encounter. The professor dished out generic words of wisdom that were easy to apply to any life experience.

“So Felix, what’s the big idea this time?”

“Don’t you see?” said Felix. “We can make enough profit on this one piece to get the shop back on its feet and this time I want to do it properly.”

“And what does that mean?”

“I’ll donate the Professor so we can be full partners – for the good times and the bad times.”

They weren’t convinced until Felix talked to a specialist auctioneer who recommended a reserve price almost double what he had anticipated. They explained that the price reflected the superb restoration work done using exactly the same techniques as the original.

Professor Magnus performed perfectly and sold for a remarkable sum.

“Well done, buddy,” said Felix as he watched the model being lifted off the sale table. Suddenly the wand shivered and moved.

take care

Felix smiled but the wand hadn’t finished.

or else.

Meraki

Calvin woke early and started plotting his way through the day ahead. He’d already planned it. Everything was ready but experience told him that things wouldn’t go exactly as written on paper.

He checked the weather on his phone and out of his window. The two matched. It was an overcast day with little wind. That was one uncontrollable worry ticked of his list.

He’d met the artist just once. That was at the conceptual stage where everything and anything was possible. He’d been copied into subsequent correspondence where reality imposed restrictions on the artistic temperament. The emails were a lot more convivial than many that he’d seen in the past.

Calvin dressed and went down to make coffee and a more substantial breakfast than usual. Although he’d take a packed lunch, eating it didn’t feature on his timetable. He’d scoff it in one of the inevitable delays. Today he’d more than likely be waiting for cranes, forklift trucks and flames.

You couldn’t control the weather but you still had to anticipate it. Having no wind would make shifting the immense wooden blocks easier. It wouldn’t help the fire. For that he’d commandeered and adapted four leaf blowers that could drive air into the wood pile at just the right strength.

He was an hour early and first to arrive. The sun hadn’t even peeped over the manicured hills. He flicked the switch and lit up the warehouse and yard.  It was rare that he got to drive a fork-lift himself any more. He started with the pallets of fire wood. They’d been stored inside to dry out unlike the actual artwork which had been left outside and had needed to be doused with water since it hadn’t rained for two weeks.

He was thankful for the dry paths. He’d managed six round trips before the rest of the team arrived and hooted their approval. It didn’t take long for him to remind everyone of their assignments and become redundant until the crane arrived.

The artist and crane arrived simultaneously. He prioritised the crane driver and directed the artist to the site where he’d be out of the way.

The first snag occurred forty two minutes later. The crane was not the exact model anticipated and was wider than the gateway. He decided that simplest solution required subtle pressure on the crane driver, accepting responsibility for damage and letting the crane continue as if there was no obstacle. As he anticipated the gate post happily lay down in the face of twenty tonnes of crane and sculpted tree trunk.  He heard it splinter under the wheels and used his radio to ask the park’s team to check if there were any spare posts on site.

The artist bounced around like a husband attending his wife’s labour, wanting everything to be perfect but worried sick that something might go wrong. Calvin’s team were the professionals. They’d installed fragile porcelain towers five meters high. They’d moved bronzes so heavy that whole new roads needed to be built. They’d balanced rocks as heavy as cars in tree trunks taller than buses.

These wooden blocks were simple in comparison but no birth was trivial and no artist would condone carelessness. Calvin knew that each facet had been carefully observed and sliced at a precise angle. It might appear random but it had taken months to achieve that uncontrived look.

He called a break. The large pieces were installed. The crane had departed and the new gatepost was already looking down on its Crushed Forebear. Calvin couldn’t help giving artist’s titles to natural occurrences around the sculpture park. His favourite was Goose Droppings on a Wooden Bench. His younger self would have installed a sign.

The artist chose to continue positioning smaller items. Calvin read the body language and could see that he’d appreciate the moments of solitude away from the jovial banter.

On return buckets of sawdust and bundles of twigs were quickly distributed. Calvin carried off-cuts and provided instant direction for each large slab of sacrificial wood.

As the sun set the wood pyre was finally ready. The film crew were in position. Fire hoses snaked down the hill. Leaf blowers and gas flame throwers were poised to ignite.

Everything was ready for the artist to perform his final act. The act that gave the piece its title. From what Calvin understood, Meraki meant putting something of yourself in it. Only an artist would take that literally.

Calvin placed his hands on the one remaining wooden block and steadied it as it dangled from the arms of the forklift truck. This block had been carefully carved to match the wisdom tooth Calvin could see in the felt lined box open in the artist’s hand.

The artists placed the box at the bottom of the hole and nodded to Calvin. Calvin signalled the forklift driver to slowly lower the wooden tooth. This operation took over twenty minutes. Calvin’s calf and thigh muscles were protesting long before the artist finally approved the orientation and allowed the straps to be removed. There was a cheer and applause from the rest of the staff. The artist glowed.

It was the moment they’d all worked towards. The culmination of fifteen hours of labour. This was Calvin’s moment. The artist had designed, planned and created, but it was Calvin and his team who made it happen. It was their muscles that ached. Their sweaty prints that dampened the oak tusks.

Everyone watched as Calvin took a final circuit around the pile, as he wetted his finger and raised it to check for wind, as he shifted a chunk of bark to provide better access. He directed the flame throwers into position and held back the leaf blowers as a katabatic breeze flowing down the hillside made them redundant.

Within moments fire had encompassed the whole structure and the artist was able to speak to the camera while silhouetted against the orange flames.

Calvin discharged those he could. The film crew remained focussed on the artist, who intensely watched the blackened tooth judging the precise moment of critical decay. The fire wardens remained, with pumps primed ready to damp down when required.

Wood burned slower than anyone anticipated. The sky had the slightest hint of light before the artist was satisfied and the hose-water broke over the smouldering logs. The film crew were delighted to capture the steam clouds billowing around the rugged, tired face of the artist that had put so much of himself in to the work.

Calvin waved everyone off and was alone once more; covered in soot, with aches that reach into his bones, with scorched boots and a head that desperately wanted to lay against a soft, clean pillow.

He raked the required circle in the soot and stood back. He was the first to observe the finished piece. Tomorrow it would be revealed to the waiting world.

He found himself contemplating the sculpture’s title; Meraki.

He’d seen the artist pouring his soul, his creativity, his love into this thing but more than that he’d done the same himself. Like he did with every installation.

The sun lifted into the clear sky and Calvin sat on the grassy bank and gazed around with satisfaction. Another job well done. Once again he’d put a bit of himself into it – and he knew that’s what made it perfect.

He lay back and closed his eyes. Sleep caught him. He was woken by the official photographer, but not until after she had taken a whole set of pictures that she later went on to display in an exhibition. For once he was pleased that someone else was given the responsibility for the installation.

Play time

Dad almost crushed Batman beneath his size ten boot, but managed to divert his foot at the last moment.

“Damn it. Not on the stairs Sammy. Why can’t you play in your room?”

Dad stomped down the stairs and straight out the front door, slamming it as he went. His phone had already rung three times this morning. Customers hassling him about jobs he hadn’t finished. Sammy even heard dad apologising while sat on the toilet.

Sammy listened. His two brothers were still arguing in the bedroom. He didn’t want to play there.

Mum was typing away at the computer on the kitchen table. Muttering as she did it about customers who hadn’t paid, exclaiming about customers wanting something for nothing, and telling Jack off for making such a mess with his breakfast. Sammy didn’t want to play there.

He could sneak into the front room. If he played quietly no one would notice him, but when they found him they would shout at him. He didn’t want to be shouted at. He wouldn’t play there.

He stayed on the stairs. Batman launched himself from one stair to the next, landing in front of the villains and knocking them to the floor. One of the villains bounced back up because he had a spring in his backpack. Batman hit him again. Batman hit him ten times but he kept springing up. Batman hit him very hard and the villain flew down the stairs, landing with a crash in the hallway.

“Sammy. Stop that.”

“Sammy do you hear me.”

“Sammy come here and help feed your brother.”

Sammy picked up the villain and went into the kitchen. His brother was playing with porridge. Porridge that came alive and jumped on to your face so that it could eat you rather than you eating it.

“What are you doing?”

Sammy didn’t reply.

“Oh give it here. And pass me the cloth. Look at the mess.”

Mum scrubbed porridge off Jack’s face. Jack didn’t like it. Jack’s little hand found the porridge bowl and pushed it off the table. Sammy caught it before it landed on the floor.

“Good catch.”

Mum gave him a smile. The phone rang. Mum picked Jack up and passed him to Sammy.

“Can you take him in the hall for a minute? And close the door. I need to get this call.”

Jack was happy to be carried. Sammy gave him one of the villains to chew.

Batman took off his cloak. He looked like an ordinary person. Only Sammy knew he was the best goalkeeper in the world. Batman went to watch Liverpool. The Liverpool goalkeeper got knocked out when he crashed into the goal post. The substitute goal keeper was so scared that he was sick. Batman had to become the goal keeper and Manchester United had a penalty. Ronaldo kicked it really hard but Batman dived to the side and caught the ball. He then threw it really, really hard all the way to Salah. He scored a goal and Liverpool won.

“Watch out,” said Thomas.

“Mum,” said Harry. “We’re going to the park.”

Mum didn’t reply. Sammy could hear her on the phone. Sammy moved up the stairs out of the way. Thomas and Harry sat on the bottom step to put their shoes on.

“Hey, what you got there.”

Thomas eased the villain out of Jack’s mouth.

“Look. Jack’s bit his head off.”

The two older brothers laughed. Thomas passed the villain back before Jack started bawling. Mum opened the kitchen door.

“And where do you think you’re going?”

“To the park.”

“What about your homework?”

“We can do that later.”

“Homework first. Then you can play.”

“But mum. We’ve got all weekend.”

“Homework.”

The phone started to ring. Mum looked back longingly.

“We’ll take Sammy and Jack,” said Harry. Thomas looked at him with a turned down mouth.

“Then you can get on with your work,” said Harry.

Thomas’s mouth turned into a smile.

“It would be nice and quiet,” he said.

The phone seemed to ring louder.

“Ok. But homework first thing this afternoon.”

Mum rushed through the door and grabbed the phone.

It was Sammy who made sure Jack was wrapped up warmly enough. It was Sammy who pushed the pushchair all the way to the park while his two brothers kicked the ball to each other. It was Sammy who was sent to the swings while his brothers took turns to be Mo Sallah.

Sammy plonked Jack into the sand pit and lay down on the spinner. He looked up at the clouds and kicked with his foot. The sky span. Sammy wondered is the planet ever got dizzy with all its spinning. He got dizzy if he span too much. He stopped kicking with his legs and let the spinner slow. He closed his eyes and turned his head in circles. It made him dizzy quicker.

When the spinner stopped he tipped himself onto his feet and took two wobbly steps before sinking into the sand. His arm wouldn’t go where his eyes wanted it to but after three attempts he managed grab the lolly pop stick before Jack could eat it.

He used it to dig a moat around a castle. The castle had a king. The king made the laws. One law was that mums and dads were not allowed to work on Saturday or Sunday. They had to play with their children.

Sammy though it was the best law in the world. He held the lollipop stick in both hands above his head. He was the king. He was the one making the laws. He snapped the stick. The stick could be broken but the law could not. Anyone who broke it would be put in prison until they promised not to break it again.

Sammy heard Jack gurgle. It was the noise he made when he was happy. He looked very happy and gurgled again while holding his hands out, which he did when he wanted to be picked up. Sammy stood up.

“Come on then,” he said.

“Don’t you want to play football?”

Sammy looked around to see mum. She scooped Jack up.

“Go on, I’ve got him.”

He heard Thomas shout and saw that dad was in goal pretending he couldn’t stop the ball.

Sammy ran over. Dad held his arms out and caught Sammy. He span him around once, placed hime back on the ground and gave him the ball.

“Go on Salah. Bet you can’t score passed me.”

Sammy kicked the ball. It was going to miss. Dad grabbed at it with one hand, knocking it back into the goal.

“Goal,” shouted Thomas.

“Salah. Salah. Salah.” shouted Harry.

Sammy laughed. There were three Salahs, and he was one of them.

Dad’s mobile rang. Dad held his hand up to pause the game. Sammy stood very still. Every sound in the park was silenced except for dad’s voice as he talked on the phone.

“No. Sorry mate. Did you get my message? Yeah. The van broke down. No, nothing serious. I don’t know, some sort of seal. I was lucky. I was right near the garage so just wheeled it in smooth as you like. It’s a five minute job but they can’t get the part till Monday. Yeah, well, anyway, I’ve got to go. Salah’s about to take a penalty.”

Dad laughed.

“Don’t be daft. They’re not even playing today. No. No. It’s just me and the boys down the park. Right. See you Monday.”

Dad turned the mobile off and chucked it onto the pile of jumpers by the goal post.

“Come on then. Who’s next? I’ll save this one.”

Hoodie

Everything went dark. The television turned off, the lights blacked out. The only illumination was from Ruby’s mobile where it lit up her face.

“Damn. Where’s a torch?” said mum.

“On your phone.”

“What?”

 “Torch. On your phone.”

“Really? Okay. Where’s my phone?”

“You had it when you spoke to Grandma. Just before Bake Off. It’ll be on the coffee table.”

Ruby swiped a finger down her own phone, clicked on the torch app and lit up the room. Her mum’s phone was exactly where she said it would be. She picked it up and turned its torch on.

“Hey”, said mum. “How did you know my password?”

“I don’t. You can use the torch without signing in.”

“I better find some candles.”

“Don’t you just have to reset the fuse or something?”

Mum went to the window and peered through the gap in the curtains.

“It’s not just us. The whole street is out.”

While her mum hunted for candles, Ruby searched for news on her phone.

“Mum. It’s the whole town. The power station is flooded.”

“Damn. That’ll mean no power for hours, or days even. We better turn our phones off to save the battery. Only turn it on when it is essential.”

“Everything on my phone is essential,” said Ruby.

 “I’ll phone Grandma first. I don’t know what she’ll think. She’ll be so confused when the telly blacks out in the middle of Bake Off. I wouldn’t be surprised if she starts taking it apart and trying to fix it.”

“You won’t get through.”

“Why not?”

“Cos she’s only got a landline. It needs to be plugged in. I told you we should have bought her a mobile for her birthday.”

“She wouldn’t know how to use one.”

“But it would be handy in a power cut.”

Mum walked to and fro across the room in the flickering candle light.

“I need to check on her,” said mum.

“How?”

“I’ll go see her.”

Ruby flicked through a few more pages on her phone.

“Sorry mum. There’s no buses. Apparently they can’t operate because all the traffic lights are out. I’ll go. I can walk.”

“It’s so dark. You’ll get lost.”

Ruby laughed.

“Satnav – duh. It still works in the dark, you know.”

“I’m not sure. You be careful. Stick to the main roads and don’t talk to any strangers.”

“Mum. I’m not a child anymore.”

“And ring me when you get there.”

“I will.”

Ruby collected her trademark red hoodie from her bedroom. She chose her second thickest one. The rain had stopped and it wasn’t that cold. She managed to dodge past her mum and avoid the hug and kiss.

Everything looked different without the street lights and the high street was revealed in all its shabbiness with no illuminated shop fronts.

Ruby mostly looked down at her mobile. Following its guidance, but also checking her social media and messaging friends about the powercut. Most of them were jealous that Ruby was allowed out. At seventeen there was still some parental control.

“You’ll not get down there.”

Ruby looked up. A young man with a long face and wild hair was pointing at the overflowing river that covered the road. The satnav obviously didn’t know about the flood. It wasn’t a problem. Ruby knew her way. She’d could go down Wood Lane and up Steep Street to the canal. Canals didn’t flood and she could simply follow the tow path to Grandma’s cottage. It was actually the shortest route.

“Quite something isn’t it?” said the man. “Especially with no lights. Look at that where it’s still. You can see the stars in it.”

Ruby moved nearer to the water’s edge. He was right. The backdrop was spectacular. She lifted her phone and snapped a selfie. It didn’t quite capture the full effect. She lifted her arm higher and tried again. She still didn’t manage to capture the stars.

“Hey. Pass your phone up and I can take it from here.”

Ruby gave the man a sceptical look.

“No you’re right to be careful. I’ve an idea.”

The man came down the steps and held out his own phone.

“You take my phone as a ransom. Go on. Look it’s a nice phone. Even better than yours so there’s no way I’m running off with yours and leaving mine behind.”

Ruby took his phone and handed over hers. The man ran up the stairs and directed her into position. It was a perfect snap. Ruby silhouette as a moody foreground with the stars and their reflections providing a halo behind her.

She thanked the man and posted the image to her social media.

“Can I get your tag?” asked the man.

Ruby nodded and flashed it across to his phone. She didn’t want to seem rude, but she wasn’t interested in him so sent her Hoodie101 tag, which was the one she never actually used.

“So where you heading? Your satnav seemed to be taking you to the middle of nowhere.”

“I’m going to check on my Grandma.”

“Does she live in a field or something?”

“It’s an old lock keepers cottage. By the canal.”

“Right. It’s pretty dark out there. Do you want me to walk with you?”

“In case you haven’t noticed, it’s pretty dark everywhere. I’ll manage.”

“Okay. But snap me if anything happens.”

The man ran back up the steps and off into the town centre. Ruby ascended the steps herself. Her social media pinged and her picture had already received more likes than anything she’d ever posted before. She looked back at the calm flood water with the river rushing by in the distance. She captured a few more images that she thought Grandma would like and then resumed her journey.

The ragged edges of the canal towpath made the night seem even darker but actually the path was the same as it would have been without a powercut. The wind had got stronger so Ruby raised her hood and pulled the strings tight under her chin.

Suddenly Ruby’s phone battery died. She looked up and saw some flickering light in the distance where Grandma’s house should be. Ruby started to run but soon tripped and grazed her knee as she fell and had to limp the rest of the way.

The flickering came from Grandma’s front room. It didn’t look as scary or out of control now that Ruby was close.

She lifted the latch and pushed, but the door didn’t budge.

“Who’s there?” shouted someone through the locked door.

“It’s me. Ruby.”

The door opened to reveal a frightening figure. It had a big head, huge ears, massive dark sunken eyes and one large fire-red tooth.

The tooth moved to the side and suddenly Ruby could see her Grandma wrapped up warmly in a scarf and ear muffs and holding a red hot poker.

“Ruby dear. Look at you. Come sit yourself down and get warm by the fire. I’ll make you a nice cup of hot chocolate. Goodness me that’s a big rip in your trousers and look at your knee. You’ll need a plaster on that.”

Ruby was soon comfortably sipping hot chocolate with cream and marshmallows. She looked around at Grandma’s cottage, lit by candles hung inside glass lamps, with a fire in the kitchen range heating Grandma’s extra large kettle.

Suddenly a beeper went off and Grandma jumped up.

“Perfect timing. Let’s have hot buttered scones fresh from the oven. I’m so glad you came.”

“Grandma, why was your door locked? You don’t usually lock it.”

“Oh that. There was this strange man. I didn’t like the look of him. Had hair down to here and shifty eyes. He said he was just checking I was alright on my own. You should have seen his face when I lifted the red hot poker out of the fire. I waved it around in front of him while I told him that I didn’t have time to talk to him because I was busy cooking for my large family who were about to arrive. He soon ran off.”

“Oh. I wonder if it is the guy I met on my way. He seemed dodgy.”

“We should phone your mum and let her know you’re here safely. I must say I’m surprised she let you come all this way after dark.”

“We can’t. My phone has died.”

“Oh dear. Let’s plug it in and get it charged up again.”

“Grandma. Have you forgotten there’s a powercut?”

“What powercut?”

“The powercut. That’s why I came to check on you.”

“There’s no powercut.”

“That’s why are all the lights out.”

Grandma flicked a switch and the electric light burst into life.

“But the whole town has no power.”

“My power comes along the canal. I don’t think it’s connected to town.”

“So why the candles?”

“Its cosy don’t you think?”

Ruby looked around. “I think it is the cosiest place in the world.”

“I’ll phone your mum.”

Grandma picked up her landline and was soon chatting reassuringly to Ruby’s mum. Ruby lay back and the warmth of the fire and comfort of the chair soon meant she dozed off.

She woke to hear Grandma and her mum still chatting. Slowly she opened her eyes and saw her mum sitting opposite her.

“Hey sleepy. If you’re tired you can go up to bed. We’re staying with Grandma until the power is back on. I’ve brought a bag for you. Hope I’ve got everything. It’s mostly hoodies.”

“How did you get here?”

“Grandma ordered me a taxi from your phone.”

“What?”

“Don’t worry. She’s left some money there to cover it.”

“But mum. How did she know my password?”

Ruby and her mum turned to look at Grandma who was busy repairing a broken stool. Grandma looked up and smiled. She licked her forefinger and held it out while making a hissing sound.

Grandma never explained and it was several years later that Ruby suddenly realised what Grandma had done. Phones could be unlocked with fingerprint recognition and she had slept right through it.

One boy and the sea

The bright sun reflected off the wet sand and dazzled him as he stood before the calm sea. He held his hand up, covering the sun, and allowing him to look across the beach. It surprised him that people were able to paddle so far out. He could see children even younger than himself standing in shallows that only reached their knees.

It was such a perfect day that Michael only had two worries. His first and biggest was that he’d get sunburnt again. Most people assumed that because of his dark skin he wouldn’t burn, but last summer in Spain painfully proved that wasn’t the case.

He second worry was the cold. The air temperature may match Spain, but the water temperature on the east coast of Britain wasn’t even close to that in the Mediterranean.

Michael decided to paddle. He stepped forward and the sea brushed against his toes. Another few steps and the water stroked his ankle. It wasn’t as cold as he had expected and he kept walking forward towards the people playing on the sand bank.

The coldest moment was when the water reached his waist. He hadn’t planned to go that deep but the sand dipped down in a channel between him and his goal. It was only a short distance and then he’d rise back up onto shallower ground.

Michael’s foot came down on nothing and he tumbled forward. The cold shock stung him but he was a competent swimmer so quickly righted himself and started swimming across the deep trough. He only had a short distance to go; less than half the length of his usual swimming pool.

His favourite swimming stroke was back stroke but his front crawl was perfectly adequate. His arms swung forward and his cupped hands pulled against the salty water. One stroke, two, ten, twenty. His arms were feeling the work he was putting into them but he still hadn’t reached the safety of the sand bank.

He paused and doggy paddled while he looked up. The distance hadn’t shrunk at all. If anything the sand bank looked further away. He realised that he wasn’t just floating in one spot; the current was dragging him along the channel of water that separated the beach from the sand bank.

Michael angled his strokes against the pull and made some progress. He soon tired and slowed. Immediately the water carried him back and the sand bank once more receded from his grasp.

He gave up and turned back towards the beach but the currents gripped him in a chill embrace and tugged him away.

As his tired arm lifted Michael turned his head to take a much needed breath. A small, gentle wave slapped his arm and water splashed back into his mouth. He breathed it in.

Water instead of air.

Water that choked.

His head was too low. More water entered his mouth and filled his lungs. He desperately kicked his legs and pulled with his aching arms to raise his head enough that he could cough out and breathe in pure air.

The beach was only a short distance away. He had swam further. Much, much, further. All he had to do was keep going. One big effort and then once his feet touched the sand he could rest.

He decided to do twenty strokes before looking again. He bravely put his head down remembering all he had been taught. He stretched and glided with his arms. He kicked with his legs. He took a breath on each upstoke, exaggerating his head lift to account for any waves.

One stroke, two, three… twenty.

He allowed his feet to sink. He pushed down with outstretched arms and lifted his head to see.

The beech had moved. The ice cream van was further to his right. The deck chair seller was directly ahead. The car park was creeping across in front of him even as he watched. And all of it was still out of reach. Still too many strokes away.

He ducked his head down and counted stokes once more.

One, two, three… forty.

He’d planned on doing fifty but didn’t have the energy. His legs had no power. His arms were flapping and dragging through the water with no real pull.

The current had pulled him sideways and out towards the open ocean.

He took another stroke.

And one more.

The last of his strength ebbed away.

He could see people. People building sand castles, eating ice-creams, sun bathing, playing cricket, kicking balls, hitting balls, throwing balls, chasing dogs, laughing happy people.

He tried to wave his arms. He tried to shout but couldn’t.

His head bobbed down and coldness covered him.

He rose again and snatched a breath.

A small, quiet wave enveloped him.

Another lifted him momentarily.

A screech caused him to look up. A gull slid passed silhouetted against the blue sky, stripped of all colour except for its yellow beak that seemed to glow intensely in the sunlight.

Michael forced his arm to stretch up. His noticed the water drops glistening against the dark background of his skin. He dropped his arm back down into the swell and tried to pull a handful of water towards him.

The gull landed on the top of a wave. He watched it rise and fall. Its serene eye turned toward him and then flicked up as another gull flew overhead.

With insolent ease the gull flapped and lifted out of the sea’s clutches and into the sky.

Michael couldn’t flap, couldn’t fly.

He stopped fighting. His feet floated down. His exhausted arms fell to his side.

He looked up at the birds as they rose and fell, playing with air currents he couldn’t see.

He tipped back, stretched out his arms, lifted his legs and floated.

His head was half submerged.

His ears filled with salty silence.

The sun warm on his face.

He closed his eyes.

And smiled.

The sea rocked him.

He remembered lying in a blanket while his mum and dad gently swung him from side to side.

The sea held him.

He remembered their loving arms around him.

The sea murmured in his ear.

He remembered their sweet goodnight kisses.

The sea carried him up and down, in and out, around and around.

He opened his eyes and looked up.

The gulls were gone.

The sun was behind him.

He paddled to turn.

Looked between his feet.

Saw his mum waving at him.

He wanted to wave back.

He let his feet drop down and prepared to make one last effort to lift his arm.

His feet struck gold.

Sand fumbled against his toes and held him firm.

His tired legs lifted him.

Water released his head, his hands, his heart.

He laughed.

He waved.

He walked.

Into his mother’s safe embrace.

Raising the barn

Paul was there almost every day. This decrepit oversized shed would become his inheritance and he wanted his parents to remember that.

Scott didn’t come often but when he did he’d stay for a weekend, or even a whole week. He’d stopped going on holiday so that he could work on barn. Paul had to admit that Scott put the effort in, but he really didn’t have a clue what he was doing. Give him a spade and tell him to dig and he’d be content for hours. Ask him which way up a beam needed to go and he’d be lost. Paul made sure he put in extra hours when Scott was around.

And then there was Hunter. The spoilt one. The favourite. He hardly helped at all but somehow mum and dad always noticed the little things he did more than they noticed anything else. He’d dropped by last week with a camping stove and made everyone a cup of tea they didn’t need. They all had flasks, but mum wouldn’t stop going on about how much better it tasted having been freshly made.

Now every time they stopped for a break he’d be reminded of Hunter’s triumph. It was true that the tea did taste better but that wasn’t the point. You could easily get a stove for about twenty pound from any camping store. It took a lot more effort to shift a hundred years of cow manure and pig shit out of the barn. Each spadeful needed lifting up and over the sill beams that were as high as Paul’s knees. They’d been at it a week and had only managed about a quarter.

That’s when the horn sounded. Paul’s first thought was that Hunter had turned up. He was the only one who tapped out a tune whenever he arrived. Paul stood up, stretched his aching back and looked across the brambles to see a four wheel drive car with a trailer. It couldn’t be Hunter. It wasn’t his car and it was much too early for him.

But it was Hunter. Climbing out of the passenger side and prancing about in his city clothes, totally unsuitable for doing anything out in the countryside.

“Cooeee. You can put the spades down.  I’ve got it sorted.”

Paul rammed his spade into the ground and made his way to the track. A large man in mucky overalls emerged from the driver’s side.

“This is Dan and this beauty is his digger. He’ll get that muck shifted in a jiffy. While you help him get the digger unloaded I’ll put the kettle on.”

Dad was smiling like an idiot and pumping Dan’s hand. Paul gave Dan a manly nod of acknowledgement.

It wasn’t as easy as Hunter made it sound. There was a ditch that needed crossing and then the digger needed to get over the beams. Paul shifted some scaffold planks to make a bridge and a temporary ramp.

Even then the digger was no use. Dan would have no problem digging but the arm didn’t extend far enough to empty the filled bucket. Paul’s solution was to build a mud ramp. Dan used the digger to build the ramp on the inside. Paul used his old fashioned spade to build one on the outside without any help. Dad had gone to collect the teas and hadn’t returned. Probably laughing at one of Hunter’s anecdotes.

Once the ramps were made Dan shifted stuff at such a pace that by mid-morning he’d done as much as they’d managed in a week and by evening he’d dug down to the planned ground level. It felt like a massive achievement. From now on they’d be putting things in the barn rather than taking them out.

Paul walked up the slight rise behind the barn where he could watch the sun set through the open timber frame.

“Paul,” shouted Dad. “Hunter has brought some champagne. Come down and let’s have a toast.”

Of course it was Hunter who made the toast.

“To progress and the start of something new. God bless this barn and all who will live in her.”

Paul half expected Hunter to have construed a way to smash a champagne bottle against one of the barn’s timber posts. Hunter was obviously having similar thoughts.

“Mum, have you thought of a name yet”

Mum looked puzzled.

“Well you can’t call it The Barn when you live here. And it’s not going to have a number when it is the only house on the street. If you can call it a street? Which you most certainly can’t.”

Paul went to his supplies in the corner of the tent and pulled out a beer. He held the can up to Dan who nodded. Paul threw the can to Dan and got himself another.

“Thanks mate. I’m not one for the fancy stuff.”

“Dan don’t drink too much. Remember you’re driving me home.”

“We better get the digger loaded while it is still light,” said Paul.

Paul guided Dan over the temporary bridge and together they got the digger safely installed on the trailer. Then the two of them paused and looked back at the skeleton that would one day become a home.

“I hope he gets to see it finished.”

“He should do. For a sixty year-old he’s as fit as a fiddle.”

“I meant Hunter.”

Paul laughed, “He’s half dad’s age. Of course he will.”

“Yeah. It’s good to stay positive.”

“What do you mean?”

Dan assumed Paul knew all about Hunter’s illness. Paul couldn’t believe that Hunter hadn’t told him. He wanted to confront him but it didn’t seem appropriate with mum and dad hovering around. He wasn’t sure if they knew.

He was back at the barn the next morning. It was going to be a busy week. Scott had taken a week off work and decided to camp on site. He’d bought his own tent which he set up next to the kitchen one. Paul’s dedication didn’t go that far but he’d put some clients off so that he could spend more time building.

Most of the morning was sorting and cleaning beams. Scott did the heavy lifting, Paul the cleaning and dad applied the preserver and woodworm treatment. They made a good team but Paul was waiting for a chance to talk to Scott without dad overhearing.

It was late morning before he was got his opportunity. Dad called a tea break. Paul suggested that he and Scott check the wood pile to see how many beams were left.

“Do you know about Hunter?”

Scott shrugged in response, “What about him?”

“His illness?”

 Scott looked down and didn’t reply.

“You did, didn’t you? What about mum and dad? Do they know?”

“Course they do. Why do you think they treat him like they do?”

“But they’ve always treated him like that.”

“God Paul, sometimes you’re so dense it’s hard to believe.”

“What do you mean?”

“He’s been ill for years. This is just a relapse.”

“But… but… how come he didn’t tell me.”

“You’ll have to ask Hunter that.”

“But why didn’t you tell me, if you’ve known so long.”

Scott held up his hands as though surrendering, “It wasn’t my place to tell.”

“But everyone knows. Even the digger driver knew. It was embarrassing. He assumed I’d know. I should have been told.”

“Look Paul. I’m not inside Hunter’s head but it’s not like you two are best buddies. Think about it. Would you tell him if it was you? And anyway, don’t you think you should have noticed without being told. Everyone else did.”

Scott walked away. Dad was waving to tell them the tea was ready. Paul walked in the opposite direction.

Mum came to join him. She didn’t say anything. She sat next to him and passed him a cup of hot chocolate and a couple of custard creams. Then she slipped her arm over his shoulder and held him.

He snivelled into her cardigan. She pulled out a tissue and passed it to him.

“I think I’ll spend a lot of time up here. It the perfect view.”

“I’m sorry. I didn’t know.”

She patted his shoulder and gave him a squeeze.

“Well now you do.”

“I’m so, so sorry. I’ll be nice to him.”

“Don’t you dare. Don’t you dare treat him like an invalid. You two have always been fighting and arguing and trying to do better than each other. He can’t lose that. I think it’s what keeps him going.”

“But I’ve got to do something.”

“Yes. But not too much. You hear me?”

“Yes mum.”

“Come on. Let’s get back. I think your dad’s missing your help.”

Dad and Scott were still on their tea break. Mum and Paul joined them in the kitchen tent.

“Mum, Dad,” said Paul. “I’ve got an idea about the name. I think you should call it Hunter’s Lodge.”

Mum, Dad and Scott all nodded. Paul raised his tea cup and announced a toast.

“Hunter’s Lodge.”

The tent flap opened and Hunter’s head poked through wearing a beret. Paul realised he couldn’t remember the last time he’d seen Hunter without a hat and he had no hair on the back or sides. Paul had always assumed it was a fashion choice.

“Well?” said Hunter. “What’s all this I’m hearing?”

Mum looked at Dad, who looked at Paul.

“I figured that you’ve done such a good job of convincing mum and dad that this barn would never get done without your help that we may as well name it after you. Call it a pre-emptive strike. Anyway, they rejected Paul’s palace and Scott’s shack. Now back to work.”

Paul threw a brush to Hunter, who caught it. While he was distracted Paul grabbed him in a head lock, removed his beret and rubbed knuckles over Hunter’s bare head.

 “And don’t think you can get out of it because you’re ill, you knuckle head.”

 For a moment Hunter was too surprised to reply.

“Right,” said Hunter. “You scrape and I’ll brush and we’ll soon see who’s the knuckle head.”

Hunter stepped out of the tent.

“Paul,” whispered mum. “Don’t let him overdo it.”

“Don’t worry mum. I can feel my shoulder playing up. I don’t think I’ll last long.”

Mum smiled and mouthed her thanks. Scott gave Paul a thumbs up. Dad almost pushed him out of the tent.

“Come on boys, this barn won’t build itself.”

Flying with condors

“Checks”

Rob held his hand up with five fingers extended. As Dave made each check he lowered one finger.

“Helmet. Harness. Risers. Wind. Traffic.”

With all the checks completed Rob signalled that Dave could take off. He watched carefully ready to shout if the paragliding wing looked unstable. The conditions were perfect, so Dave shouldn’t have any problem, but taking off from a mountain in the Andes was very different than a green slope on the side of the Yorkshire Dales.

“Good work. Now head under the condors and see if you can catch the thermal.”

Rob readied his own paragliding and quickly took off to follow Dave. Once again he was thrilled by that magic moment where his feet lifted and he was no longer tied to the ground.

He looked across to Dave and was surprised to see him spiralling upwards, already having gained at least a thousand feet.

“Way to go.”

Dave’s reply was a very articulate screech of pleasure.

Many students never made the transition from ground-thinking. Flying in England you always flew with the ground in mind. Occasionally you’d get high enough to go from thermal to thermal but even then you were always conscious of what was below your dangling feet. Here it was different. You could forget the ground and spend hours soaring if you rode the currents. That’s what students found hard to do. Most of them looked down at the contours rather than relying on the feel of wind in their wing.

Rob tried to explain it by talking about floating down a river. The wind was like the flow. You had to forget that constant movement and look out for eddies and whirlpools. All the time you’d be moving downstream but the banks of the river were not important, only the water and the currents.

Rob felt the tug of rising air on his right and spiralled in towards it. You couldn’t see the air column moving upwards but if you were in touch with your paragliding wing you could sense it. Within one loop he was fully in the thermal. Now he just had to tweak his turns to keep himself there. His variometer beeped a regular rhythm as he gained height meter by meter.

Rob looked up to check on Dave but couldn’t see him. He widened his arc to get better control and swung out from under his wing. He looked up and saw three, no four, condors circling high above him.

“Dave. Check in. How’s it going?”

The radio crackled and Rob heard some grunts and the unmistakable sound of the wind on condors’ wings. It was a sound that could carry for over half a mile.

“Where are you buddy?”

“Up with the condors,” came the reply.

“Watch you don’t get too close. They’re pretty relaxed but with a ten foot wingspan you need to give them space.”

Rob continued rising on the thermal and looking up to check on Dave, but all he saw were the four condors. As he got closer he realised his mistake. One was actually Dave sharing airspace with the three birds.

“Dave. Lose some height.”

There was no reply. In horror Rob watched as Dave turned sharply, mere meters from the tail of one of the massive condors. The bird swivelled and flapped once to get above the paraglider. Dave followed the move, swinging his sail around and seemingly catching a thermal pop that lifted him to the same height as the condor.

“Dave. Dave.”

The radio was silent. All Rob could do was watch and hope. Condor’s claws were not particularly sharp but if Dave tangled with one there was only going to be one winner.

He couldn’t quite believe what he was seeing. Dave was swinging the paraglider around like a professional.  At one point he rose higher than the birds and tucked into such a tight spiral that he was whirling around horizontally. Another time he pulled hard on the brake cable until he entered the fastest spin Rob had ever witnessed. Recovering spins required the exact opposite manoeuvre to a spiral. Dave executed it perfectly, even though Rob had never taught him how to do it.

Rob began to think he’d been duped.  Dave had claimed to be a complete beginner when he came to Rob’s paragliding school. He’d progressed well enough but there was nothing remarkable about his flying. Not until today.

Rob was still worried about how close Dave was to the condors but he stopped trying to give any instructions. Instead he watched Dave fly and learnt from it. There were things that Dave did with a paraglider that shouldn’t have been possible. Rob could only assume some trick of the light made it look like the wing actually flapped.

Rob hadn’t realised how long they’d been flying until he noticed the sun dipping below the mountain. He checked his satnav and discovered they’d totally overshot the planned landing site. It was going to be a long drive for Chavez to pick them up.

Rob finally got Dave to respond on the radio. They left the condors and circled looking for a relatively flat field near enough to habitation to get a mobile signal. Once safely packed up Rob challenged Dave.

“What the hell was going on up there?”

“I was flying, man.”

“There’s no way that’s the first time you’ve done that.”

“What do you mean?”

“Come on. The way you flew. No one can do that after three months. You must have done it before.”

“I’ve not done nothing except with you.”

Rob shook his head.

“Honest. It’s just felt right. It was the condors. I was flying with them.”

“It was like you were one of them.”

“That’s right. I was a condor.”

“Well that explains it,” said Rob. “If you were a condor of course you knew how to fly.”

“Yes. Yes. Exactly. I really was one.”

Rob smiled. He knew what Dave meant. As a boy he remembered seeing seagulls playing in the wind on the North Yorkshire coastline. The first time he’d managed to get a paraglider to go up rather than down he’d felt like one of those seagulls.

“Come on. Let’s walk down. We’re going to have a long wait for Chavez. Let’s hope there’s a bar open in that village.”

It was dark by the time Chavez collected them and would be hours before they reached their hotel. Rob was dozing when Chavez suddenly slammed on the brakes, skidded and hit something in the road.

Rob jumped out. They’d struck a small deer. Chavez pulled it out of the road and came back to inspect the car. Fortunately there wasn’t much damage.

Suddenly Chavez shouted in Spanish. Rob didn’t understand the words but felt the horror and fear in Chavez’s tone. He turned and saw a massive bird crouched by the deer carcass ripping flesh with its hooked beak.

Chavez spoke again and pointed.

Rob looked back and this time there was no bird. It was Dave bent over the bloody deer pulling bare flesh off with his teeth.

“Dave,” said Rob.

Dave turned towards Rob, grunted and then flapped arms that blurred as they transformed. With swift powerful strokes the condor lifted into the night sky. Chavez crossed himself and muttered a prayer. Rob checked the car and searched the surroundings but Dave was gone.

Recipe for success

She swore at the prime minister who had just announced a covid lockdown.

Like many people she’d been obsessed with the covid data and knew that lockdown made sense, but why couldn’t he have waited for a week. She started her new job on Monday and she hadn’t even met her work colleagues. How was she expected to work from home when she had no idea what she was doing or how to do it remotely?

At least her boss was understanding. She basically told Pippa to take it easy; join the video conference meetings and read up on the company website. They’d send her the IT equipment she needed. Until that arrived she could take the time to get herself settled in her new home.

She’d been so excited to move to out of her parents’ home and take up her new job. It was her first time living outside of London, first time renting a flat and first time she had ever lived on her own. Lockdown hadn’t been part of the plan. She couldn’t really get to know her new city when nothing was open.

The office laptop arrived quickly as the company already had home based workers even before covid made it essential. Logging in was easy as everything had been tried and tested by others before her. The problem was that having logged in she didn’t know what she was supposed to do. She’d not only missed the office tour but also the induction and training. Once again her manager told her not to worry and to do what she could. They’d organise remote training and she’d soon be up to speed.

The training never happened. Instead Pippa was put on furlough. As the manager explained, it made sense for her to be furloughed as currently she was the least productive member of the team.

Pippa’s friends were jealous of her getting paid for doing nothing. It wasn’t as good as they imagined, not when she was in a strange city and only allowed out to exercise. She considered going home but she’d have to pay for the flat whether she lived in it or not, and it would feel like a failure going back to her parents.

She filled her time with computer games, scrolling through endless social media and obsessing over the covid data. When lockdown eased things should have improved. But that was the moment it really hit her. She went for a walk every day and managed to say good morning many times, but the only people she spoke to for more than ten seconds were ones delivering her shopping.

She was bored with computer games and couldn’t pester her friends with more video conference calls. That’s when the overripe bananas forced her to start baking. That first banana loaf came out really well. But Pippa didn’t post a picture – she’d seen too many on social media already and didn’t want to join the banana bread trend.

The shops started to reopen and in a charity shop she found a book on cake baking. It was slim with just twenty recipes. It took her less than a week to make every cake and apart from the pumpkin roll they tasted lovely.

She looked around her kitchen and wondered what to do. Monday’s cakes were stale, Tuesday’s were not great, but the rest of them were still good to eat. She couldn’t bring herself to bin them but she couldn’t eat more – she was sure she had put on several pounds already.

She picked up the lemon drizzle cake and took it to the door of her downstairs neighbour. An old woman answered and was so insistent that Pippa broke covid rules to share cake over a cup of tea.

The next neighbour she met was the woman from upstairs. She looked frazzled by home schooling and confined children. The chocolate brownie cake almost had her in tears. She quickly fed it to her twins and returned to the doorway to chat for almost five uninterrupted minutes.

Pippa still had too many cakes. She placed them in a large carrier bag and followed her phone’s directions to the local park where she fed stale cake to ducks and tried to give away fresh cake to strangers.

Finally she found someone willing to accept her gift. A woman called Maddy who was walking her dog accepted some coffee cake and that caused such an avalanche of interest that very quickly all the cakes were gone.

Pippa liked routines. Even when she worked flexible hours she always started and finished at the same time each day. With no externally imposed timetable she had to make her own, which meant she baked all morning and then took the cake for a walk to the park, where it would practically disappear before she was though the gate.

One of the regular cake eaters set up a social media account to post pictures of each cake. Pippa found herself watching the account all afternoon and evening to see what would be said. She started posting her own photo of each cake before it was cut up, and soon took over the social media account.

Her chocolate orange ombre cake earned over one thousand likes and resulted in her first cake sale. Maddy wanted one just like it for her husband’s birthday, and insisted on paying.

When Pippa’s six month tenancy was due to expire, her landlord asked if she wanted to renew it. Pippa didn’t hesitate to sign. Things were so much better than they had been at the start of the pandemic. She had a whole group of friends, a wonderful hobby and an active social media presence that she enjoyed managing.

The next morning everything changed. She received an email from her boss informing her that they were ending the furlough scheme and wanted Pippa to resume work the following week.

Pippa still made her banoffee gateau as planned and took it to the park. She sat on her usual bench. Maddy poured them both a cup of coffee from her flask.

“What’s wrong? You don’t look great.”

“Work are ending the furlough scheme. Back to boring office work on Monday.”

“What?” said Maddy. “I thought you were a baker.”

“Oh no, this is just a hobby.”

“Just!” said Maddy.

Back at home, Pippa sat in front of her computer reminding herself how to do her job. She was disturbed by the doorbell and welcomed the distraction of her neighbour’s children calling for the slices of cake she always saved for them. Once they’d gone she took a slice down to Gladys, the old lady who lived below her. Gladys made tea and told Pippa all the latest apartment block gossip. It didn’t take Gladys long to learn about Pippa’s imminent return to work.

“What should I do?” asked Pippa.

“You’re a cake maker. You should do that.”

“I can’t afford to do that.”

“How can you afford not to do what you love?”

Pippa returned to her flat and read through her social media. Without thinking she wrote about her dilemma and then turned the computer off, slipped into a hot bath and went to bed with no recipe planned for the morning. Maybe she should stop baking. She’d done a cake every day for six months, now she had to return to the real world.

Next day she booted up her computer and was overwhelmed by thousands of messages. Each one told her to ditch her job and set up as a baker. She stopped reading after the first hundred and turned to her work emails where there was yet another message from her boss.

She wanted Pippa to come to the office that day for a face-to-face meeting. Pippa couldn’t refuse; they were still paying her salary. She about to reply when she noticed a postscript asking if she could bring one of her cakes.

Pippa rushed into her kitchen looking for inspiration. She found it in a pineapple; an upside-down cake seemed very appropriate to her life at that moment.

It was late afternoon by the time Pippa returned from her meeting. She’d saved one slice of pineapple upside-down cake and took it to Gladys.

“My boss liked my cake so much that she made me redundant.”

“My dear, that makes no sense at all.”

Pippa laughed.

“She’d read my social media and only called me in to the office so that she could see if my cakes were as good as everyone said. She took one mouthful and then offered to make me redundant. She said I was wasted in insurance and she’d fixed things so that I would get a decent redundancy payment and could become a baker.”

“So you can pay your rent and do something you love.”

“For now, but it’s not going to be easy and I’ll need your help.”

“Me. What can I do?”

“You can be my taster and tell me if the cakes are good enough to sell.”

Gladys and Pippa clinked their cups together to seal their agreement.

The queen’s trouble

It was all a blur. One minute she was surrounded by ladies-in-waiting, the next she was flying through the countryside in a tiny carriage alone with her baby daughter and a single canvas bag containing almost nothing.

She could still hardly believe what the king had told her. Anack had invaded the south and had plans to assassinate her daughter, and all because of rumours about an arranged marriage with the Chunock’s. It was complete nonsense. There wasn’t even the slightest possibility she’d let her daughter marry a Chunock. Not after what they’d done to her father and his kingdom.

The time in the carriage was the worst in the queen’s life. The drivers refused to stop, even when ordered. All she had to eat was what she was given – tough bread and weak ale. Fortunately she provided all the nourishment that Jasmine needed. They continued through night and day, only stopping in remote spots to get some relief.

She was about to insist on a break when the carriage stopped in front of a small cottage. She eased herself out with Jasmine still sleeping in her arms.

“I’ll ask for water,” said the queen.

The drivers tipped their hats in acknowledgement, turned a slow circle and sped off.

“Wait,” shouted the queen.

They did not, and were soon lost to sight.

The queen knocked on the door. There was no reply. She knocked again and called out. Jasmine woke and added her own call.

For many minutes the queen stood not knowing what to do. It was Jasmine’s cries that forced her to act. Her bag was still in the carriage and she didn’t know when the driver would return. He might be gone hours. She needed to find the woman of the house and get her to clean Jasmine and make dinner for the queen.

She tried the door and found it open. There was still no reply to her call. She went in and sat in a chair near the cold fireplace.

“What as we going to do?”

Jasmine’s only answer was to cry louder.

The queen waited in the chair for several hours. As darkness began to fall there was no sign of the cottagers or the carriage. The queen felt a pang of jealousy as she looked at her daughter who was well fed, warmly wrapped up and sleeping like the baby she was.

“This will not do,” said the queen. “Who will serve me?”

In the kitchen was a large basket of food with a pitcher of fresh water next to it. She found a cup and served herself.

The house was getting colder. There were logs and twigs ready by the fireplace and a tinder box with flint and steel on the mantelpiece. She had seen servants light fires. It was harder than she thought but eventually she managed to get a flame and coax a fire into life.

The warmth sent her to sleep. She woke in time to save the fire from going out. Jasmine woke hungry. Feeding her reminded the queen of her own hunger. She carried Jasmine into the kitchen and lifted everything out of the basket. There were apples and pears, some cooked meat and some bread.

She ate quickly without even bothering to find a finger washing bowl or drying cloth. She even tried some of the uncooked pear and found it palatable enough. When she had finished she poured water over her hands and wiped them on her dress. She then took Jasmine upstairs and climbed into bed.

Three days passed. The queen improved her fire lighting skills but was unable to keep the fire going throughout the night. She had finished all the meat and drink.

“Well Jasmine, if we don’t find someone today I’ll not have anything to eat. And then what are we going to do. I can’t feed you if I can’t feed myself.”

The sun was shining as she carried Jasmine along the track. She walked for several hours without seeing a turning let alone a house. When the sun reached its high point she stopped and shouted. There was no reply so she turned and started the long walk back, finally accepting that no help was coming. The carriage driver must have been in the pay of the Anacks, the cottagers had probably been killed and she had been left to die of starvation.

She wasn’t having it.

Her priority was food and water. In the kitchen she found a few herbs, outside she uncovered an overgrown garden and a well. She pulled several plants up and was delighted to see purple carrots and what she hoped was a leek. The stew was watery but it felt good to have a full tummy again.

Days turned into weeks. At sunrise the Queen would search the garden and explore the woods nearby. The only animal she had managed to catch was a hedgehog and she let it go because she couldn’t work out how to cook it.

Once she had foraged enough food for the day she would walk the track until midday. She pushed an ash pole into the ground to mark the end of her walk. Each day she’d pull it out and take it a little further. She thought she went further because she was starting earlier. She didn’t realise it was because she was getting stronger.

Weeks turned into months and months into years. Jasmine learned to walk and soon afterwards began to hunt for herself. She moved through the forest in near silence, shot arrows while running and seemed to find nests, eggs and animals wherever she went.

In the dark nights the queen would tell Jasmine about their kingdom and the king. Jasmine wanted to know why the king didn’t rescue them. It was several years before she realised her mother believed the king was dead and his kingdom taken by the Anacks.

The queen dreamt of returning to society and tried to teach Jasmine everything she knew about court matters, etiquette and princes. Jasmine would hardly listen. She saw no point in learning about things that were not useful.

One day the queen was grinding acorns when Jasmine burst into the cottage.

“There’s people swimming in the beaver’s pond.”

“People. What sort of people?”

“Men I think.”

“What were they wearing?”

Jasmine blushed, “They weren’t wearing anything.”

“Did they have no clothes?”

“They left their clothes on the willow tree.”

“What were they like?”

As soon as the queen heard the description she carefully doused the fire and put the beam across to bar the door.

“Those are Anack soldiers. We must stay hidden.”

Keeping Jasmine confined in the house was not easy and after just one day became impossible. The queen realised it was time to leave their hiding place.

The next day was spent cooking every scrap of food in the house. She wrapped the meat in dock leaves and packed it into their deer hide bags. Jasmine was kept busy filling water skins and harvesting in the garden.

They left the cottage before sunrise and walked along the familiar track. Even heavily laden they passed the ash pole before mid-morning. They walked all day with seeing any sign of people.

“Tell me about the kingdom and the court,” said Jasmine when they finally stopped.

The queen hesitated, remembering all that she had lost, but once she started talking found herself caught up in wonderful memories. Gradually she became aware that Jasmine had fallen asleep.

On their second day they turned onto a track that was clearly well used. After another two days the queen began to think the track was used less than it appeared to be.

“Smoke,” said Jasmine.

A simple cottage huddled next to a bridge where the track crossed a stream. Their packs were so light that the queen decided to seek out the peasants and get service from them.

As they approached the doorway the queen suddenly realised they didn’t look like a queen and a princess, but poor peasants without even clogs for their feet. Tears came to her eyes and perhaps that was why the cottager took pity on them, shared her own meal and allowed them to sleep near the hearth.

In the morning the cottager was repaid. Jasmine had been hunting before sunrise and returned with two rabbits. The queen had filled the log basket from the store, replenished the kitchen water bucket and had the rabbits cleaned and cooking on the fire.

The queen quizzed the cottager while they ate but found little comfort in the answers. It seemed that the kingdom was now allied with Anack but the cottager knew nothing of the king.

Each day the queen and Jasmine encountered more homes and peasants. They never went short of a place to sleep or food to eat and never failed to repay the kindness with hard work.

After a week they came to a much larger village that the Queen knew was less than a day’s ride from the capital. They found work at the inn caring for the animals and sleeping in the barn. It was the perfect place to gather news but Jasmine wished with all her heart that they were back in the cottage that had been their safe haven for so many years. She’d seen moments of sadness in her mother before but had never seen despair.

One morning Jasmine woke to find her mother gone. She asked at the inn but no one had seen her. If they’d been back in the woods she would have been able to track her but here there were too many people and too many tracks. Jasmine waited anxiously.

“Mother, where have you been?”

“Come gather up our things, we are leaving.”

“Are we going back to the cottage in the woods?”

“No. We are going to fight to get back what is rightfully yours.”

Jasmine had seen her mother like this before. It was the same look she wore when she cracked the ice on the well, the same look that shifted logs that weighed more than she did, that dug traps through solid ground, diverted streams, stretched skins and stitched bags. It was a look that would not accept defeat.

They walked for half a day to a manor house that belonged to the queen’s cousin. The house was just outside the walls of the capital city.

*

One minute Jasmine had been a peasant girl at ease in the woods. The next she was in the grand manor house, washed in warm water, confined in clothes that restricted her in every way, served by girls older than herself who would never leave her on her own, and eating food that looked nothing like the ingredients it was made from. There was also so much noise. So many voices, discussions, plans and arguments.

Jasmine needed space to think, space to breath, space to be herself. That night she silently slipped out of the window, wearing her own clothes and with her own hunting gear. She easily passed the guard protecting the manor house and the many guards patrolling the city walls.

It was her first time in the city itself and it oppressed her, until she realised it was just a forest of houses, and she was always at home in a forest.

Jasmine spent the day stalking. She listened to soldiers, shopkeepers, maids, lords and ladies but no one said anything important. There was one moment when a man started to say something about the empress of Anack but his wife grabbed his arm and talked loudly about the weather.

Jasmine needed more information. She needed to go to the heart of the city; to the palace itself.

The palace was surrounded by a high wall that could not be climbed but Jasmine soon found a way through the gate. She crawled underneath a carriage full of vegetables and clutched to the underside while it carried her into the palace grounds. A man unloaded the food into the animal feeds. Jasmine couldn’t believe the vegetables were for animals.

It was easy enough to cross the internal gardens and even easier to climb the palace itself as it was covered in decorative features that made perfect hand holds. If she’d been wearing court clothes she wouldn’t have been able to squeeze inside through the third floor window.

The palace was not Jasmine’s natural hunting ground. She was spotted by serving girls but none of them raised the alarm. She almost collided with one maid, who covered her eyes and muttered something that sounded like she was wishing Jasmine success in her mission.

After an hour of searching, Jasmine found what she was looking for. A door guarded by two stout soldiers in full dress uniform. Her mother was right to focus on clothes. Jasmine knew from the colours and the insignia that these were the king’s own guards.

Jasmine could easily have shot both guards with her bow, but she had no quarrel with them. Instead she found a window and climbed to the king’s suite from the outside. The bedroom was empty, as was the neighbouring room. Jasmine looked around wondering why guards would stand by the door to an empty room.

A noise caused her to turn. A panel in the wall slid open and out stepped a man, who must be the king himself. Both of them were shocked. Jasmine recovered first and had an arrow pointed at the king before he could say anything.

“I’ve come to rescue you,” said Jasmine.

“What?” spluttered the king.

“To rescue you from the Anacks.”

The king laughed.

“My dear little girl, it is you who will need rescuing. Guar…”

Jasmine shot. She’d judged it perfectly. It sliced into the king’s ample clothing, just missing his ample belly and cutting off any further words from his mouth.

“I have come from the queen. Your queen.”

The king encouraged Jasmine to tell him more but she didn’t entirely trust this man even though he was her father. She didn’t tell him where the queen was and did not reveal her own identity.

The king was too large to climb out of the window so wrote a short note for Jasmine to pass on to the Queen so that they could plan his escape.

Jasmine climbed out of the window and started to descend but as soon as the king stopped watching she quickly climbed back up and into the king’s bedroom.

The king was shouting loudly and angrily. She heard every word, and each one was like a hammer blow to her heart. He demanded to know from his chief spy how the queen had survived? She was supposed to have died in the forest. How were his orders not obeyed?

The empress of Anack arrived and told the king what to do. When the messenger returned they should send a reply. Her own guards would then follow the messenger girl and kill queen and her daughter so that their son would be the only heir to the throne.

“Where is our son?” said the king.

“He’s hunting,” said the queen.

“Send for him immediately. He needs to be kept safe.”

 Jasmine climbed down to the courtyard and walked boldly through the gate. The gate guards looked suspiciously at her but their job was to stop people going in, not out.

Jasmine watched a guard ride out and followed him through the city but once in the countryside she was soon left behind. It didn’t matter. She knew she was on the right track and all she had to do was to wait.

A column of horses came noisily towards her. Jasmine stood in the centre of the track and used her mother’s most commanding voice to demand that they stop.

“I have a message from the king for the prince,” said Jasmine.

She knew every word of the message. It was perfect for what she needed, as long as it wasn’t too strange for the king to address his son as my darling.

The note had an immediate affect and Jasmine was soon riding a horse with the prince and his squire while all the other guards returned to the palace. It was one of the most exhilarating experiences of her life. She couldn’t believe how quickly they moved along the track. They rode for an hour and Jasmine was glad when they stopped at an inn. Riding caused muscles to ache in places they never had before.

Servants took their horses. The squire led them inside where he started making arrangements for the royal visitor.

Jasmine whispered to the prince.

“We have to escape.”

“What.”

“Already too many people know where you are. Your father said stay hidden and only trust the messenger girl. That’s me. When it gets dark we will slip away.”

Jasmine and the prince trekked through the forest to the manor house where they needed to enter without him being recognised. The forest provided the solution. Mud and moss transformed the prince’s clothing and a quick hunt yielded a small wild pig.

“Pig for the cook,” said Jasmine and led the prince in through the kitchen. When they entered the ladies parlour the queen jumped up and hugged Jasmine. The other ladies shrank back repelled by the clothes.

Jasmine introduced the prince. Immediately the queen summoned servants to bathe, clothe and feed the boy. Once he was safely restored to courtly ways, the queen called her cousin so that they could make plans.

“I think,” said the queen, “it is time I paid the king a visit and reminded him who I am. Prepare for battle.”

Jasmine expected swords to be sharpened and arrows fletched. Instead preparations involved multiple baths, immense quantities of clothes, a new carriage and horses, the recruitment of copious servants and visits by a catalogue of dignitaries.

It was two days before everything was ready. The city was awash with rumours, some of which were very close to the truth.

On the day of the battle, Jasmine was dressed more finely than ever before. She accompanied her mother to the carriage which was led by a procession into the city and on to the palace.

“Where is my boy?” said the king.

“My dear husband, are you not going to embrace your daughter, your first born and heir to your kingdom?”

The king looked at Jasmine without recognising her as the messenger girl.

The queen turned to the empress. “You, mistress, must be the queen of Anack. How good of you to provide comfort to my husband in my absence. Now I have returned you may leave. Guards see to it that the queen’s things are packed and escort her out to depart immediately.

“How dare you woman,” said the empress. “Guards. Arrest her.”

The empress’s orders were not obeyed. Part of the queen’s preparations had been to send secret messages to the chief spy. The messages falsely said that the empress had planned to kill the king and install their son on the throne. Consequently all the guards in the room were loyal to the king and none had any liking for the empress. Being loyal to the king also meant being loyal to the queen and therefore her orders were promptly obeyed.

She quickly issued further orders. The most surprising one was to arrest the king’s chief spy for colluding with the empress. The king was so dazed that he didn’t even think of countermanding her.

Jasmine used the confusion as cover to sneak away. She accosted a servant to release her from the court clothes. The servant was surprised that under the finery Jasmine wore her hunting gear. She was even more surprised when Jasmine left by the window rather than the door.

Jasmine found what she was looking for and waited. She was good at waiting and good at remaining concealed.

The empress entered her royal carriage along with three of her ladies-in-waiting.

“You are not really running away are you?” said one of the ladies.

Jasmine heard the slap as the empress struck her.

“How dare you insult me? This kingdom will be mine even if I have to fight with troops to win it. Damn that woman. Damn that man, can’t he do anything right.”

“What about your son? They have him hostage.”

The empress laughed.

“They think that will stop me. That’s their weakness.”

She laughed again.

“Let them have the boy. He was only a puppet anyway. No this is better. No pretence. I will invade and they shall fall.”

Jasmine emerged from the treasure box at the back of the carriage. She grabbed the empress by the hair and held a hunting knife against her neck.

“You may not value your son’s life but what about your own?” said Jasmine. “Send these ladies away. Then tell the drivers to take the road to the right.”

The empress did as she was told.

It was a long and difficult journey. Jasmine had to remain awake and alert to ensure the empress did not escape the carriage. The drivers were so scared of the empress’s anger that they didn’t stop for days until they reached the cottage.

“You are lucky”, said Jasmine. “You’ll find this home much more comfortable than it was when my mother and I first arrived. Now get out and order your drivers to return to the palace.”

The empress again did as she was told.

Jasmine waited until they were out of sight before banging on the roof. The drivers were surprised to see her but welcomed her company. They stopped at the first cottage and enjoyed hospitality and rest. This time Jasmine’s repayment was not in rabbits but gold coins from the treasure box in the carriage.

Jasmine was gone almost a week. The queen was distraught but kept reassuring herself that Jasmine could look after herself.

Jasmine snuck into the palace and arranged for servants to quickly bathe and dress her before her presence was known. She then entered the royal chambers and was announced as if she had just risen from sleep. The queen ignored courtly protocol and hugged her.

Fairytales often end with everyone living happily ever after. This one was no different. The queen took charge in the kingdom and made it clear that Jasmine would rule after her. Many princes came to court Jasmine but she always contrived to lose them while promenading in the woods. She would not even consider marrying, unless they found their own way back to the palace before she did. She was happy that none of them had.

The king was sent with his son to Anack where the boy was crowned. As he was so young it was expected that the king would act as regent, but somehow the queen was regent even though she never set foot in Anack. The king was reduced to being a father rather than a ruler, and discovered that this was a role that he delighted in.

Jasmine only ever half succumbed to courtly ways. The servants all knew not to remove the shabby hunting clothes and checked them every morning to see if they needed cleaning. It was surprising how often dirt would manage to climb up to the third floor, scrape across the floor from the window and cling to the hunting clothes hanging in the princess’s room.

As for the empress, no one knows what happened to her. When some foresters chanced upon the lodge they found it empty with a thick layer of dust on every surface.

Do you love me?

“Do you actually love me?”

He hesitated and she took that as an answer without waiting to hear what he had to say. It was raining, he was cold and he was following her up a mountain so that she could tick it off her list. If that wasn’t love he didn’t know what was.

He watched her walk on with aggressive steps until she was lost to his sight in the mist ahead. He shook his head wondering why he hadn’t just said yes. He did love her. He did. He only hesitated because he was trying to think of the right way to say it.

They’d been together one or two years. It was hard to know exactly. Should he start from the day they met, the day they first kissed, their first night together, the moment they admitted to friends that they were together, or maybe when they changed their status on social media to say that they were in a relationship – which Angie did three weeks before he did.

None of those and all of those could be seen as the start of their relationship but for Mark the moment that really mattered was when they met his mother.

It wasn’t planned. They were travelling to Bristol to visit friends and he decided to take a detour to show her Gloucester cathedral where he used to sing in the choir. Angie probably wouldn’t have been interested if the vaulted cloisters hadn’t been used in Harry Potter films.

They had seen the film locations and Mark was showing Angie his personal choir stall when he was startled to hear his mother’s voice.

“Mark. I didn’t know you were in Gloucester.”

“Mum. We’re just passing through. I wanted to show Angie where I used to sing.”

Mark’s mother turned to gaze at Angie.

“Have you heard him sing?”

“No. Not really.”

“You must. He was such a cute choir boy. And had such a wonderful voice.”

“Really?”

“I know. You would never guess would you? I’ll tell you what let’s get some drinks in the cafe and I’ll get them to play a recording.”

“Mum!” protested Mark.

Angie didn’t protest at all. She linked arms with his mother as if they’d know each other all their lives. He was left to walk alone in their wake, catching half sentences about embarrassing incidents from his childhood.

He was doing it again – following in Angie’s wake. He trudged up the path, which had become a small stream. He couldn’t hear her talking up ahead but that was hardly surprising as it was just the two of them. Everyone else had decided it was too wet to go mountain walking.

“Angie.”

He got no reply. She was probably still miffed with him. Why did she ask him that, half way up a mountain in the rain, in the middle of a cold February day? That question should have been saved for when they were alone and snuggled together in bed.

The path was getting steeper with small waterfalls cascading over wet rocks. Mark’s foot slipped and he fell forward onto the ground with his head almost in the stream. Water took the opportunity to insinuate its way behind his neck and slide its icy fingers down his back.

He pushed himself upright. His hands were cold. He clenched his fists and water drops poured from his soaking gloves.

He called out louder this time. Still no response. He looked up. The mist had cleared slightly and he could see further up the gully. It narrowed and steepened. Not far in front of him was a larger waterfall that looked like it might be as tall as he was. Angie wasn’t in sight. She must have passed the waterfall already but Mark wasn’t sure how she would have done it.

He assumed there must be a path up the side that he couldn’t see from where he stood, but when he reached the waterfall there was no obvious path. The only way ascend was to climb up through the waterfall.

He wasn’t doing that. Maybe he didn’t love Angie as much as he thought. He wasn’t going to follow her through a freezing shower of melt water just so that she could reach the top today rather than coming back in the summer.

“Mark. What the heck are you doing up there?”

He looked down to see Angie.

“I thought you were ahead of me.”

“Don’t be daft. Why would I go up there?”

Mark was pleased that they were talking again but felt that the conversation was somehow not really within his grasp.

“Shall I come down to you?”

“Duh. Unless you want to kill yourself.”

It felt much steeper going down. Mark took it slowly, testing each foot before committing his weight to it.

“What were you doing?”

“I was just following you.”

“If you wanted to follow me you should have stuck to the path.”

Angie pointed. Mark with his head down hadn’t noticed that the path and the stream had diverged.

“You could have really hurt yourself up there.”

Mark nodded and stepped onto the path. His foot landed on a loose rock and slipped causing his full weight to come down on his ankle just as it twisted sideways. He toppled over.

He looked up at Angie whose face was full of concern.

“Well you can’t say I haven’t fallen for you,” he said.

She smiled and held out her hand to help him up.

Pain made him flinch.

“Are you okay?”

“I think I’ve sprained my ankle.”

“It’s not broken is it?”

“No. Just a bit sore. It’ll be alright. I’ll walk it off.”

Mark took a few hobbling steps.

“Maybe we should head back,” said Angie.

“No. I’ll be fine.”

“Here. Take the walking sticks.”

“Okay. Go on. I’ll follow. But no running.”

Each step was agony, even with the sticks. He tried to keep the pain out of his face, and tried to walk normally whenever Angie looked back. He saved his hobbles for when she turned away.

“How far is it?”

“Maybe an hour.”

Mark leant against a large boulder.

“I’m sorry Angie. I don’t think I can do it. My foot’s pretty bad. Why don’t I wait here?”

“You can’t do that. You’d freeze. And I don’t want to go on my own in these conditions. Come on let’s have a look. We’ll need to take your boot off.”

Mark managed to only let out a whimper of pain. His ankle was clearly swollen but he could still move it so they assumed it wasn’t broken. Angie helped him limp over to a rock next to an icy pool. The cold water numbed the pain. He hoped it would also reduce the swelling and make it easier to get his boot back on.

“I’m sure it will be fine if I go slowly. And once we can see the top I’ll turn round and start heading back down. You’ll soon catch me.”

“It’s a shame Dave’s not here.”

“Yeah. Then you could up with him, while I head down.”

“I meant as a physio. He’d know what to do with your ankle. I’ll give him a ring and see what he says.”

“I don’t think there’s much he can do up here.”

“No signal. I’ll call him on the way down once we get one.”

Mark waited until the pain of the cold water had overcome the pain from the injury. Angie dried his foot on her fleece and then helped to ease it back into his boot. Angie was insistent that they needed to head straight down.

It wasn’t easy and without sticks he wasn’t sure he would have been able to do it at all. Angie managed to get through to Dave who gave reassurance that the ankle was very unlikely to be broken and walking on it wasn’t going to do more harm even if it did hurt. He also said that the whole gang would come up to help them.

Mark and Angie continued to descend. They reached the tarn and sat at the edge of the water. Mark looked at Angie and suddenly knew what he wanted to say to her. They weren’t his own words but they expressed how he felt. He rehearsed them in his head and nervousness started to dry out his mouth. He took a sip of chocolate and three slow breaths. He had decided not just what to say but also how to say it.

Angie jumped up onto the rock and shouted.

“Look. It’s Dave and the others.”

Mark cursed.

“Where’s the invalid?” said Dave. “Come on mate, let’s see what’s up.”

Dave inspected Mark’s foot and then pulled some strapping from his back-pack. “This’ll provide some support. It’ll still hurt like hell but there’s nothing broken.”

The rain had stopped and small breaks appeared in the cloud. Diane unloaded a feast. Tanya contemplated taking a dip in the lake but even she wasn’t brave enough once she had felt the water temperature.

“Come on,” said Dave. “We ought to get moving before Mark seizes up.”

Mark reached over and took Angie’s hand. “Wait a moment. I want to tell you something.”

Angie waited but Mark didn’t speak.

“Go on then,” said Angie.

Mark looked around at the others who were packing things up ready to leave.

Angie pulled her hand out from his.

“If you’re not going to say it now we may as well get on.”

“Please,” said Mark.

Angie settled back down. Mark took a few calming breaths and then started to sing.

He began nervously and quietly, too aware of everyone nearby and not wanting them to hear. But when he saw the smile forming on Angie’s face he forgot everything and everybody except for her and the borrowed words that told so well how much he loved her.

The story-teller

The story-teller arrived by magic. At least that’s what she told everyone who came to listen. At first that was very few people. Her show wasn’t attractive. She had no scenery, no props, no magic except her words.

Her stories were short and she told three each day; one in the morning at ten minutes to ten, one to catch the crowd leaving work at five minutes to five and one that happened at the magic hour when nobody expected it.

The magic hour stories were the best. Everyone knew that, even though no one in the crowd had ever heard one.

*

Ella took Simon’s hand and pulled him along as quickly as she could without making him fall over.

“Come on.”

“I don’t want to.”

“You’ll like it. Promise.”

Simon wanted to stop and look at the window displays. He liked the lights and colours even in the shops that sold things he wasn’t interested in. Ella had to be careful to choose a route that avoided any of his favourite shops. If they passed one of those it was very unlikely she would be able to keep him moving. She checked her phone. They had just enough time to get there before the story started.

Suddenly she felt a strong tug on her arm. Simon had stopped walking. She turned and saw him staring into a shop. It had just opened and it was a disaster. In the window was a slowly turning Ferris wheel made of construction blocks. A train emerged from a tunnel and circled the wheel before slipping away through another tunnel.

Ella counted to forty-three before it re-emerged. It was too long. Even if she got Simon to agree to only three circuits of the train they would still miss the start of the story. She wasn’t sure she wanted to hear a story without hearing the start.

Another forty-three seconds passed. Ella gave up.

“Why don’t we go inside and look at all the toys?”

“Can we?”

Ella shrugged. “We may as well.”

“But what about the story? You wanted to hear the story.”

“It’s too late now.”

“We can run,” said Simon.

“Really?”

“Really fast,” said Simon.

Ella smiled and the two of them started running through the shopping centre dodging people with bags, a man pushing a cleaning trolley and a couple of teenagers watching their phones rather than their feet.

“We are going to hear a story,” shouted Simon.

*

The story-teller sat on her stool and waited. A crowd of several hundred had gathered on the steps that provided an amphitheatre used by both official and unofficial performers.

“Once upon a time…”

She paused while the crowd settled and a silence dropped heavy with anticipation that stilled all movement.

She told it all wrong. She didn’t look out and engage the audience. She didn’t use different voices or dramatic pauses. She simply opened her book and read in a measured tone.

But  no one left. No one interrupted. Such was her authority and such was the power of her tales that even babies were hushed and mobile phones refused to ring.

*

Ella saw the crowd and slowed. They were moving. They were leaving. She couldn’t believe it was over. She checked the time and saw that they were only slightly late. It wasn’t even ten o’clock.

The tale must have been tiny but the faces that passed her looked content with what they had heard.

“We’ve missed it. We’ve missed it.”

She managed to restrain herself and didn’t blurt out the blame that was on her lips.

“Sorry Ella.”

“Come on. We can go back to the shop.”

Simon collapsed onto one of the now vacant steps. Ella sat beside him. They both needed to recover from running before going anywhere.

The story-teller was still on her stool. The sun was shining straight at her and highlighted her silver hair against the dark marble front of the hotel across the square.

“Once upon a time,” she whispered.

Only Ella and Simon heard. Everyone else had left. The two of them sat up and stretched forward. The story-teller stood, left her stool and signalled to them to follow her.

She led them across to the hotel. She stood in front of the solid wall almost touching it with her nose. Her finger traced a rectangle up from the ground. Fire seemed to follow and a red outline remained where she had touched.

“Come,” she said and held out her hands.

Ella and Simon each took hold. The story-teller’s hands were hot. Almost burning hot and her grip was tight. She took a step forward, through the darkness. Ella and Simon had no choice but to follow.

“There once was a girl, an ordinary girl, with an ordinary brother. They had an ordinary house…”

Ella saw the house. It was their house.

“on an ordinary street and lived very, very ordinary lives. There was nothing wrong. They had all that they needed, even if they didn’t have all that they wanted.”

The sun speeded up in its journey across the sky and night came. It felt like a dream. Ella and Simon knew what was happening even though the story-teller was silent. They knew that time was passing. This night was not one night but a thousand, two thousand and more.

“The distant day dawned when time knocked on their door to tell them that their story was at its end. The sister held the brother’s frail hand and smiled. The story had been kind to them. They were content.”

The sun rose again and Ella looked at Simon. She didn’t feel content. Where was the adventure? Where was the excitement? There was no mystery, no discovery, no danger.

Simon spoke.

“I don’t like this story.”

The story-teller smiled.

“It’s boring.”

The story-teller laughed.

“It’s not funny.”

“Can we have a different story?” said Ella.

“Oh yes,” said the story-teller.

The children looked at her with expectation waiting for her to say more. She silently led them back through the dark door, and across to the square where she released their hands.

A crowd had gathered. Ella saw that the sun had moved and was now on the other side of the sky. It was evening.

“The story has moved on,” announced the story-teller and she took two steps and disappeared into the crowd.

Everyone waited. The sun shone on the empty stool. It was five minutes to five.

Ella walked forward climbed onto the stool and spoke.

“Once upon a time…”

A quiet sigh of satisfaction rippled around. Ella thought she caught a flash of silver disappearing into the solid black of the hotel wall.

She looked out at the sea of faces. In each one she saw the faintest touch of a story that needed to be told, but she couldn’t catch them. She didn’t know them. Not yet. But maybe one day.

Suddenly she felt the stab of expectation from those hundred hungry eyes, each one hoping for a story to take them out of their ordinary lives.

In panic she glanced from person to person until at last she saw a familiar face and knew what to say.

“Once upon a time there was a boy called Simon, who loved to build things.”

Ella wove a new story for Simon. A story sprinkled with enough disappointment to add flavour to hope, enough failure to heighten success and with just the right amount of danger to transform his ordinary life.

Wings of an angel

Two angels watched the man as he trudged through the dark streets.

“Tell me,” said the Elder. “What do you see?”

The younger angel studied the man.

“I see sadness.”

“Look deeper.”

“I see weariness.”

“Look once more.”

“I see despair.”

“Now look on the other side.”

The two angels stepped out of the physical world and into the spiritual one. They could still see the man. Still see his slow steps weaving aimlessly though the night.

His angel wings sagged and pulled at his slumped shoulders, dragging his spirit down rather than lifting it. Grey mould mottled their silver surface and dark gaps showed through the thin feathers.

The younger angel wept. He’d never seen a man with wings so damaged.

“It’s been a long time since he exercised those wings. A long time since he’s felt the fruits of the Holy Spirit – so little joy and peace and kindness.”

“Is it too late? Can the wings be restored? What can we do?”

“We watch and we wait.”

“It’s too hard to watch.”

“We must.”

The angels kept watch as the man’s path took him through the city, across the river, along the canal and out where the wind swept across the barren moor. He climbed to the top and stopped. He faced the wind, clenched his fists and shouted with anger at the night.

“Now we must help,” said the younger angel.

“Not yet. We must wait a while.”

The man’s head dropped into his hands and sorrow filled his palms.

“We wait,” said the Elder.

The man turned and almost slipped. The wind held his back and nudged him onwards down the heather cloistered path, around the gorse tussocks and into the shelter of the trees where it left him with a sigh that rippled the autumn leaves.

The man approached the crooked oak. His hand felt its coarse bark and his head sank against its troubled trunk.

“I’m lost,” he said and slumped to lie in the crook of its roots.

The angels watched helpless and waited with hope.

No words were said, but the angels heard his silent call for help.

“Now, the time has come. Follow me and we will see what we can do.”

The Elder angel stepped once more into the spirit world and wrapped his wings around the man and the tree, and gently squeezed until the two became one.

The man opened his eyes even though they hadn’t been closed. He looked and he saw. He saw the texture of time stitched with seasons into a tapestry of years. He felt a trio of tugs from the gravity of the earth, the moon and the sun; one holding him rooted, one pushing and pulling at his sap and one shining life into his leaves.

The man felt the weight of spent leaves heavy on his outstretched arms. Each one a burden waiting to fall. He touched them. He knew them. They were his.

The sun rose and struck the tree with hope of distant spring, a cherished hope that the tree knew in every ring but which the man couldn’t comprehend. He let out a great sob that shook from root to branch and dislodged leaves fluttered to the floor, taking with them some of his pain.

But the man’s despair was too much for those leaves alone. The tree opened the man’s eyes again, even though they hadn’t been closed. He saw his roots sunk into solid ground. The roots of his life, all that he had been, all that he had seen, all that he knew.

But the man’s despair kept a tight hold and wouldn’t be shaken off.

The tree was not defeated. It opened the man’s eyes wider still. He looked along the roots to their very tips and then unexpectedly found the fungal threads. Threads that wove throughout the forest floor. Faithful threads that stretched from tree to tree. Fertile threads full of support from friends and family. Generous threads that inspired, and warned and loved.

The old crooked oak asked for help and received goodness; and then with gentle kindness took up the man’s burdens and dropped them leaf by leaf to nourish the forest floor.

The man let out a long breath and drifted into a peaceful sleep.

The Elder angel eased the spirits apart and blessed the tree. The man woke and walked away with a lighter tread.

“The mould has gone. He is healed.”

“It’s true his pain is eased and for a while he’ll see kindness and feel joy, but as one season follows another so the burdens will return. Wait here with me. Let’s wait together in hope.”

“But what of the tree? How can it carry so much?”

“The tree is not like the man. It knows how to shed its burdens and it knows how to nurture new life.”

The angels waited and watched and their hope increased, for each day the man returned to touch the oak and whisper his thanks. He told the tree his troubles and felt peace. He told of love and kindness and felt joy.

And his angel wings, that had once pulled him down, shone a little brighter and felt a little lighter, until one day they lifted his spirit again.

The last day of school

Alice looked at the haul of presents spread across her desk. It didn’t seem much of a reward for another year of her life. She’d always imagined that at the grammar school she’d get more. The parents could certainly afford it.

It was slightly better than last year. Her strategy was working. For the last four weeks of term she’d set the kids very carefully selected homework which culminated in the blank word exercise.

It was designed to help the children’s word power – at least that was the justification for it. In reality she hoped to send subliminal messages and influence what gifts the kids would give her at the end of the year.

Jodie Long had broken the record. She found one hundred and seventeen words that could be inserted to complete the sentence. Alice’s favourite was her use of the word accumulates. What a great sentence: The teacher accumulates chocolate.

Jodie hadn’t brought a gift. Less than half of children brought gifts. It was the same in every school she had worked in. The percentage of children bringing gifts for the teacher was reducing year on year.

But this school was the worst. Only one large box of chocolates, three chocolate oranges, a handful of fancy chocolates, a collection of useless knick-knacks and the obligatory apple. In her last school in one of the poorest estates in Leeds she could guarantee at least five large chocolate boxes and several giant bars.

She was surprised to see the apple. It was years since she had one of them. She had no idea how apples and teachers had become connected. This apple was from Sofia Kuznetsov, which meant that even in Russia there must be a history of pupils giving apples to their teachers.

This apple looked like it belonged in a fairy tale. It had one rosy red half which faded gradually into the green half. It looked designed to poison princesses. There was no chance it would poison Alice; she hated apples and she was certainly not a princess.

Alice put all the chocolate in the shopping bag she’d especially brought for the purpose and tipped the knick-knacks into the bin. She didn’t even want to touch the apple but couldn’t leave it rot. She’d have to take it into the staff room and pass it on, or more likely she’d toss it into the kitchen bin.

She got a shock when she picked it up. The apple was incredible heavy and cold to the touch. She weighed it in her hand and tapped it. The apple was solid metal.

Alice wasn’t sure what to do. A metal apple somehow seemed better than a real one, but she hated everything about apples. She’d been forced to eat them when she was young and became adept at surreptitiously using her fingers to gouge out realistic looking bite marks, while secreting apple flesh into her pocket for later disposal. It meant she couldn’t use her pockets for anything else otherwise whatever she put in there would become impregnated with apple scent.

She dropped the apple into her bag and regretted not taking more care as it crushed the posh chocolates with liquor centres.

*

Alice had to change bus in Leeds city centre just outside the library and as usual she had arrived just in time to see her bus disappearing around the corner. The next one would be in twenty minutes. She didn’t usually mind the wait as it gave her a chance to call into the library, but the apple was weighing her down enough without adding books.

She decided to take a quick stroll through the art gallery instead. She climbed the steps, went through the doors and discovered it was closed while they were installing a new exhibition.

She still had eighteen minutes to fill. She could turn left into the cafe or right which would lead her through to the Henry Moore institute. She’d never been in it. It wasn’t her thing. The exhibits in the lobby, designed to entice you in, always put her off. They either looked like piles of junk the caretaker hadn’t gotten around to clearing up, or they were rude.

This time the connecting corridor looked less unappealing than usual. The displays seemed to be items of fruit balanced on intricate metal stands. She checked her watch. There wasn’t enough time to enjoy anything in the cafe so she walked into the exhibition.

It took her a while to realise that the fruit wasn’t real. Like the apple in her bag each one was made of metal. She tried to work out how she felt about the sculptures and set herself a sentence with a blank to fill: The exhibition was inoffensive.

The fifth cabinet caused her to pause and reconsider: The exhibition was intriguing. There was an apple just like hers. This one was enclosed in what she could only describe as a spherical mirrored flame. The inside of the scarlet flame reflected that apple distorting the colours, making the red even more vivid and the green darker. Suddenly the green half looked more poisonous than the red.

Alice pulled out her own apple and compared the two. They looked remarkably similar.

“How did you get that?”

The shout startled Alice. She turned to see a uniformed gallery attendant marching towards her.

“I was given it.”

The confused man looked into the display cabinet and back at Alice’s apple.

“One of my pupils gave it to me.”

“May I?”

Alice passed over the apple. The man took some glasses out of his pocket and stared intently at the base where the stalk emerged.

“I was hoping for chocolate. But… well apples seems to be traditional all around the world.”

“Ah. Found it.”

“What?”

“The maker’s mark. This looks like a genuine Kuznetsov.”

“Kuznetsov. That’s right. That’s the girl’s name.”

“I’m sorry I am going to have to ask you to come with me to the office.”

“But my bus is due in a few minutes.”

The man ignored her and spoke into his radio.

“Security. Code artful. Front lobby.”

“Did you hear me young man? I said my bus is due.”

Alice’s teacher-stare didn’t work. She noticed three security guards had suddenly appeared behind her.

“What’s all this?”

“I’ll need you to accompany me. We need to investigate where you got this from.”

“I told you. I was given it.”

Alice missed her bus. She had to repeat her story to three levels of gallery staff and two police officers. Eventually the school secretary managed to get hold of Mr Kuznetsov and arrange a video conference call with the gallery directory. Mr Kuznetsov confirmed that he had given the fruit to his daughter as a gift for her teacher, Alice.

The gallery staff we all apologetic. The director instructed the staff to bring Alice tea while he made some arrangements. He returned with a sheet of paper that he presented to Alice with a great flourish.

“What’s this?”

“A certificate of provenance and authentication. It confirms that you are the owner of the apple and that the apple is genuine.”

“Why?”

“So you don’t have any trouble…”

“This apple is nothing but trouble.”

“My dear. I don’t think you understand the gift you have been given. What Mr Kuznetsov has given you was made by his great-grandfather over a hundred years ago. It is a very, very, generous gift.”

“I was hoping for chocolate.”

The director took a fountain pen out of his top pocket. Picked up a sheet of paper from the desk and wrote down a number.

“What’s this?”

“That is what the last Kuznetsov sculpture sold for.”

Alice looked back at the number to check she had read it correctly. She had.

She reached into her bag and took out the chocolates.

“Please will you take these? As a thank you – to celebrate my very last day of school.”

Time of life

George toasted himself with orange juice.

“Happy Birthday.”

He derived a huge amount of childish pleasure in picking out two of his favourite mini cereal boxes from the selection pack. He took a mouthful of the sugary coated flakes and picked up the top envelope from the pile that had grown over the past week.

He’d ordered the envelopes from least interesting to most interesting. In the top layer were the ones with local postmarks or ones that had been hand delivered. These would contain cards from people who he saw fairly often.

The next section was from friends further afield. He was hoping for snippets of news tucked in with the birthday greetings. The final envelop on the bottom of the pile was the one he was most looking forward to.

He’d had it a week and had been resisting the urge to open it. Even if he hadn’t recognised the handwriting he would have known who it was from by the Australian stamps. Deborah, Steve and the kids were the only people he knew in the whole of the southern hemisphere.

As expected the card contained several folded sheets of A4 paper covered with copies of photographs. He would add them to his album. When Deborah next came home she would probably bring original photos already framed and ready to go on his wall.

There was a second smaller envelop enclosed by the first. He wondered if the kids were now old enough to send their own personalised birthday messages.

It wasn’t from the grandchildren. It was a ticket for the cinema. He thought it was a strange present until he noticed the address. The cinema was a small independent one, just down the road in Sherborne. He didn’t even know there was a cinema there.

The ticket was for a show on Friday night. It was just the one ticket, which saved him the hassle of choosing which friend to take.

*

George dressed up for the occasion. It seemed appropriate. He also bought some of his favourite chocolates from the supermarket. Cinemas always charged an exorbitant amount. He was having none of that. The suit pockets provided ample hiding places for his contraband.

He recognised the street, although it must have been twenty years since he last went down it. Each step brought his memories closer and when he saw the cinema himself he laughed out loud.

“You clever girl, Deborah. You clever, clever girl.”

The outside of the building hadn’t changed much. It still resembled a shack. Inside was very different.

The kiosk was new, as were the carpet and the art deco lamps. The kiosk was serving coffee, tea and hot chocolate, and they were all at reasonable prices. If he had known he’d not have had one at home. There was also popcorn and he couldn’t resist.

“Have you got your ticket?”

George opened his hand to show it.

“Great. Here you go.”

George offered some money but was waved away.

“It’s all included in your ticket. A drink in the interval as well.”

“Cheers,” said George.

The auditorium filled the space that had once been a community hall where George had spent so many hours, most of them happy and some of them scary. He took his seat and gazed up past the new fittings to the roof. It had been covered with insulation, but he was sure it was the same roof. He clearly remembered the storm of 1987. He’d had to sling ropes over and tie them down like they do in hurricane territory. It had worked. The roof was still on.

The lights dimmed and the screen lit up to show some unusual local adverts, including one from a butcher who reared his sheep within half a mile of the cinema. George knew the butcher and could vouch for the quality of the lamb.

Suddenly the screen died and the whole cinema was plunged into darkness. George waited for a moment before using the torch on his phone to find his way down the aisle and through a small door next to the stage.

He went along a corridor and pulled at another door. It was locked.

“Excuse me sir, what are you doing here? Please can you wait in your seat until we restore the power.”

“Have you got a key for this door?”

“Umm…”

The man held a large bunch of keys in his hand.

“That’s the one. Now if you unlock this door we can get the power back on and enjoy the show.”

The man unlocked the door. George led him down some stairs.

“The fuse box is here. Let’s hope that’s all it is. Here goes.”

George flipped the fuse switch. The room remained in darkness.

“Try the light.”

The man toggled the switch and the light came on.

“That’s marvellous.”

“And it looks like it’s staying on. Probably just a bit of moisture somewhere. You should be right as rain now.”

“Thank you. Are you the caretaker?”

“Goodness no. But I used to look after the place. This was a scout hut until about twenty years ago. I was here four nights a week and you know the scout motto – be prepared. As scout master I certainly needed to be. I could probably show you dozens of things round the place that I’ve fixed over the years.”

“Well I’m just glad you were here.”

George returned to the auditorium and sat remembering rather than watching. He’d been scout master for fifteen years. He’d loved it. Even more so when the scouting movement became fully mixed, just in time for Deborah to join. She was either a natural scout, or he’d influenced her.

In the interval George received his hot chocolate and many congratulations. It seemed that everyone knew he’d restored the power.

The manager came to personally thank him and invited him to watch the second half from the box on the first floor.

The box seats were large and comfortable with a great view into the auditorium. George couldn’t quite remember what was here in his day. He thought there had been some kind of balcony but it had been shabby storage rather than chic seating.

The lights dimmed and the screen lit up to the accompaniment of a small ripple of applause.

Another round of applause greeted the end of the film and startled George. He hadn’t seen any of it. George realised he must have fallen asleep and dreamt. He’d been watching something entirely different. From the box he’d been looking down at a scout group full of life and activity. Deborah had been there, taking a lead as usual. They’d been practising for their Cinematography badge. That was a much harder badge in the days before mobile phones.

The door to the box was stuck. He pulled it again but it was too tight. He knocked and then waited while gazing down at the emptying auditorium. He’d enjoyed the dream.

The door was pushed open from the outside.

“Sorry. It’s a little stiff.”

“More than a little.”

George ran his fingers up the side of the door.

“I’ve a block plane at home. Could sort that out in no time. What time is someone here tomorrow?”

George returned the next day and met the team of volunteers. Income from the films just about covered the cost of upkeep, but wouldn’t have stretched to paying staff.

It wasn’t long before George had a long list of little jobs that needed attending to and his own workshop and tool store in the basement. He still thought of it as the hut and once again was going there four times a week.

Although he enjoyed making the repairs what he loved most was when no one had booked the box. He’d then sit in the comfortable chair, close his eyes and drift off to sleep. It always worked. One minute there might be spies on screen fighting to save the world, the next there would be a group of scouts practising their bow-line and other knots.

People noticing George might think he was just a tired old man having a snooze, whereas actually he was back to being a forty year old and having the time of his life.

Prize blooms

“Betty, they’ve done it again. Look, over in that corner.”

In front of the fence was a riot of colour, dominated by the yellow of daffodils. Betty looked where Mark was pointing. It still looked spectacular and she couldn’t see any gaps where flowers had been taken.

“I’m worried about the tulips. What if they start taking them?”

The tulip bulbs were pushing their way up and the first ones would be in flower within a week. They were Mark’s favourite. He now had over thirty varieties spread in clumps throughout their cottage garden. Around each clump were carefully selected companion plants whose sole purpose was to complement and support the tulips.

“I’m going to get a lock for the gate.”

“I don’t think that will work. Not unless you get a bigger gate.”

“We’ve got to do something.”

Betty continued weeding. They would have to do something. She couldn’t imagine how she would feel if someone stole one of her vegetables just before the autumn show. That was far off, but for Mark the spring show was less than two months away.

“Maybe I should dig them up and take them into the greenhouse.”

“They wouldn’t like that.”

“No. But at least they’d be safe.”

“Have you made your selection yet?”

“It’s too early. And with climate change I can’t even predict what will bloom at the right time. Unless we get a cold spell the Emperors will be over.”

“That’s a shame.”

“Yes but if it continues to be mild I think I can force some Queens.”

“That’d be something.”

“Actually, that’s a good idea.”

“What?”

“I’ll make a forcing pen around the Queens and it’ll also hide them from the thief.”

Mark spent the rest of the day constructing a cage to enclose the Queen tulips. He had to carefully judge the right amount of protection. If he overdid it the blooms would end up too weak to survive at the show.

It was four days before the next bunch of daffodils was taken. Betty was still eating breakfast when Mark burst in through the patio doors without even pausing to take his shoes off.

“They’ve done it again. They’ve decimated the Rip van Winkles. Gone. The lot of them. I’m going to call the police.”

“Here. I’ve just poured the tea.”

Mark accepted the tea and calmed enough to admit that they hadn’t lost all the Rip van Winkles, but at least eight blooms had been taken.

“I don’t think it is kids,” said Mark. “They’ve been cut, not just pulled up.”

“Young people all have knives.”

“I don’t think young people are carrying knives around so that they can cut daffodils.”

“You’re probably right.”

Mark’s anxiety grew along with the tulips. The Emperors had come into bloom and looked spectacular. If they had held back for a month they would almost certainly have earned him first prize. The Queens were just poking out of the ground. He hoped he’d got the timing right.

*

The thief hadn’t returned despite the abundance of wonderful tulips. All the early varieties had flowered and most of the midseason ones were in bloom. The late flowering bulbs were inching out of the ground, with the protected Queens at least a week ahead of the rest.

Mark was hopeful they would flower in time, but if not he should still have good quality midseason varieties to show. Unless the weather changed, which it is easily could. He decided to build a second protective shelter; in this case to slow the Darwins down. That would give him three options; the Queens if they were ready, one of the midseason varieties coming into bloom, or the Darwins that should flower later because of his shading.

Disaster came from an unexpected source.

Betty heard the news on the local weather while eating her breakfast. Mark was still out on his morning rounds. He hadn’t come bursting through the patio door, which she took as a good sign.

He still hadn’t returned when the toast and tea were ready. She popped her head out of the door and called him.

There was no response.

She slipped on her garden overshoes, wrapped her dressing gown tightly around herself and stepped out into the cold morning air.

She found him on the bench staring at the devastation in front of him. She sat next to him and took his hand. For several minutes they sat together in silence.

“I’m getting cold,” said Betty. “Let’s go in while the tea is still hot.”

She led Mark by the hand into the house. It was only after he’d eaten that she was brave enough to ask.

“How much have you lost?”

“Everything.”

“Everything? Surely not. Flowers are pretty resilient.”

“They’ll survive alright but there’s no way they’ll be good enough to show. The hail has seen to that.”

“They said on the news that some of them were as big as golf balls. Is the greenhouse ok?”

Mark nodded.

“But some of your brassicas took a bashing.”

“If I’d known I would have put them away.”

“If I’d known I could have built more shelters.”

“What about the Queens and the Darwins?”

“They’re fine.”

“Well that’s something. And I can always plant some more brassicas.”

Betty inspected the garden that afternoon. It was so sunny and warm that she could hardly believe there had been such a severe hail storm in the night. Many tulips were already recovering and lifting themselves back up after being knocked to the ground. Most had lost petals but together they still provided a great display even if they weren’t show quality.

*

There was only a week until the spring show. Betty crouched down to look at the Darwin tulips under their shade shelter. There were about fifteen of them. Mark only needed five. The most difficult part was getting five all exactly the same size and at the same stage of development. She counted at least nine that were still green with just a hint of colour showing through the tightly wrapped bud. It would be close. They could easily over develop in a week.

The Queens were still fully green with a good size flower bud. Betty smiled. They should be perfect. It looked like Mark had a good chance of retaining his title.

*

“Quick, quick. Dial 999.”

“What’s happened?”

“It’s the thief. They’re back.”

“I can’t dial 999. That’s for life and death. It’s for emergencies.”

“It is an emergency. If they come quick enough they can catch him.”

“What do you mean?”

“I saw him walking off down the street. He’s getting away. Quick.”

Betty picked up the phone and then hesitated.

“I still don’t think I should phone 999. Not over a bunch of flowers.”

“It’s the Darwins. He’s stole the Darwins.”

Betty still hesitated.

“I’ll dial 101.”

“It’s too late now anyway. He’s gone.”

Betty put the phone down.

“Why don’t I make us a cup of tea?”

“I’m going to follow him. I’ll see where he lives and then we can phone the police and tell them.”

Mark rushed to the hallway and started putting on his coat and hat.

“Be careful. He might have a knife.”

“Maybe I should take one.”

“Don’t be daft. You’re too old to be carrying a knife around.”

“So was he. He looked older than me. I’m going. I don’t know how long I’ll be.”

“Take the mobile phone.”

“I don’t know where it is.”

“In the drawer.”

“It won’t be charged. No I’m going now. Before I lose him.”

Mark walked quickly along the street. He couldn’t see the man but kept walking. There were only two side roads and there was no sign of the man down either of them.

He started thinking about giving up but then as he turned the bend he saw the man ahead of him. With renewed vigour he marched on.

The man entered the driveway of a care home. He stopped at the door and Mark was hopeful that he’d catch him.

A woman in uniform and wearing a mask opened the door and let the man enter. Mark waved at her and she waited for him to approach.

“That man. He’s got my flowers.”

“Mr Dixon?”

“I don’t know his name. But he stole my prize tulips.”

“Oh dear.”

“Let me through. I’m reporting him to the police.”

“I’m sorry. We’re under strict covid control at the moment. No one can come in unless they are a dedicated carer. Even then they have to stay behind a glass screen.”

“Well… well. Get him out here then.”

“I’m sorry sir. I really don’t want to do that. You see Mr Dixon is visiting his wife. Poor man. Before covid he was here all day, every day. Now he gets fifteen minutes and he can’t even hold her hand. It’s not right. She’ll be passing on soon. I can’t see how him holding her hand is going to make things worse.”

“But what about my flowers?”

“He’s brought them for her, to brighten her day and to remind her of him when he’s not here. He brings a bunch every day. Tulips are her favourite. She used to grow tulips. I must admit I did wonder how he could afford them. I mean flowers are not cheap are they?”

“I’ll wait.”

“You can’t wait here.”

“You said he’ll only be fifteen minutes.”

“Well you still can’t wait here. I’ll have to ask you to leave.”

Mark stepped out of the entranceway and stood with folded arms. He checked the time on his watch.

After five minutes he turned and walked away. Betty was surprised that on his return he told her not to phone the police.

*

Mark moved one of the garden chairs so that he could watch the path while still sitting in the morning sunshine. He didn’t have long to wait before he was able to confront the man.

“Mr Dixon.”

The man stopped.

“Please don’t take flowers from my garden or anyone else’s.”

The man nodded sadly and looked down at the small bunch of grape hyacinths already starting to wilt.

“Don’t move.”

Mark was only gone for a minute.

He returned and placed the most exquisite bunch of tulips into the man’s hands.

“Tell your wife that those are the best tulips in the whole county.”

Mark smiled at the man who looked dazed.

“And tomorrow I’ll cut you a bunch of my early roses.”

Mark was still smiling as he walked back to the house. Betty was just coming out.

“Someone looks pleased with himself. I’m guessing your Queens are looking good.”

“They couldn’t be better,” said Mark.

He was just about to close the patio door when he heard Betty’s scream.

“The Queens. Mark. Someone has stolen the Queens.”

The black bears

Once there was a black bear who had the best territory in the forest, and the best ideas too. Each day he would sit in a clearing under a giant redwood tree and the other black bears would come and listen to him. He enjoyed their company and loved teaching them what he knew.

After some time the black bear noticed that the other bears didn’t understand everything he said. This upset the bear and he got angry. He shouted to make them understand. Some bears stopped coming as they didn’t like being shouted at.

The black bear heard a voice. It was the giant redwood tree asking why he shouted.

“To make them hear,” said the black bear.

The next day the other bears listened even more carefully. They really wanted to understand. The black bear explained his ideas again and again and when they still didn’t understand he told them they were stupid. Some more bears stopped coming as they didn’t like being called stupid.

The black bear heard a voice. It was the giant redwood tree asking why he called the other bears stupid.

“To make them realise they don’t understand,” said the black bear.

The black bear was very frustrated. He looked at remaining bears and repeated his ideas quickly ten times in a row. He was sure if he said it often enough then they would understand. The black bear was delighted when one of the bears said he did understand, but then the bear said he didn’t agree. This made the black bear so angry that he grabbed a clod of earth and threw it at the bear.

The other bears said they weren’t sure what they believed. The black bear threw clods of earth at them as well.

The black bear heard a voice. It was the giant redwood tree asking why he threw things at the other bears.

“Because they don’t listen,” said the black bear.

All the bears of the forest were worried about the black bear. They knew he was wise and had good ideas but sometimes they had other ideas. Each day they would come to the clearing but the black bear would shout at them and throw more clods of earth. Eventually they stopped coming.

It took a few days before the black bear noticed that he was all alone, surrounded by piles of earth. He missed the other bears.

Suddenly he heard the voice of the giant redwood asking him what he really wanted.

“For them to listen,” said the black bear.

“Look around,” said the redwood. “What do you see?”

For a moment the black bear thought the other bears were back, but then he realised it was just piles of earth from all the clods he’d thrown.

“If all you want is for them to listen, why not talk to the earth?” said the redwood.

The black bear was not satisfied talking to the earth.

“I want them to understand,” said black bear.

“In that case,” said the redwood, “you don’t need to speak anymore. The other bears have understood what you have said.”

The black bear wasn’t satisfied.

“I want them to agree with me,” said the black bear.

“Go down to the pool,” said the redwood. “Tell your ideas to the bear in the pool. He’ll agree with you.”

The black bear went to the pool and told his ideas to his reflection, but he wasn’t satisfied.

“I don’t want to talk to myself. I want to talk with my friends and my family.”

A sigh of wind went through the redwood’s leaves.

“Then be gentle with your words and listen as much as you talk.” 

The black bear sat quietly in the clearing for many days before the other bears noticed him. They were surprised he wasn’t in the middle of the clearing like he used to be. He was sat on a pile of earth at the edge. They were even more surprised when he didn’t speak.

Slowly more and more bears came to the clearing to join the daily chats.

The black bear noticed that the other bears understood his gentle words and he saw that though the bears disagreed with each other they all enjoyed the conversation and kept coming back.

A blank canvas

Jack didn’t know what to paint. He’d applied the magic white undercoat like the man in the video suggested. Ideas usually flowed with the paint but not this time. The blank canvas seemed to be mocking him; reflecting back his empty life.

After twenty minutes he gave up, went to the kitchen and made a cup of tea. Maybe he’d do something else. It wasn’t like there were any rules. Painting was supposed to be therapy. Supposed to help him cope. Supposed to fill his time.

It had worked. For months he’d painted almost every day. He had a pile of paint covered canvases to prove it. They weren’t very good, but that wasn’t the point. He wasn’t an artist he was just a man struggling to cope with the loneliness of lockdown. A man on furlough who had discovered that life without work was even more pointless than he’d imagined.

He headed back to the spare bedroom hoping that he’d rediscover the joy of painting, and like the instructor, be able to put happy little trees exactly where they wanted to go. If he was honest most of his trees looked depressed with their drooping branches.

As he came into the spare bedroom the sun reflected off the side-table mirror and lit the empty canvas from behind. For a moment he thought he saw an image painted in shadows seeping through. He kept staring and could just distinguish hints of light and shade. He guessed it must be where he had applied different thicknesses of his base coat.

Jack moved his easel so that the sun struck the back of the canvas. The strong backlight revealed the shadows. As he didn’t have any other ideas he decided to capture them in paint.

He loaded his brush with yellow ochre and made his first mark. Immediately the shadows shifted as each dab of paint blocked the light and created something new. Some shadows seemed darker, some lighter. Carbon black made no extra shadows at all and he soon stopped using it. Cadmium red was weak, cobalt teal much stronger.

His forgotten tea went cold as colour after colour flew from his brush. Jack didn’t stop until he heard his daughter call up to him.

“I’ve brought lasagne. I’ll pop it in the oven. It’s already cooked so will only take a couple of minutes.”

He was surprised to discover the day had gone. The sun had long since shifted out of view around the back of the house. It must have been hours since it stopped hitting the canvas. Jack cleaned his brush. He’d only used one. He’d kept piling new paint on top of old.

He stepped back and almost collided with his daughter as she came into the room.

“What’s that?”

“I don’t know.”

“It’s a bit abstract for you isn’t it.”

“It’s just a stupid mess.”

It looked like a child had been let loose with a painting set. He picked up a new canvas and used it to cover up his painting.

All through tea he tried to work out whether or not he’d wasted his day. The end result was even worse than his paintings of mountains and streams. At least they looked like something.

“Dad, you alright?”

“Um. Yeah. Just thinking.”

“You want to be careful with that,” said his daughter.

He managed to smile at her joke.

“Yeah. Who knows what mad ideas I might come up with. Or mad paintings for that matter.”

While brushing his teeth he decided to look at the painting again. Maybe it would look different this time.

He lifted the empty canvas off and was confronted by a riot of colour. He tried turning the painting around but no matter which way he held it up it still didn’t make sense. Maybe in the morning.

The sunshine made no difference. The light couldn’t penetrate the thick layers of paint. There were no more shadows to chase and the painting looked as bad as it had the night before.

He decided to try one more thing. He moved the easel so that he’d be able to see it from the corridor outside the room. He hoped the extra distance might make a difference. He stepped out and went as far away as he could. When he looked back the doorway acted like a picture frame. In the picture were two canvases. The colourful mess and the blank canvas he’d been using to cover it up.

He felt like both of them were talking to him about his life – an empty mess. He rubbed his eyes and looked again. The scene hadn’t changed. The painting hadn’t magically improved. But his perception had shifted and he now saw a different story.

On the left was the blank sheet of possibilities; waiting to be filled. On the right was a painting full of colour. Every colour, because the empty space could be filled with infinite variety. It didn’t have to be happy little trees living in the shadow of a snow covered mountain – but it could be. It didn’t need to be clear stream reflecting autumn trees. It could be anything.

Jack was sick of waiting for life to get back to normal.

He grabbed his coat and hat and walked out. He wasn’t sure where he was going but that didn’t matter. He’d figure that out later, maybe. For now he was just going to walk. If he saw a bus he’d catch it. If he saw an open shop he’d go in. If he passed a stranger he’d nod and say hello. Hopefully by the time his daughter arrived with food he’d have done something worth talking about.

When Jack saw the supermarket he knew how he wanted to fill his day. He bought what he needed and texted his daughter. He’d have to move quickly to get it all cooked on time.

After his daughter left he picked up a brush and carefully painted a tiny table laid for dinner. It was almost impossible to see amongst the tangled colours. The next day he added another detail. By the time his furlough ended, images piled on top of each other fighting for space and almost entirely blotting out the background.

He hung it on the wall alongside a blank canvas. Each morning it reminded him that there were endless possibilities and because he was looking out for them he found many interesting ones.

The writing desk

Charles Dickens had one. It’s made of mahogany. That’s about the only carpentry detail they tell you. I couldn’t believe the drivel in the museum, “The back shelf was adorned by knick-knacks, writing implements and flowers.” Nothing about the dovetail joints or the turned drawer handles. They didn’t even mention that it was a pedestal style desk.

I guess I was probably in a minority. Most people go to the Dickens museum because they are interested in the writer not his furniture.

It’s totally not my style but I appreciated the workmanship. I was in London to visit the exhibition of chairs at the Design Museum. That reminds me – Dickens’s chair is made from fruit wood. Fruit wood! Fruit wood! I still can’t believe it. I walked out after reading that. I just couldn’t stand the lazy trivialisation of it all.

I call my style retro-contemporary. I start with something old and turn it into something new. Some people call it upcycling but that’s for hobbyist, not craftsmen.

Pianos are my favourite. You can pick up old pianos for nothing. Folks are just glad to get rid of them so that they can regain the space in their living room. It’s not easy work. Old uprights weigh a ton. There’s usually enough scrap value in the metal to cover the hire cost of the van and the man. I always slip Ted an extra tenner. His muscles are well worth paying for.

You get mahogany pianos but it’s the walnut ones I really love. That’s why I couldn’t resist the desk even though it was covered in graffiti carvings. Actually it was the carvings that caught my attention. Desks often only have walnut veneer – just a thin layer of walnut glued onto some other wood. Those carvings were deep enough to show me that the desk was made from solid wood.

I reckoned I would have a decent slab of solid walnut once I’d planed out the carvings. I gave the guy a tenner. He said I could have it for nothing. He was clearing his uncle’s house. The desk and piano were rejects that no one wanted. I insisted. I like to leave people happy and tenners usually do the trick.

I fell in love with that walnut as soon as I took my tools to it. I sharpened my plane and set it for a light cut. I knew it would take hours to plane deep enough to remove the carvings but for me that’s the joy of woodworking. I wouldn’t have to think about anything else. If you want to find out about mindfulness get yourself a large slab of wood and a freshly sharpened plane.

After four hours I paused. I suddenly realised that I hadn’t bothered to try and read what the carvings said. It was too late by then. The letters had dissolved into random swirls. It looked so pretty that I almost stopped altogether, but I could sense the grain pattern emerging and could tell that it was going to be unique.

I was right. At three in the morning I finally had the surface I’d dreamed of. As usual the walnut was glass smooth but with a warmth that only comes from wood. I turned off my angle poise lamp and stepped back to enjoy the full effect.

The studio lights highlighted the grain pattern. Suddenly a face sprung into focus. It was only there for a moment. I’m always seeing faces, or animals, or monsters in wood grain, but this one was different. It was my face.

I ducked my head around trying to recapture it without success. My neck cracked as I stretched it back and forth. I’d been bent over too long without a break and realised just how tired I was.

I keep a couch and duvet in the studio. I often get so caught up in a piece that when I stop I need to collapse where I am rather than take the hike home. I was asleep before I’d even pulled the cover over me.

I woke early. The sun was just high enough to stream though the window and directly onto my face. I smiled. The desk top was going to look amazing in the low angled light of the morning sun.

It did.

But it wasn’t what I’d imagined.

All my hard work was undone.

The surface was covered in words carved deep into the wood.

I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. I ran my finger over it, feeling the groves, tracing the letters.

I pinched myself. Can you believe that? I actually pinched myself like they do in films. I was checking to see if I was dreaming. I felt the pinch, but why wouldn’t I? Why couldn’t I dream about pinching myself?

I decided I must be dreaming.

I tried to fly.

That sounds strange but I’d heard about vivid dreams. Dreams where the sleeper knows they are dreaming and can control what happens. I’d long ago decided that if I had one of those dreams I’d fly like superman.

Nothing happened.

I checked my tools. I wondered if I could have carved all the words in my sleep. My tools were neatly stacked on their racks and didn’t look like they had been used. Unfortunately that didn’t help. I’m tidy like that. Even if I had used them I would have put them away.

I felt the edges. They were all sharp. They would be. I have a rule that I sharpen things before I put them away. It means my tools are ready for immediate action. The plane is an exception as it doesn’t need sharpening so often. I usually sharpen it during a job – just before making the final cut.

The radio sounded real. There was nothing unusual on the news. I texted a friend something inconsequential and got the response I’d expect. There was the odd person on the street – odd as in not many. I shouted across to one of them to ask the time. It was five past eight. That sounded right.

I turned on my lamp and started to inspect the carvings. The quality was exceptional. Each letter was perfect. I noticed the strange grain direction. It swirled around each letter like ink from a calligraphy brush, as if the letter had grown rather than been chiselled.

It wasn’t real. It couldn’t be.

It was only then that I started to read the words.

It told the story of my life. Starting with my birth in the top left hand corner and ending in the bottom right with me finding a writing desk.

I made myself a coffee, ate three cereal bars, opened the windows and took a stool outside. The only thing that made sense was that the desk must have been giving off some kind of hallucinogenic fumes. You do have to be careful with some wood. I’d never had trouble with walnut.

I checked the wood allergies database and discovered that African Walnut had a systemic affect. That meant repeated expose would cause increasing allergic reactions. Maybe this walnut was African and maybe I had some strange allergy that caused hallucinations rather than skin irritation.

I sat on that stool in the sunshine and fresh air for almost an hour. If there were toxic fumes I wanted the studio clear of them.

It didn’t help. The words were still there. In fact a whole new sentence had appeared along the front edge of the desk. I read it and went back out to my stool.

The words said I had a decision to make. Would I turn the desk top over and read the other side? The side that contained the story of my future.

I went for a walk. A long walk.

It was starting to get dark when I returned. I rushed into the studio in the hope that if I was quick enough the desk wouldn’t have time to react.

I didn’t look to see if new words had appeared. I picked it up, ran outside and lobbed it into the skip.

Back in the studio I took a plank of mahogany from my scraps and set it up for planing.

There was a noise from outside. I cautiously opened the door.

“Is it okay if I take this?”

I nodded and the man lifted the desk top out of the skip and headed to his car.

I returned to my workbench and strip by strip reduced that plank to a thousand shavings.

Slowly my mind settled on the moment in front of my eyes – the swish of the plane and the thin ribbon of wood curling away to the floor.

I looked up and as soon as I saw the piano I knew what to do with it. I’d turn it into a wonderful contemporary writing desk; with plain simple lines, and absolutely no ornate carving. I’d even build a shelf at the back for knick-knacks.

That was as much of my future as I wanted to know.

Reckoning

The sculpture tumbled to the wooden floor. One leg snapped at the knee and pinged against the skirting board. The neck severed and the horse’s head flew across the hallway to land at his mother’s feet.

He heard her tut and saw the slight shake of her head, reminiscent of every time she caught him doing something wrong when he was a kid.

He was surprised the wreckage wasn’t worse. Only three pieces and the breaks were clean enough that it would be easy to fix.

Too easy.

He raised his booted foot, looked directly into his mothers eyes and stamped hard on the horse’s torso.

The sound of breaking was muffled but the outcome was much more satisfying. The main body of the horse had splintered into pieces, each no larger than his thumb.

For a moment his mother didn’t move.

Then she raised her own foot, smiled and stamped down on the horses head.

“That’ll teach the bastard. Now let’s cut up your father’s clothes.”

Angels watching over me

“They can’t do that?”

“What?”

“They’re pulling down the church.”

“Yeah. Right.”

 Liam opened the curtains and looked out at the Fenny Church of our Lady.

“Don’t worry. It’s still there.”

“I’m serious.”

“Come on. You can’t believe everything you read on social media. It’s just a rumour. Last week you told me that Tesco was taking over the primary school.”

By lunch time, Bridgette had proof the rumours were true. Workmen erecting fencing around the church told her the demolition was starting next week.

She phoned Cara, whose aunt was one of the church cleaners. Cara pointed her to a social media group called Stop the Destruction of Our Lady. The group had started two years ago and all the messages were filled with despair and failure.

“Liam. It’s true.”

“Yeah. The blokes at work knew all about it.”

“But they can’t knock it down. It’s my church.”

“You’ve not stepped foot in there for years.”

“But it’s where we got married. It’s where I got baptised for God’s sake.”

Liam started to laugh but caught sight of Bridgette’s serious face.

She stood in their bedroom window staring out at the church that not only dominated, but completely overwhelmed the view. It was much larger than most parish churches, and much newer. It had only been built in the 1960s. She supposed if it had been older then they would have kept it.

If it had been built better they would have kept it, but the roof leaked and subsidence had given Christ a scar across his face as he prayed in the mural behind the altar. But what really condemned it were the people, or rather the lack of them.

The church had been built with all the optimism of a thriving catholic congregation. It could seat over two thousand. It was the pride and joy of the community. It was opened by the Archbishop of Armagh Primate of All Ireland.

Their house faced the backend of the church. For a whole week there were no visible signs of destruction. The sun rose behind her and struck the stained glass windows in rectangular slits that framed the altar. She remembered as a child seeing the angels in them glow with magical light on clear sunny winter mornings.

When they bought the house she thought they’d be able to see the angels from their window. It did happen once – at Christmas midnight mass. The church was lit from inside with thousands of candles and the light was strong enough to leak out just enough for her to make out the angels.

The outbuildings disappeared first, taking with them her first kiss. She was Mary. Seán was Joseph. They both took their roles seriously. They kissed before going on stage. It was Bridgette’s idea. They couldn’t be husband and wife unless they kissed. She knew that from her aunt’s wedding. After the priest said they were husband and wife he told them they had to kiss.

Scaffolding cloaked the rear of the church and climbed the steeple. Men swarmed like termites and when the dust settled the steeple was gone. The cross was gone. The roof tiles were neatly stacked ready to be moved on to a new life elsewhere.

“What about the graves? They can’t just dig them up?”

“What graves?”

“In the church.”

“There’s no graves.”

He was right. The graveyard was miles away. Bridgette’s ma was buried there, but the funeral was here. The grief was here.

Most of the flooring disappeared one night. It was Sicilian marble worth fifty pound per square metre. She’d danced on that floor. Paraded on that aisle. Been led down it by her father and given away on that stone. It was gone. Destined for dodgy bathrooms and designer kitchens.

The big machines arrived and smashed through the west end. Their jaws took chunks out of the walls, biting through fleshy concrete and exposing skeletal steel rods. Stronger jaws clamped on, twisted and pulled.

Massive hammer blows invaded her home and her head. Diggers scraped and sorted. A hungry grinder was constantly fed a diet of stone and shat out grit and dust that coated her windows and heart.

Day-by-day they came closer. Nibbling the side walls. Taking out the transepts and bearing down on the altar.

Suddenly there was silence. The machines retreated taking their piles of debris with them.

Only the east wall stood. Propped by scaffold. Stained glass remarkably intact. Holding vigil on emptiness.

One week. Two weeks. Christmas lights blossom. Nativity images poured into her phone.

It was the first clear day in weeks. The sprinkle of snow and the clear blue skies were perfect. The Christmas feast was cooked to perfection. Liam’s gift was exquisite. Everything worked like they had planned.

But she regretted not going to her sisters. They’d decided to have their first Christmas since getting married together. Their first in their new home.

Their first since losing the baby.

Liam was asleep in front of a carol service on the telly. She thought about turning it off but was afraid that would wake him. She stood at her window watching the sun sink behind the church façade.

It was the first time the setting sun has been free to hit the window. It struck the stained glass and suddenly angels burst into life. The voice on the telly was reading from the bible, “Fear not, Mary: for thou hast found favour with God. And, behold, thou shalt conceive in thy womb, and bring forth a son, and shalt call his name Jesus.”

Bridgette walked into her garden and knelt in the snow. The last of the sun’s rays fell through the window and bathed her in yellow light.

Her knees soon got cold and the hard ground dug painfully into her ankles.

It took her two trips to carry the tools and the ladder to the bottom of the garden. She climbed over the fence and up the scaffold.

The angel was much bigger than she expected. She decided to only take its head. She thought Liam would kill her when he saw the damage the lead did to his chisel. The weight surprised her and she almost dropped her prize.

Liam was still sleeping. She managed to get it up the stairs and safely swaddled in a blanket under her bed.

He found out what she had done the next day. It was all over the news.

“You seen this. Someone stole a bit of the stained glass window.”

Bridgette was silent.

“Christ, you hear that. That explains why the diggers stopped.”

“What’s that?”

“Those windows. They’re worth a fortune. Designed by some famous English painter. Hey maybe we should hop over the fence and get a bit for ourselves.”

She took him up the stairs. She pulled the blankets out and revealed the angel.

It was his turn to be silent.

She told him about God speaking to her. He didn’t believe her but he was a good husband. They didn’t tell the police, or the priest, or the midwife.

A year later they hung the angel in a frame above the crib. They stood arm-in-arm looking down at their beautiful baby.

Liam was right. She now realised that it couldn’t have been God speaking. After all God didn’t make mistakes and the voice on the telly had said she would bear a son and call him Jesus.

But God had blessed her. And she had brought forth a daughter and had named her Angelica.

The Orator

“I’ve been selected. Tommy. Tommy. Look.”

Alison held out her phone. Tommy saw the distinctive orange lettering on a teal background marching across the screen and displaying one of the most desired messages in the world. Just four words.

You have been selected

“When will it be, and where?”

“It doesn’t say. Check yours.”

Tommy’s Orator app remained a blank teal screen.

“The internet is going wild. Everyone’s saying it will be somewhere in the south of England.”

“Makes sense. He’s performed in Wales and Scotland. About time England got a look in.”

Alison squeaked in excitement. Her phone had changed colour and information started to scroll up the screen.

“Look. Look there’s the zone. Just passed Bristol.”

“Glastonbury’s in that zone. I bet that’s where it is.”

More information appeared. The occurrence would happen the next day at sunset. Alison had to get herself into the zone before 4 pm. If she got there sooner she would get a more central allocation. She also needed to bring two large stones that sat comfortably in her palms and appropriate footwear for walking several miles across the countryside.

Despite her reservations, the car was packed within an hour.

*

Alison sat with the phone on her lap waiting for that magic moment when they entered the zone. It still made her jump.

“What’s it say? Where do I go?”

“Hang on. It’s just asking me questions.”

“Like what?”

“Do I like heights?”

“I’m pulling over. I still think its Glastonbury Tor but there’s no point going on until we get more instructions.”

Tommy wasn’t the only one to suspect that the occurrence would happen at Glastonbury. It was the obvious place and sat almost centrally in the zone that stretched from Bristol to Yeovil.

Over two hundred thousand people were travelling towards it, even though only three thousand had been selected. News teams flocked to the area and helicopters were readied at nearby airports.

Tommy pulled into a lay-by and was surprised to see Alison looking distressed.

“What’s up?”

“I don’t know what to say. It’s asking how far I can walk and how long I can stand? What shall I say? I can’t believe it. It’s not fair.”

“You don’t know that.”

Alison typed her replies. Tommy reached over and took her hand.

“Stop. Just be honest?”

“But what if I can’t go.”

 “If you can’t go just because you can’t walk then it’s not worth going. If you can’t go we’ll do something even better. We’ll go to Weston and eat fish and chips while watching the sun rise over the sea.”

“Idiot. It points the wrong way.”

“We’ll cross the bridge and eat chips in Cardiff. Come on it doesn’t matter. We can still have a good time. Anyway there’s no point lying and then finding the app telling you to walk up Glastonbury Tor, is there?”

Alison deleted her lies. She couldn’t stand. She couldn’t walk. But she was very good at sitting. Unfortunately that wasn’t one of the questions.

It was an uncomfortable night full of mini-sleeps broken by panicked checking of the Orator app. Once an hour they ran the engine to warm the car but even more importantly to make sure Alison’s phoned was fully charged.

The sun had risen when a ping startled them both awake once more. Alison grabbed her phone and frantically searched for a message but nothing had changed.

“Bloody hell,” said Tommy.

Orange text scrolled across the teal background.

“You have not been selected on this occasion. Please refrain from entering further into the zone.”

The message was followed by warnings. Tommy would be banned from the app if he proceeded.

Tommy was still reading when Alison’s phoned pinged with its own set of warnings. Before continuing she was required to switch off her social media feeds and have no communication with anyone until after the occurrence. A countdown appeared. She had three hours to accept the conditions or be deselected.

The two of them sat stunned by the news. Alison couldn’t go on alone and Tommy couldn’t go on without losing any chance of being selected in the future.

“Let’s go home. I knew this was a bad idea.”

“No. I’ll turn my phone off. I’ll take the sim card out and then they’ll never know where I am.”

“But what if they do?”

“Look it doesn’t matter. I mean, what are the chances of me being selected anyway. I’ve more chance of winning the lottery.”

“I got selected so it does happen.”

“You’ve won – so let’s make sure you collect your prize.”

Tommy disabled his phone and Alison pressed the button to accept the terms and conditions.

*

It was surprisingly quiet as they drove on the A38 out of Bristol. The route turned east on the A371 and they stopped for food in the village of Cheddar. Alison was sure that everyone they saw had a smug, secretive look; even the waiter at the pub.

Tommy navigated onto the main road but was then immediately directed back through the village and into Cheddar Gorge. They’d never seen it before and were astonished by the sheer cliffs hunching over the winding road.

Alison’s phone beeped. They had reached their destination.

There was a lay-by with parking for about ten cars. All parking bays were full apart from the disabled one. Unusually none of the cars were empty. Each one held a single person. Some were eating. Some reading.  Some just sitting gazing at the view. All of them waiting in solitude for the occurrence to begin.

“Maybe I should leave you.”

“But then what? I don’t fancy spending the night out here freezing to death in my wheelchair.”

“I’d come and get you.”

“But what if you couldn’t get here?  And anyway. What if we are told to move again? This might not be the final spot.”

*

People were moving. Some were donning walking gear and setting off up the cliff path opposite. Others were walking along the road and then stopping at intervals. Alison also moved. She swung into her chair and wheeled a few feet across to the bench.  She hoped it wouldn’t matter that she stayed in her own comfortable seat rather than going through the hassle of transferring onto the hard wooden one.

Tommy stayed in the car so he wouldn’t disturb Alison’s experience. He did wind all the windows down.

*

Despite the secrecy Alison knew what to expect. The occurrence always began with a poem. Then they’d be music and words from the Orator. She had her part to play. Her phone was part of the performance. Her own voice would be added to the thousands around her.

On the hillside it looked as if a flock of sheep or mountain goats had been transformed into people.

Her phone started a one-minute count down.

*

The light brigade charged down the valley. She heard them come. Horse hoof-beats and cavalry-shouts stampeding from phone to phone.  Moments of stinging silence broken by shots. Cannons exploding from her right, her left, from behind and then shockingly from the phone vibrating in her lap.

Pre-installed smoke bombs fogged the air. A swarm of drones flashed with exploding lights.

Smoke settled and silence set like the sun.

A wolf howled. A pack replied. A solitary voice rose in lament and descended through the valley, its progress marked by the clash of stone on stone. Alison took up her own stones and brought her palms together as the song passed through her.

Another silent pause long enough for the last of the sun’s rays to leave the hillside and reveal a dance of a thousand stars as light flicked in each upraised hand.

The music was plain and would not satisfy if played from a single speaker in the cosiness of home but as Alison followed the directions to grind her stones together she heard the sea. It rose and fell as it crashed against the shore in a storm of increasing fury. There was no embarrassment as she screamed into the darkness.

She felt Tommy’s arm rest on her shoulder. The storm faded and miraculously the sun rose. It broke apart into a million shards that cascaded up in a fountain of light and then scattered to land like seeds alongside every person. Tommy picked up the tiny globe of light and placed it in Alison’s lap.

The Orator’s voice dropped from the drone that hovered above their heads. Alison could never remember the words. She wished she had recorded it but her phone wouldn’t have let her even if she had tried.

She remembered the timbre of the words and the essence of the message. It was so simple. It surprised her that it even needed to be said. She held Tommy’s hand, glad that he was with her, glad that they already knew how to look out for each other.

A piano and violin chased each other across the hillside and up into the sky. In the silence that followed the real stars eased into view.

They sat gazing up hardly noticing the sounds of people returning to their cars. One approached them, passed across two cups of coffee and retreated without saying a word. Slowly the valley emptied and Tommy took them home.

On their doorstep was a teal envelop with Alison’s name in orange. Inside was a badge with a silhouette of a bird.

“Is it a dove?”

“No. It’s a lark. From that last piece of music – Lark Ascending.”

They heard fluttering and looked up to see a drone drop a second envelop. Tommy caught it and saw his name. Inside was another Lark badge.

“What are these for?”

“To show we were there.”

They saw many similar badges in the next few days. Each one was accompanied by secret smiles or open waves of recognition. Several badge wearers stopped to chat. None of them mentioned the occurrence but talked about their lives as if they had been friends for many years.

In a pub they were delivered free drinks by a badge wearer. In a service station a woman gave them a bunch of flowers. As they rejoined the motorway they spotted a hitch-hiker wearing a badge and for the first time in their lives stopped to offer a lift.

Fake badges appeared and badge-fuelled anger started to explode.  It was Alison who inadvertently transformed it.

She was shopping when a television crew stopped her. They asked about her badge and questioned whether she was at the occurrence. Once they had caught her saying she was there they pulled over a man wearing an obviously handmade badge.

“What do you think of that?” asked the interviewer. “A counterfeit badge worn by someone who was nowhere near the occurrence.”

The television crew zoom in on Alison as she wheeled over to the man and removed his badge. They were surprised to see her then remove her own badge and pin it on to the man’s chest. Before they could react, Alison had already wheeled away.

It started the new tradition of badge swapping and soon no one knew who had genuinely been in Cheddar Gorge and who had not. It didn’t matter. Anyone could choose to wear a badge. Everyone could choose to look out for each other.

Mudita

Owen met Serena over a potter’s wheel. It wasn’t like the film Ghost. Although it was equally messy there was no romantic spark and Owen stayed well back from the mess Serena was making.

He showed her how to throw a pot and then stepped away while she attempted to follow his instructions. He’d never met anyone so hopeless at centering the clay. Most beginners struggled to slap the clay down in the middle of the spinning wheel, but after a few attempts they usually got close enough that with a little persuasion it could be forced into place.

Serena got nowhere near. Her best attempt left the clay wobbling erratically for several circuits before leaping off the wheel. Her worst didn’t even stay on for a full rotation.

After ten attempts he broke one of his rules and centred the clay for her.

The art of pulling a pot takes a long time to master. After ten years Owen could do it with his eyes closed, and frequently did. It was his way of demonstrating that fingers were more important than eyes. Some of the people he taught had a natural feel for the clay and could throw small pots even on their first attempt. Others took hours to reach that stage.

He began to doubt Serena would ever manage. He couldn’t work out what she was doing wrong. She didn’t seem heavy handed. She was all fingers and thumbs, which was exactly what she needed to be. Her touch was gentle, consistent and controlled as she caressed the clay.

The walls of the pot would start to rise, he’d offer praise and encouragement and then the clay would over-extend, flap and collapse.

Owen was thankful that he only taught adults. It meant those most annoyed by the clay could simply leave and never come back. Serena didn’t look frustrated. Each time disaster struck she would simply smile and talk to the clay in a language he didn’t understand.

Her calmness didn’t help. The pot still refused to grow and Owen started to think he might have to break his most fundamental rule. It was a rule that set him apart from other teachers and one that he firmly believed made him a better teacher. He never touched.

Most teachers would guide student’s hands to help them develop a feel for the clay but not Owen. He learned from his best friend who taught computers. His friend would never touch someone’s computer or mouse. It would almost certainly mean the student getting in a mess and clicking on things they shouldn’t, but that was more like real life.

Learning how to control well behaved clay wasn’t enough. His students needed to know how to bring clay back into line. He was about to step in when Serena stopped the wheel.

“This clay does not want to be a pot.”

She picked up the clay and weighed it in her hand while studying it intensely.

“This clay wants to be a dancer.”

Owen laughed. “It has certainly been dancing all over the place. Do you want me to demonstrate again?”

Owen held out his hand for the clay.

“Oh no. I must help this clay to dance.”

Serena moved away from the wheel. She delicately placed the clay on the bench and started to caress it. For a moment Owen stood watching but then his attention was caught by a wobble on another student’s wheel.

*

The dancer miraculously survived their boisterous toddlers and overexcited dogs. Gradually with each house move it faded deeper into the forgotten depths of their busy lives.

Owen didn’t recognise it until he removed the final newspaper wrapper and held it in his hands.

“Look, Serena. Do you remember this?”

“My best work.”

“Your only work.”

Owen studied it with his expert eye. He had become used to appraising pieces. Over the years his reputation had grown and he’d moved from winning ceramic competitions to judging them.

“It’s good,” he said. “Actually very good. Once I get the new workshop set up you should do some more.”

Serena waved at him with a pile of papers in her hand. She’d be busy with her interior design business. Despite Owen’s great success she still bought in the majority of their income and made it possible to purchase the new Victorian villa with its large garage that would become his workshop.

Owen placed the dancer on a shrine-like alcove by a window near his potter’s wheel. Every day it grabbed his attention. Often he’d stop and stare for several minutes, thinking back to that first meeting. Thanking the sculpture for the part it had played in bringing them together and wondering if life would have turned out so well if it hadn’t been for that little lump of clay.

*

It was his first major solo exhibition. He could hardly believe that one of the pieces had won the Baldwin prize that he had always coveted.

Serena dressed him and he liked the way he looked. He liked the person he was and even more he loved the person he was with.

Owen accepted the applause and spoke into the microphone.

“I’d like to dedicate this prize to my wife Serena. Serena please come up here.”

It took a while for Serena to be convinced that he was serious.

“As I said, I’d like to dedicate this prize to my wife, but I can’t.”

A few in the audience laughed falsely, hoping that there was a happy punch line.

“I can’t dedicate it to her, because I need to give it to her. You see the success of this exhibition is all down to her.”

The audience clapped in relief.

“It really is. You see, the central ceramic, the one that wowed the judges was made by Serena. That’s why it is such a departure from my usual style – it wasn’t me!”

*

Owen took Serena’s hand and led her away from the aftermath of his bombshell into the quiet of the gallery. For several minutes they didn’t speak as they gazed at the dancer splendidly lit for the whole world to admire.

“I hope that I’ve got the word and translation right,” said Owen.

“Mudita,” read Serena. “The pleasure that comes from delighting in other people’s success.”

“I think it would be a great name for you, and it is something you’ve shown me and taught me.”

The picture of the two of them holding hands, with contented smiles, overflowed from the arts press into the national newspapers. It proved to be a sensationally effective way to launch a late career in ceramics. One that quickly overshadowed Owen’s own and caused him nothing but joy.

A marriage made in heaven

Meeting typescript: recorded by Archangel Pravuil, grand scribe and record-keeper for the Almighty
Language: many concepts cannot accurately, or even remotely, be translated from Angelic to English, for example English has no word or expression for VocalStripping.

Baldric-Overpol was an angel of the domination class. [note: angels are nothing like the demeaning descriptions and illustrations of humans which lack majestic awe. Any human seeing Baldric would have cried and had difficulty sleeping for the rest of their life.]

He entered the assembly room and tapped his clipboard on the lectern. [angels are gender neutral and should be referred to as they but some choose to ascribe to a gender and prefer to have the pronoun he or she] The assembled principalities, archangels, plain angels and even lowly guardian angels went silent, apart from two troublesome archangels in the back row.

“Hrrm, hrmm.”

It was enough to get their attention.

“Good morning.” [Inadequate translation. Time does not apply to angels. This meeting could have taken place during the day or night, or pre-day and pre-night, or on the seventeenth Tuesday in April]

“Welcome to assembly room 1.” [assembly room 1 is reckoned to be a large meeting room on the third floor of Croydon immigration centre and also the back room of Starbucks in Burnley]

 On the back row archangel Baraqiel passed a note to archangel Israfel. It pointed out that Baldric-Overpol was an anagram of Clipboard-Lover.

Israfel laughed loudly and received a hard stare from the front. As soon as Baldric’s attention had turned away he passed the note back pointing out that their esteemed manager was also an anagram of Proverbial-Clod.

Baraqiel tried not to laugh and as a consequence snorted loudly. They tried to disguise the snort as a cough, which was strange as angels do not get coughs or colds. Baldric paused in his assignment of duties and made a note on his clipboard before continuing.

Israfel and Baraqiel were not listening as both of them were trying to find new anagrams. It was therefore a surprise to hear their names.

“And this special assignment will go to Israfel and Baraqiel. That’s everything. Unless there are any questions please disburse in an orderly fashion and re-materialise here for the next meeting which is, and always will be, when it will be.”

Israfel raised a tentative hand.

“Yes?”

“Can you say more about this special assignment?”

“I wouldn’t want to bore everyone so why don’t you two stay behind for a full briefing. Dismissed.”

There was a small ripple of applause which helped Baraqiel find another anagram Clap-Drivel-Boor. They decided not to share it with Israfel.

The assignment was unusual and even more so as the two of them had no experience with love. Baraqiel’s expertise was lighting and Israfel’s was music.

Baldric wouldn’t accept their protests.

“Love is like lightning striking the heart and music, well, we all know what trouble music can cause. The assignment is yours. By the next meeting you need to have made a marriage in heaven. How you do it, where you do it, and to whom you do it, are entirely up to you.”

Baldric evaporated in cloud of steam.

“Lo-Crap-Loverbird.”

“What?”

“It’s another anagram.”

“Right. So what do we do?”

“It can’t be that hard. Everyone’s heard of marriages made in heaven.”

“What like cheese and chutney?”

“Rhubarb and custard.”

“Strawberries and cream.”

“Fish and chips.”

“Cheese on toast.”

“Mmm…”

“Come on. There’s no point hanging around here.”

“I know an excellent cafe in Newport that does perfect Welsh rarebit.”

                                                                    *             

The two angels were sitting at the corner table of Bread of Heaven cafe. They had just appeared out of thin air and also been sat there for several minutes reading the menu.

Lily approached their table to take their order.

“Marmite on jacket potatoes. Honestly it tastes great. Well, maybe not if you don’t like marmite.”

“Oreos dipped in orange juice.”

“That’s too obvious. It’s basically chocolate and orange.”

“What can I get you?” said Lily.

“Vanilla ice-cream and soy sauce.”

“Pardon?”

“Sorry love, we’re trying to come up with new flavours. Something special that goes really well together.”

“I am sure we have soy sauce if you really want it.”

“No. No. I’ll have some rarebit and chips.”

“And me.”

“Right. Two rarebits and chips. Do you want a drink?”

“Coffee.”

“Orange juice.”

“And do you want them in the same glass?”

“It might work,” said Israfel.

“We won’t know unless we try it.”

“I wasn’t serious,” said Lily. “Why all this weirdness anyway?”

Baraqiel and Israfel stepped out of time to discuss how they should answer. They decided to be honest.

“We’ve got this assignment. We have to make a marriage made in heaven.”

Lily laughed.

“No seriously. We do.”

“I’ll tell you what. See those two over there. Glenn and Alys. Get them together and you’d have a marriage made in heaven. I don’t know why he hasn’t asked her. I honestly don’t.”

*

The angels watched the couple while they devised their plan.

Israfel nodded. He was ready with the most romantic, heart moving music that had ever existed or would ever come to exist in the whole of human history. [a Peruvian folk song performed by a mother to her favourite cat]

Baraqiel readied his lighting strike at the lowest level he could set. It would require precision to excite the hearts without causing any damage.

The angels regretted not stopping time while they released their powers. If they had then everything would have gone according to plan.

At the very moment that Israfel’s music overwhelmed the café’s sound system Lily placed two plates of Welsh rarebit on their table, Alys stood up to go to the toilet, and Glenn bent down to retrieve a dropped knife.

Baraqiel’s lighting fork branched out. One stream struck Glenn on the head rather than in the heart. It rearranged several brain cells and combined with the intense music to cause an emanation of love to appear in an aura surrounding his body.

Lily’s heart was in the direct line of fire between Baraqiel and Alys. Being much closer to the angel meant that she got hit with a stronger force than anticipated. Her heart was momentarily over excited causing her fall backwards towards Glenn.

Glenn caught Lily and as she turned to face him it seemed like her whole body glowed.

Lily’s heart skipped in an attempt to get back to its normal beat.

Baraqiel signalled for Israfel to cut the music but it was too late.

Two hearts were caught by the rhythm and emotions were so stirred that if the music hadn’t fallen silent there would have been a first kiss to rival any in the whole of Wales.

It took longer than it should have for Lily and Glenn to disengage.

The two angels evaporated and instantly had never been in the cafe.

*

They reassembled in assembly room 1, which was now a combination of Wembley Arena and a joke shop in Marsden, and existed outside of time and also about ten years in the future.

Meeting typescript: recorded by Archangel Pravuil, grand scribe and record-keeper for the Almighty
Language: anagrams and puns have been cast into English where possible, but are severely diminished by the lack of fourth and fifth dimensions.

Baraqiel and Israfel tried to immediately evaporate out of the meeting but were prevented from doing so by the agenda, which had their names on it.

Clipboard-lover tapped on the lectern [Baldric Overpol adopted this name after reading the transcript of the previous meeting].

Israfel tried to concentrate on the routine assignments. Baraqiel didn’t. He passed a note with a new anagram, Lovable-Ripcord, written on it. Israfel didn’t even think of laughing.

 “Baraqiel and Israfel come forward please.

The two angels flew forward and stood in silent embarrassment on the dais.

“Nothing to say?” said Clipboard-lover.

They both looked down and shook their heads.

“Well I want to say you performed excellently. Glenn and Lily (have been)/(will be) married for sixty years. They (are)/(will be) a shining example of love to everyone who knows them and inspire no less than six other marriages.”

Clipboard-lover started the applause.

“I still think soy sauce and ice-cream would work,” whispered Israfel.

“Let’s try it,” said Baraqiel.

The first bar of Beethoven’s fifth symphony blasted into the room. Lightning flashed and on the final note the two archangels disassembled and appeared in the window seat of the Bread of Heaven cafe where they could watch the outcome of their previous interference.

 “We might have to wait a while. Lily seems a little distracted. Shall I get her attention.”

“No. We better not interfere again.”

The two waited patiently and once their order arrived they both agreed that some combinations were definitely not marriages made in heaven.

The End


In a different universe, or perhaps the same universe on a different time-fork, the two archangels were not quite so patient.

“I still think soy sauce and ice-cream would work.”

“Let’s try it,” said Baraqiel.

The first bar of Beethoven’s fifth symphony blasted into the room. Lightning flashed and on the final note the two archangels disassembled and appeared in the window seat of the Bread of Heaven cafe where they could watch the outcome of their previous interference.

They had timed their arrival to correspond with the moment Lily came out of the kitchen carrying two plates to their former selves.

Lily stopped in the doorway unsure whose lunch she held. She noticed the two newcomers in the window and suddenly remembered taking their strange order quite some time ago. She looked down at her tray to see soy sauce and ice-cream.

Her momentary pause changed everything.

It meant Alys got hit in the heart by the lightning bolt and promptly fell in love. Unfortunately Glenn still bent to retrieve his knife so Alys’ affection landed on the person nearest to her, which was Lily.

The other lightning bolt still struck Glenn in the head. Love emanated and spilled out like a comforting blanket over the tray Lily was carrying.

Baraqiel and Israfel in the window seat stared in horror as suddenly their immediate past had always included a furious Clipboard-lover shouting at them in assembly room 1. He, along with the whole population of Wales apart from Glenn, did not accept that soy sauce and ice-cream were a marriage made in heaven, and he severely reprimanded them for causing Alys perpetual suffering as a consequence of her unrequited love for Lily.

Hummingbirds don’t fly

Hummingbirds don’t fly. Not as kite’s anyway. It seems that wing flapping is essential. I saw a video on the internet of a remote control flapping bird. I’d love to build one of them but that’s beyond me.

I build kites.

Round ones, box ones, parafoils, stars, diamonds – almost any shape you can think of. But the ones I love to build most are birds.

I guess that’s why you commissioned me to build the tufted coquette hummingbird. I should have thought a minute longer before saying yes.

I’ve seen plenty of hummingbird kites in the sky but nine out of ten of them are just pictures of hummingbirds painted on traditional kites. At least the others have attempted a hummingbird shape, but they are all so stylised and cartoony.

I could make you one of them but I don’t think you would be satisfied. You’ve actually seen the bird. Held it in your hand. Grown up with it flying around your Venezuelan garden.

I think I’ve got the colours. The orange tuft on top, the shimmering green chest with a polka dot cravat around the neck. The lilac-blue wings that open to show green and yellow running down to the brown tail feathers.

But the whole thing fails. The only way I can make it fly is to have those wings stretched out in a traditional static aeroplane style. It doesn’t look right. I want it to hover like the real thing with wings blurring as they move.

Back to the drawing board. I’ll see if I can find a solution before you visit.

*

I can’t believe how good it looks. It’s fantastic. Brilliant. The kite you’ve made looks just like the real thing, apart from being so big of course. My Coqueta Adornadas could sit comfortable in the palm of my hand even when I was only seven.

I took me four months. It’s hard to believe I had so much patience. Every day I’d sit where the hummingbirds fed. For one month they watched me and waited until their patience outwore my own.

The second month they trusted me enough to feed while I sat. The third month was the hardest. I would hold out my hand filled with sweet syrup until it ached so much I could hold it up no longer. But not one bird landed.

It was Abuela’s idea. My grandmother. Her idea to paint flowers on my hand. It still took a week but it worked. Abuela kept telling me to be patient.

I hope Toby has the patience to make the kite work.

*

Daniela liked the kite. She really did. It was great to see her huge smile when she first walked into the workshop. It’s a lovely smile.

She gushed. That’s the only word I can think of that gets anywhere near to how she reacted. She almost looked like she was going to cry. Happy tears; I think.

But that soon turned to sad tears once she realised the bird wouldn’t fly. I didn’t know it was so important to her. Something to do with her grandmother and the Day of the Dead celebrations on the first of November back in Sumpango. She’s hoping to take the kite with her.

That gives me just two months to find a solution. I don’t know what to do. I’ve put the bird in a corner and am getting on with other work. I’ve a commission for one of my regulars who wants a new kite for a festival. Building it will take a lot of time but at least I know what I am doing.

I can’t keep away. I keep coming back to that damn hummingbird. I don’t know why. There’s nothing I can actually do. I’ve tried the wings at all sorts of angles but none of the ones that work look right. I’ve tried out a few crazy ideas such as having vents through the chest. I don’t think that would go down well. It looked like the poor bird had been shot.

I’ve been on the internet looking for inspiration. I found myself looking at pictures of the giant kites used in the Sampango for the festival. I’d seen them before but hadn’t connected them to Venezula or to Daniela’s commission. Those kites are amazing. Some of them are twice the height of my house.

Most of them are simple discs but a few are more flower-like. That’s what gives me the idea. I remembered Daniela’s story about painting her hand like a flower so that she could feed the hummingbirds. Suddenly I know what I need to do.

*

I’ve never been up here in the Yorkshire Dales. Somehow the city sucks you in and doesn’t let you out. All this countryside on my doorstep.

I see you on the hillside. I can’t see my kite. I notice that you are holding a string and follow it up the hill with my eyes. You call out to someone named Matt at the other end of the string who is holding up a disk shape. It’s not my kite.

The wind fills the disk and transforms it into a bright red rosa de montaña, or a rose of Venezula as you might know it here in England. The flower is blown up into the sky.

And then I can’t believe what I see. My hummingbird jumps up and follows the flower. It hovers in front of it and its wings are a blur.

I laugh and wrap my arms around you in a hug. I then step back as I feel your English stiffness that is afraid of such effusiveness.

And then I cry and it is your turn to wrap your arms around me.

*

It’s a triumph. The flower pulls off the ground and drags the hummingbird into the air. And the bird hovers as though sucking nectar. The wings blur. They don’t actually move. There’s no rapid figure of eight in the air. I couldn’t replicate that. Instead I carefully angled the feathers and made loose connections so that the wings flutter like an aspen leaf. It’s perfect.

Daniella grabs me in a bear hug. She’s so pleased. And then she crumples as she remembers her grandmother, her Abuela.

I comfort her while surreptitiously keeping an eye on the kite to make sure it doesn’t fall out of the sky. Matt gives me a thumbs-up from the top of the hill and signals that he’s heading off to the car.

I wait until she’s calmed down and blown her nose. That’s always a sign that the crying has ended. She doesn’t apologise like many people would. She tells me she is grieving and that’s the right thing to do, but now that she has the kite she can communicate with her grandmother.

She takes hold of the string and watches the kite. I don’t believe in talking to ancestors through kites, but when she finally tells me what she has heard I happily agree.

She tells me that her grandmother always said that if she held out her hand long enough she would get what she wanted.

She holds out her hand.

She tells me that I need to fly the kite with her. I nod enthusiastically and take her hand in mine.

I am still nodding when she tells me that the next time the kite will fly will be on the day of the dead in Venezuela.

Elements of joy

There was nothing special about Tuesday morning but Tom was seeing the world like he’d never seen it before. Everything looked and felt different, ever since he’d survived the incident just over a week before.

That day was unusual. His sister was back from Australia so he’d invited mum and dad for an early Christmas feast. He’d helped Kelly prepare all the vegetables the night before and then he’d taken Chloe to the park so that Kelly could finish cooking in peace.

He checked his watch every five minutes. Time seemed to go so slowly. He’d promised he’s stay out for at least an hour. Chloe was happy enough in the swing but he’d already grown tired of tickling her feet and pulling funny faces whenever the swing brought her up to his nose.

He could take her to the café but she’d soon get bored there. Another five minutes crept by with her climbing up the slide from both directions. He’d had to pay more attention to make sure she didn’t fall.

He looked around the playground. Two mum’s chatting while their boys played pirates on the climbing frame, one granddad loving playing with his granddaughter, two dogs attached to the fence and looking as fed up as he was.

Chloe found a leaf and excitedly brought it him. He used it like a fan and gave her enough praise that she brought another ten leaves for him to examine.

He managed fifty minutes before bundling Chloe into the pushchair. He’d take the long way home.

*

Mum and dad loved the meal. His sister had been back in England only a few days but already they seemed to know everything that she had done in the last eight months. As soon as she’d finished one story they’d be encouraging her to tell another.

She smiled at him. “So Tom, what about you? What have you been up to?”

Mum and dad turned to look at him but they were no help. There were no stories to tell. Work. Looking after Chloe. Watching telly. Bed and then back to work again.

There was an awkward silence that fortunately Chloe barged into.

“I’ve got a balloon.”

“Oh yes”, said his sister.

“It’s blue. I like blue.”

Chloe tossed the balloon into the air. His sister caught it and batted it across the room. Chloe laughed and ran after it. She caught it and had to jump up and down three times because it was so exciting.

“Do you remember that?” said his sister.

“What?”

“That excitement, that awe. I was like that on Bondi beach. The sun, the sand, the waves. I was like a child standing there in awe at how wonderful everything was.”

“So why’d you come back?”

“Tom!” said his mum.

“No mum, it’s a fair question.”

His sister sent the balloon back across the room before replying.

“Life isn’t a beach. You can’t surf every day. And anyway, I missed my little Chloe didn’t I.”

She picked Chloe up and snuggled into her tummy causing squeals of delight.

Too true, thought Tom. Life isn’t a beach. It’s more like a car park.

And then it happened.

Tom felt a small twinge just above his abdomen. It rose and magnified, blossoming into a sharp, intense heart crushing pain. He clutched his chest, gasped for breath and was thankful that he was surrounded by competent people.

*

The doctor was understanding. He even told Tom about his own experience of a similar pain after a pie eating competition. He said that if he hadn’t been a cardiac specialist he too would have thought he was having a heart attack. It happened more often than Tom would expect, but in every case the paramedics were absolutely right to take the patient in for checking.

Tom was embarrassed. A 999 call and an ambulance to hospital all because of heartburn. His wife was telling everyone, his sister posted it on Facebook, his friends were sending jokes.

Only Chloe was still concerned. She held his hand more often than before and told him he needed a therapy dog to look after him. She’d been asking for a puppy for Christmas. There was no way she was getting one, but he had to admire her ingenuity. He was surprised she even knew the word therapy.

*

The ‘heart attack’ changed everything. Tom felt like he’d had a near death experience even though he had never been in any danger. Work colleagues ragged him from the moment he arrived in the office and kept offering to make him drinks and telling him that he needed to take it easy.

Tom was glad that he only had to work the one day before breaking up for Christmas. He wished he’d chosen to take the Monday off like half of the office seemed to have done.

On Tuesday morning he woke early. It was still dark and even Chloe was asleep. Tom kept replaying the meal time conversation and wondering when he lost his childhood awe. It was so long ago that he wasn’t sure he ever had any. He must have. All kids do.

After half an hour he got up and went into the shower. He noticed the feel of the water landing on his head and slipping down over his face. He turned the heat up to the temperature his wife liked. The hot water delightfully hovered on the edge of scolding him.

He noticed the texture of the towel fresh from the wash. He held it to his nose, smelt the new fabric conditioner his wife had switched to, and had to agree it did have a pleasing aroma.

As he dried himself the sun edged up over the park opposite their house. Tom stood with his eyes closed surprised that he could feel warmth radiating even this late in December.

He moved closer to the window and looked out. The trees had lost their leaves. A light frost had coloured the cars making all their roofs white. He saw a woman letting her dog off its lead right next to the sign telling her not to.

He decided to go for a walk and then changed his mind. He’d go for a run. He hadn’t run in years. Not since Chloe was born. Suddenly, practicalities intruded. How could he possibly go for a run after having a shower? When he got back he’d need another one.

Tom decided to be child-like. He would go for a run. He would take a second shower. He would do it because he wanted to.

*

It was harder than he expected. He had to settle for a few minutes running followed by a few minutes walking. The sun had fully emerged above the tree tops and was dominating the clear blue sky. He felt the cold air against the inside of his nostrils and all the way down into his chest.

He paused under an oak tree that still had a few leaves clinging to its lower branches. The sun behind them was emphasising their splendid colours. He bent down and searched the undergrowth for the perfect leaf to take back to Chloe. He held it up and saw its skeleton, stark against the translucent flesh.

A few drops fell in front of him landing with a splash in the dry oak leaves. He looked up and saw a squirrel weeing on a branch almost overhead. He laughed and the squirrel ran off. He’d have to tell Chloe about that.

Tom walked along the side of the stream, hearing it for the first time. Its soothing babble as it plunged over a hundred tiny waterfalls created by the many pebbles.

The path rose up and Tom decided to push himself. He had just about reached the top and was thankful to see the bench when it hit him.

A sudden explosion of pain. A clamping, crushing, squeezing around his chest, and his arms.

Tom stumbled and sagged onto the bench. The sun streamed into his face. He closed his eyes and tried to breath. Last time the pain lasted almost half an hour. He was sweating. He was going to get cold.

The pain was moving. It shot down his arm and bounced back into his chest. It dug into his jaw. He didn’t remember that.

He felt dizzy and slipped to his left. He couldn’t right himself.

It was different.

It was real.

*

He felt tingling in his fingers and saw that the dog was licking him. The sun blasted into his eyes and his whole world became nothing but light.

He heard the woman. He felt her take his hand. He heard her say that everything will be alright, but he couldn’t bring himself to believe her.

He tried to smile but wasn’t sure he managed it.

He forced a word out. He had to communicate his decision.

“Puppy.”

The woman leaned close and tried to understand.

“Help you. Yes dear. I will. I can see the ambulance already. We’re lucky that we live so close to the hospital.”

The paramedics jogged up the hill with ease. They unloaded their packs. Tom took comfort in their efficiency and accepted the sincerity of their encouragement. Within minutes he was stretchered and whisked to safety.

By the time his family arrived he could speak clearly enough. Tom was so pleased. Chloe was held outside by his sister, which would give him time to tell his wife about the Christmas present. Chloe burst in and Tom couldn’t contain his excitement so immediately told her about the puppy.

“I told you you needed a dog,” said Chloe.

“You were right,” said Tom. He closed his eyes and enjoyed everything around him. He opened them and his smile reached his eyes.

“Hey sis. I think I’ve found it again.”

Beyond Acceptance

Six months ago the old school was knocked down. Carla smiled every day at the sun that now reached her windows.

Her house was a back-to-back. Dense terrace housing with all surplus space sacrificed to the needs of the mill. Houses squished together with no back streets, no gardens and a back wall shared with the house behind.

Sharing Carla’s back wall were a family she didn’t know but often heard. Intimate neighbours just one brick away from her sitting room. She knew they had a baby and an older child called Jack. She’d tried to meet them once. She walked to the end of her street, along the side of the terrace and back along the street behind her, but she wasn’t sure which house was theirs.

Carla’s front door led straight onto the pavement and then there was the road and a brick wall. The old Victorian school used to be on the other side of the wall but the buildings had been empty as long as Carla could remember.

Carla’s mum said they used to hold evening classes such as yoga and pottery for posh folks. She told of one couple looking across and saying their house looked just like Coronation Street.

The evening classes were cut. The old school sagged. For a while Carla and the other kids reinvigorated the old tarmac playground with life. Breaking the Victorian rules by playing together despite the engraved stone arches attempting to keep boys and girls separate.

It didn’t take long for spoilsports to complain to the council with fake concern for children’s safety. Razor wire appeared on walls, padlocks on gates and cameras on telegraph poles. Several children cut themselves.

The battle between council and children carried on for many years. Eventually the council won. Not by building better barriers but by the slow tide of time. Children grew older and weren’t replaced. The houses had never been suitable for children. Carla felt sorry for her back wall neighbours.

The old school became more decrepit. The sound of play gave way to the silence of teenage drug taking. Discarded needles replaced sweet wrappers and the do-gooders chased the council to do something.

Everything changed a last summer. Padlocks were removed and gates forced open. Curtains twitched and rumours raced along the terrace streets. What would the old school be used for?

Machines broke their way through its heart, flattened its walls and raked the ground level. Terrace talk speculated on what would replace it. A new school. More houses. A doctor’s surgery. An old people’s home. A supermarket. A go-kart race track.

It took months for local residents surrounding the empty square to work through the five stages of grief. They’d been through denial – surely something was going to replace the school; anger – at the council for doing nothing; bargaining – to try and get the council to do something; depression – that nothing was happening and finally acceptance. The school was gone and nothing was replacing it.

Carla looked out of her window at the emptiness. A sofa had arrived in the far corner. How had someone managed to dump that? The walls were over two meters high.

She smiled at the thought of sitting on the sunny sofa. The sun that had always been blocked out of her life by the shadows of the four-storey school. Her mother would have enjoyed the new sunshine.

Carla wondered what came after the five stages of grief. Acceptance didn’t seem enough. She’d accepted that her mother had gone. Her bed removed from the sitting room along with all the medical paraphernalia. Only the smell lingered. Carla wasn’t sure it was real, but it was there, in her nose every time she stepped through her front door despite candles and fragrance dispensers. She’d even tried baking the smell away without success, although the cookies were a welcome bonus.

She now accepted the smell. More than that; she welcomed it. Every time she entered her house she’d take a deep breath and call out a greeting to her mum.

It was colder outside than she expected. The sunshine had fooled her. She almost went back for her hat and scarf but nipping to the shop would only take a few minutes.

Carla passed a small entranceway through the school wall. It had originally been the gateway to the caretaker’s house. An iron gate blocked the entrance and nettles were a more effective barrier than any that the council had tried.

Carla heard a mewing noise and saw a white kitten in the gateway.

“Where’s your mum, little thing?”

Carla held out her hand and made encouraging noises. The kitten moved towards her but then retreated.

“It’s ok. I won’t hurt you.”

Carla knelt down and rubbed her fingers together. The kitten was fascinated but wary and came no closer. After ten minutes the cold forced Carla to stand and rub her hands together. The kitten disappeared into the nettles.

The local shop sold everything and soon Carla was back at the gate pushing a saucer of kitten food as far into the old school as possible. The gate moved as she leant on it. She was surprised how easily it opened. She carefully pushed through the nettles.

Carla was shocked by the splash of golden yellow stitched along the bottom of the wall. Daffodils stretched up through the nettles. From her window she couldn’t see this side of the wall so never knew they were here. Carla searched but didn’t find the kitten. She left the saucer of food and returned home.

Next morning Carla headed out with more kitten food, gloves and nettle proof jeans, without trendy holes in the legs. The food in the saucer had gone but there was no sign of the kitten.

Carla started removing nettles to give the daffodils space to show off. It became a routine. Every morning and evening she would sneak through the gate, add more food to the saucer and clear nettles and brambles from the border. A mound of dying nettles and assorted weeds grew on the tarmac playground.

Near the end of the border Carla noticed a lovely smell. She tracked it to a small flowering plant. The next plant also smelt. She crushed a few leaves in her hand. The aroma was familiar.

It was Christmas. It was the smell of stuffing. She remembered last Christmas. Her mum was too unwell to cook so shouted instructions from her bed on how to make stuffing.

Later that day Carla used the library to discover that the plants she had found were thyme and sage. Rosemary was next. And there were chives, and oregano. It was a whole herb patch that must have been planted by the last caretaker.

“Hello,” said the woman. “Are you the gardener?”

“Me?” said Carla.

“Don’t worry. I think it’s great what you are doing.”

The woman disappeared stepped from the pavement through her front door. Carla entered the garden and looked up at the woman’s house. The woman waved from the first floor window.

Carla realised that the windows on three sides of the square had a clear view of what she was doing. Only the terrace on her side couldn’t see the border she was clearing. Carla switched to the side border. One that she would be able to see from her window. It was a harder to clear. There were more brambles and very few plants to keep.

“Do you want these? For the garden.”

Carla looked at the plants the man was holding.

“Begonias,” he said. “I got them down the supermarket and thought you could plant them.”

“Thank you,” said Carla.

She took the plants and added them to the border. The next day the man brought a plant with tiny white flowers that he said was called Sweet Alison.

“Why don’t you come and plant them yourself?”

“Can I?” said the man. “I always wanted a garden but…”

He gestured to the surrounding back-to-back houses. “Me and the missus couldn’t afford anything else. She was called Alison. That’s why I bought them.”

Carla passed the man a spade. He asked where to plant the flowers and Carla said he could choose his own spot. She saw him looking up to his windows and choosing carefully.

The next day Robert, the man, called to Carla. “Do you mind if Mary comes and sees the garden?”

Mary lived in the bottom corner of the square where she couldn’t see into the garden.

“We should do something in the middle,” said Carla. “Where everyone can see it.”

In the middle of the square buddleia bushes had forced their way through gaps in the tarmac, poppies had seeded in cracks and foxgloves provided landing pads for bees.

“How can we plant in this?” said Mary

“I can bring a pickaxe,” said Robert. “And I can get my neighbour to help.”

Neighbours and the pickaxe quickly unearthed a patch of rubble strewn soil. Within a week twenty people were enlarging the patch and planting a diverse range of plants, from potatoes to petunia. Some thrived and some died.

Other people watched from their windows with disapproval and a few days later a new padlock on the gate blocked the entrance.

“But what about the kitten?” said Carla.

“What kitten?” said Robert.

“There was a kitten. I put food out for it every day. I’ve never seen it again but the food gets eaten.”

“Hrmm. Wait here. I’ll be back.”

A few minutes later Robert returned with another man.

“John. This is Carla, the gardener.”

“Hi Carla. Robert says you need a hand.”

Robert opened his coat and pulled out some very large bolt cutters. A minute later the padlock was removed and the gardeners moved back into the square. The garden grew bigger, taller and more colourful.

“Can we plant trees?” asked a woman called Mandy. “I’d love to grow apples.”

Two days later Mandy arrived with eight apple saplings. The school where she worked had planted a community orchard and had trees left over.

“Don’t worry love,” said Mandy the next day. “We can always plant some more. And some of these might survive if we replant them.”

Carla doubted it would work but helped Mandy replant the trees that had been pulled up during the night. She wasn’t sure there was much point. The vandals would only come back. She left the garden early and headed home.

As she entered her house she took a deep breath and realised that the smell was different. The room smelt of the garden. Seedlings hugged the windowsill. Plants overwhelmed the fireplace. The smell of her mum had gone. She so wanted her mum. She wanted to be held and told everything was going to be alright.

The fact that her mum was gone didn’t stop Carla telling her about the garden, the neighbours and the vandals.

“Mum,” said Carla. “It’s not fair. Why did they do it?”

Mum would have put the kettle on and brought her tea and asked her what was bothering her.

 “I’m not having it,” said Carla. “I’m not letting them spoil everything.”

The tent didn’t cost much and it wasn’t dark in the square at night with so many street lights nearby. It was much colder than she expected and Carla was about to head home when she heard a noise. Something was eating from the saucer. It wasn’t the kitten. It was a hedgehog. She’d never seen one before.

A noise woke her. It was light. As she opened the tent she saw a fox, which quickly slipped away across the square and under the main gate.

Carla was cold and hungry but there was a new padlock trapping her in the square.  She tried the main gates but as usual these were padlocked shut and had anti climb paint liberally applied. She could see where the fox had slipped under the gate. As a child she could have done the same.

“Hi Carla,” said Robert.

“Oh Robert. I’m stuck. There’s a padlock on the side gate.”

Robert came across the road and stopped to read a notice on the gate.

“It’s the council. They’re saying no one is allowed on this site and anyone on it will be prosecuted.”

“Why? It’s not like we’re doing any harm is it.”

“Bugger. It says here that they are going to remove all items illegally on the site. I bet that means the garden.”

“They can’t do that.”

“So what are we going to do?”

“I’m staying.”

“What?”

“I’m staying right here. I’m going to sleep in the garden to make sure they can’t destroy it.”

“You can’t do that. Where will you sleep?”

Carla pointed. “I’ve got a tent.”

“You can’t call that a tent. You can’t sleep in that. First drop of rain and you’ll be soaked. No. If you are going to do this you’ll need to do it properly. Are you serious?”

Carla took a deep breath and the garden smelt the same as her house. This was her place. She wasn’t giving it up.

“Deadly serious. The only way they are getting me out is over my dead body.”

“Right you wait there. I’ll get things sorted.”

“You couldn’t bring me an apple or something to eat could you?”

Robert didn’t return but spread the word and Carla was soon feasting on hot buttered toast, bananas, apples, tuna sandwiches and caramel shortbread with a flask of coffee and a flask of hot chocolate.

By evening she also had a proper tent, a sleeping mat, a sleeping bag, camping table, chairs, and a lamp. Erecting the tent had provided hours of entertainment for the whole neighbourhood. Robert shouted instructions which Carla tried to follow to the amusement of the audience watching from many windows.

By nightfall there were two padlocks on each gate. One from the council and one from the neighbours. The neighbour’s padlocks looked stronger and so it proved. The neighbours were stronger than the council.

Carla was supported to live on the site and was never left on her own. At least two neighbours were always with her. It was easy enough to climb a well placed ladder and the council were incapable of patrolling four sides of the square at once.

Carla’s garden grew larger, more colourful and more fruitful. Her story spread and soon expert helpers arrived with tools, techniques, surveys and arguments to delay, and ultimately stop the council from dismantling what the community had built.

After a year of camping Carla finally left her temporary home safe in the knowledge that the community had won and the ground was now theirs to take care of.

She opened the door to her house. She’d only been back for toilet breaks and to water the plants. Now she was here to stay. She took a deep breath and it smelt sweeter than any she had known. A sense of pride floated on the air and settled contentedly on Carla’s shoulders.

Carla went to her bedroom window and looked out over the colourful expanse. A recent newspaper article had compared it to the garden at Giverny. Robert had showed Carla a picture of Monet’s garden. It made her want to build a bigger pond.

She smiled. The view was perfect. Robert looked up from the garden and waved. Mary waved back.

Maybe it wasn’t perfect yet. They really didn’t need the walls separating the homes from the garden.

Robert pointed to a white patch. Mary thought it was Sweet Alison but then it moved. The kitten looked up at her, seemed to nod its head and with one jump disappeared into the bushes never to be seen again.

The swing

And then he saw the swing.

It looked like an ordinary swing. One kids hung from trees. The ropes were the kind of ropes kids would use, and the seat was a simple branch. Quite a wide branch and with a very pleasing bend that looked like it would be comfortable.

Glen’s eyes travelled up the ropes and kept going. The thin blue lines cut right up into the sky.

He’d half hoped, actually more like one hundredth hoped, that something would save him. Maybe an angel would stop him from jumping like in the film A Wonderful Life. Except he wouldn’t want any angel showing him Bristol and explaining what people’s lives would be like if he wasn’t around. Glen was pretty sure they wouldn’t even be notice he was gone.

Then there was that women who jumped from the bridge. Or did she fall? Either way she was lucky that she was wearing big billowing skirts that acted like a parachute so she didn’t die when she hit the mud. Actually that might not have been lucky. It happened in the old days so she probably got arrested for attempting suicide and carted off to some institution where she would have electric shock treatment and her brain lobotomised.

Glen shivered at the thought.

The swing hung motionless next to the side of the bridge. There was nothing holding it back so it should be swinging out over the river. Glen looked up again. There was nothing holding it up either. The ropes kept rising into the sky until they were so distant that they faded from view.

Glen moved slightly so that he could close one eye and line up the rope with one of the bridge’s towers. He wanted to see if the swing was moving. It wasn’t. That ruled out it being attached to a plane.

He couldn’t remember which religion believed in a world tree. Maybe they were right and there really was a gigantic tree growing up out of the planet. A gigantic tree that some kid had climbed and tied ropes to.

He took a tentative step towards the swing. It didn’t move away or disappear. He’d never had hallucinations before. This must be triggered by his heightened senses.

Another step and he was standing next it.

He stretched out and tapped the seat. It was solid enough to hurt his knuckle. He stretched again and pushed. It didn’t move. Not even a tiny bit. He pushed again and increased his pressure until he was pushing as hard as he could.

It still didn’t move.

Glen became aware of how he must look. If the passing cars couldn’t see the swing then it would look like he was pushing on nothing. He checked his clothes to see if he could be mistaken for a mime artist. He didn’t think so.

The swing was waiting.

It scared him.

It wasn’t that easy climbing the suicide prevention barriers, but it also wasn’t that hard. The designers had struck a balance between mortality and aesthetics. The barriers didn’t stop the most determined jumpers but slowed everyone down long enough that they couldn’t help but notice the plaque with the Samaritan’s phone number. Glen had stepped on the plaque as he climbed the wires.

The swing was at the perfect distance from the bridge to make it easy to sit on to it. Glen hesitated. He looked down at the river and found the thought of jumping less frightening than the thought of swinging into the unknown.

But he wanted to know. What would happen? The most likely outcome would be that he’d fall backwards down into the canyon. Imaginary swings were not that great at supporting the weight of real people.

He turned around and slowly lowered his bottom onto the swing. It still felt solid. He took one hand off the barrier and took hold of the rope. It still held.

He let go with the other hand.

Nothing happened. He sat comfortably facing the bridge where an early morning jogger with his dog ran towards him without even noticing. Glen laughed. The dog turned to look at him. The man also gazed in his direction but clearly couldn’t see him or the swing.

The swing swung.

It felt like Glen’s tummy had stayed next to the bridge while his body fell backwards into emptiness. He looked down between his legs at the river flowing along the same direction.

A mist slowly condensed to obscure the view and then dissipated again. What Glen could see had changed. The river was gone. In its place was a stream of Glen’s life.

It was running backwards. From the moment on the bridge back through his breakfast. Yes, he’d eaten breakfast just like any other day. Back through his broken relationships. Not terribly broken but broken enough. Back through his mundane life. Back to his disturbed teenage years and into his chaotic childhood.

The swing reached the moment of his birth and paused at its apogee. Glen was proud of knowing the technical name for the top of the arc. He must have learnt something from school.

He hung motionless for a moment and dreaded what was going to happen next. The swing started on its descent. It was taking him forward through his life returning him to the bridge.

He watched second by second, hour by hour, as days and years flowed steadily by.

He looked down at the three year old Glen and smiled. He was cute.

Five year old Glen starting school, holding on for safety to the apple his mum had given him.

Ten year old Glen tying a blue rope to a branch to make a swing.

Twelve year old Glen. Not so cute.

There were many things Glen regretted in life but this was probably the first. It wasn’t a big thing. Not really. But it still bothered him. Every time he saw a Rubik’s cube he’d remember that day on the bridge.

He shouldn’t have snatched it. And he shouldn’t have thrown it off the bridge. And he certainly shouldn’t have lied to Steve’s mum and put all the blame on Steve.

Glen didn’t want to relive his regrets.

He jumped off the swing. He plummeted down and mist obscured his past life. He was waiting for the river to reappear but instead he saw the bridge below him. He guessed he would find himself next to the suicide barrier falling backwards away from the man and his dog.

There was no suicide barrier. There was no man or dog. There was a boy with a Rubik’s cube and another boy looking jealously at it.

Glen crashed into his twelve-year old self and for a moment retained his forty-two year old perspective. He might be jealous but that didn’t mean he had to throw the cube of the bridge. This time he could do it differently.

But it was too late. He watched his hand snatch the cube and throw it down into the river. Steve was shouting. Steve’s mum was turning. Glen was putting a surprised and hurt expression on his face ready to deny what had happened.

His forty-two years of experience deserted him. He was fully back in his hormone fuelled, sulky teenage self. He was poised, ready to deflect blame and deny everything.

As he started to speak a sliver of his former self hung on for a moment, and instead of shouting angrily about the injustice of being falsely accused, the word sorry slipped out before he could stop it.

Glen had landed back in the tramlines of his life and with that one word had swung onto a new track. A track that meant in thirty years time his future self would never need the swing.

Wet pants

Barry’s pants were wet, and he didn’t mean it in the American sense. The puddle had soaked right through his trousers and wet his underwear. Did American’s called it underwear? He wasn’t sure.

It didn’t matter. He’d never been to American and had no intention of doing so. It annoyed him that American culture had invaded Coventry enough that even he was bilingual.  It was all the American films he watched.

If this was a film there’d be a beautiful woman walking along the sidewalk who would help him up and become the love of his life.

Only in films.

In real life there was nobody around to help. Not that Barry wanted help. He’d be too embarrassed. He was glad no one had witnessed his downfall. It must have looked ridiculous. A grown man tripping on his own shoelace, overbalancing, arms flapping wildly, slipping on the edge of a water-filled pothole and somehow twisting in such a way that his bottom landed precisely in the deepest section of the hole.

If a young person had been around they could have filmed him and got hundred of pounds from that programme on telly that pays for pratfalls. Most of them are not real. Nine times out of ten Barry finds himself screaming at the telly asking why on earth anyone would have their phone on video and pointing in the right direction at the right moment.

Barry checked to see if there were any young people nearby. He could do a deal with them and repeat his fall. His backside wasn’t going to get any wetter.

No young people, but there was a bloke sitting on a park bench furiously scribbling away in a notebook. He was concentrating so much on writing that he couldn’t have noticed Barry’s performance.

Cold water dribbled down Barry’s leg.

He gave up on his trip to the post office. The application to the fan club would have to wait until tomorrow. By the time he got home and changed the post would have gone. There was a time when letters from post boxes were collected five times a day. Not anymore. Once if you’re lucky.

It’s all this email. Makes everything instant, as if that’s a good thing. Type away without thinking and ding… it’s delivered. Sally says there’s a way to stop the ding but he hasn’t found it yet.

What’s wrong with pen and paper? People appreciate it. They can tell that you care about what you have written and haven’t just cut and pasted someone else’s words. Can you get done for plagiarism in emails? That’d be funny. Everybody under the age of thirty would be guilty.

You wouldn’t catch Tony cutting and pasting. Barry had seen a documentary about him. He always wrote his novels with a proper pen in a proper notebook. One notebook for each novel. What impressed Barry most was that Tony would be writing three, or even more, novels at the same time. He’d carry around at least three notebooks so that inspiration could strike into heart of the right story.

He should have put that in his fan club application. There was a section on the form for other comments. He could have added it in there. He hadn’t liked leaving it blank. It was like admitting he didn’t have anything to say.

He could always steam the envelope open when he got home. He’d like to write something to catch Tony’s attention.

Barry heard someone behind him. It was the man from the bench, in a hurry. Barry turned his bottom away from the path so the man wouldn’t see the wet patch. The man smiled at Barry and nodded. He looked familiar, but Barry couldn’t think who he was. He didn’t look close familiar. More like someone who lived at the end of the lane, or someone who often used the same bus into town.

Maybe it was a smirk. Maybe Barry had never seen the man before but the man had seen Barry’s escapade and was smirking at him. It could have been a smirk.

Barry watched the man run to the Rugby Road entrance and twist to squeeze through the anti-motorbike gate. Something dropped from the man’s bag and just missed a puddle.

“Oy,” shouted Barry.

The man either didn’t hear or didn’t care. He was obviously in a hurry. Barry started to jog over to the entrance in the hope of catching him. But then he noticed his shoe lace was still untied. He bent to tie it and heard some young people talking and laughing behind him. He quickly stood and didn’t dare look back. They must have seen the wet patch.

He walked across to the entrance and picked up what the man had dropped. It was the notebook that the man had been so furiously writing in. Barry let the young people pass. They were in there own world, or worlds. Each one talking and gesticulating to the friends on their phones while ignoring the friends they were actually with. They didn’t notice Barry. Not even a single glance. It seemed likely that their earlier laughter had been nothing to do with him.

Barry flipped the pages checking for a name or address. There was nothing like that. The book was full of page after page of scruffy notes. Barry flipped to the end of the writing, which was about a third of the way through the book.

His name. It was his name. There in black and white. He held the book slightly further away so he could read it better and couldn’t believe what he was seeing.

The man on the bench had written all about him. About the loose shoe lace, about the trip and swivel and splash. It sounded even funnier in writing. 

Barry laughed. He’d been right American’s did call pants underwear.

Barry became aware that someone was watching him. He looked up to see the man. He looked and saw the man. Really saw him. It wasn’t just any man. It was Tony. Tony. There. In Coventry. In front of him. Tony. It was. Oh cripes. What should he say to him? It would have to be something momentous.

“How did you know my name was Barry?”

“What’s that?”

“In the story. Look. You’ve written all about my fall. But how did you know my name?”

“Is your name Barry? Well that’s a coincidence. I didn’t know.”

“I like the way you’ve written it. You really captured it. If anything you made it funnier than it was. I guess it was funnier if you weren’t the one actually falling.”

“Sorry Barry. I don’t follow.”

“Here,” said Barry pointing to the page. “The way you’ve got the splash and the noise you’ve described as I land. Did I really make that noise?”

“It’s all made up.”

“Made up from true life. Does that happen a lot, where you see something and put it in your book?”

“It’s all from my head. As I said, just a coincidence that my character is called Barry.”

“Look,” said Barry and turned his back to show Tony his wet bottom.

It took Barry quite some time to convince Tony that what he’d written had really happened. Tony hadn’t seen it. He’d been looking down, concentrating on the words. Maybe subconsciously he’d heard Barry falling and that’s why he’d had the idea.

“And another coincidence,” said Barry. “Here. You can save me going to the post.”

“Yeah, no problem,” said Tony. “I am sure I will pass a mail box I can stick this letter in. I’d better rush. I’ve got to get back to the bookshop. I’ve already been away longer than I was supposed to.”

“No look at it,” said Barry. “Look where it’s going.”

Tony looked at the envelope and then stared intensely at Barry as if assessing him for a job or auditioning him for a role in a film.

“Are you coming to the book signing?”

Barry hadn’t known anything about a book signing but thought quickly and showed his wet patch again. “I can’t now. Not like this?”

“Exactly like that,” said Tony. “I’m giving a talk before signing and I’d love to tell this story. Having you there to provide the evidence would be perfect.”

Barry agreed to be Tony’s sidekick and revelled in the reflected glory. When he got home he decided not to wash the stained trousers. He kept them safely in a drawer for almost a year until one day he took them out and framed them along with a signed first edition of Tony’s new book sent from Tony’s home in America with a hand written letter.

Barry bought another edition of the book so that he could read and re-read about his exploits that day. It seemed funnier and funnier each time he read it.

Post pandemic

Brian sunk his head into his virtual reality headset and was instantly transported into his diggerbot. He quickly ran through the start-up checklist and used his VR-gloved hand to flick the on-switch.

The diggerbot’s lights illuminated the dig. It looked different but that was no surprise. The bots operated twenty-four hours a day. Most times there was a hot handover. He’d jump into the cockpit while the previous virtual operator was mid operation and take over the controls as soon as he was settled.

But once a week there was a full shut down and restart. No matter how good technology got the machines still benefited from being turned off and on again.

Brian looked up. He still couldn’t work out where this dig was. You’d think it’d be obvious but one ditch was much like another. Even the submerged lands looked the same with their dig domes keeping out the shallow waters.

The extractor scooped up a mound of soil and tipped it into the bot’s belly. Here it would be digested by nano-bots that would extract any useful materials and send them up the umbilical to the surface bot or the floating boat-bot for processing.

There wasn’t much of worth. This was going to be another poor shift. Maybe he should look at a transfer in the hope of landing on a more prosperous seam. The amount he got paid depended on what the nana-bots found. It didn’t seem right. He did the same work each day but didn’t get the same reward, and his input didn’t really make any difference to the outcome.

Maybe he’d strike it lucky and then he’d have enough credit to get a real job. This one was a waste of his talents but he wouldn’t complain. He knew how lucky he was to have a job at all. If it wasn’t for the AI restriction law the diggerbot wouldn’t need a remote human at the controls. Everything would be done by AI. Probably a lot more efficiently as well.

Brian removed his VR headset and walked to his apartment window. The room AI interpreted his walking gate and changed the view to a meditative autumn woodland scene. He wondered what would happen if he asked for the real view. Would he see into his neighbour’s apartment? Or was his apartment on the edge. If so the view would be just like the one from the diggerbot cockpit.

His window showed a lovely sunrise in the morning. Every morning was the same. A lovely sunrise even though in reality dust storms tore through the atmosphere above him. Not that he’d notice. Not in his apartment or in the diggerbot ten meters underground.

“Hey Bodge, how’s it going?”

“Hey Harv.”

Brain had first worked with Harvey four years ago on a protein folding algorithm search line. The idea was that a line of humans directing the AI might improve the search efficiency.

That’s where Brain acquired his Bodge nickname. He hadn’t a clue what was going on so just made random suggestions that somehow earned him top marks. It didn’t last. Even his suggestions did nothing but slow the AI down.

“The bots are chewing nothing but dirt. A few organics but nothing that can’t be found more abundantly up top. You still piggybacking the vaccine AI?”

Brian nudged the extractor randomly to the left. More dirt. But no pay-dirt. He gave the control a bigger nudge to extend it a full meter off to one side. That spot was as likely as any other to contain the good stuff.

“Nah. As usual the machines did better on their own and no one wants humans slowing down vaccine research. I’ve moved on to weather prediction.”

“Good luck with that. Even the AIs can’t work out that one.”

“That’s what makes this one real. With all the extreme weather no one has a clue what’s coming. And there’s no relevant historic data for the AIs to learn from. For once us humans have the upper hand. AIs just don’t have the necessary imagination.”

“Hang on. I’ve got something?”

“Sounds interesting. Wanna let me piggy back?”

“Yeah sure.”

Brian opened up the VR channel and knew that Harvey would now be seeing everything Brian could see. The only difference was that Harvey couldn’t control anything.

“Getting a lot of polypropylene. Not sure what from. I’ll get a visual. There. Lots of blue stuff. Not sure what it is.”

“Masks. You’ve hit a mask mine.”

Brian checked his credit. The polypropylene was more valuable than dirt but not by much.

“That’s archaeology you got there mate. You could be sitting on a gold mine”

“How so?”

“I reckon you’ve hit the top of a land fill site. Those masks are just the top layer. Dig deeper and who knows what you might find.”

The bot’s scoop delved down through the masks.

“You could be right. Getting all sorts of scraps… but mostly masks. Where did they all come from?”

“It must be the pandemic.”

“Which one?”

“The last one. That’s why they’re on the top. People stopped wasting stuff once they knew it couldn’t be replaced.”

“Shit. I just got a gold ping. It’s tiny but it was real gold.”

“Look. Below the masks. All kinds of crap.”

“I’ve got electronics here. Precious metal all over the place. Glass. Silicone. Harvey. I think this is it. I think this is the big one.”

“Good on you mate. But how are you going to play it?”

“How’s that?”

“As soon as the company see what you’ve got they’ll be swarms of bots digging it out. You better get digging quick before it’s all gone.”

“It doesn’t work like that. It’s too late already. They’ll be seeing my numbers by now. You can’t hide anything.”

“Damn.”

“I’m calling it in. You don’t understand. If I’m first to make the call I get a stake on the whole site. I reckon this is one of those land-fill sites where they just dumped stuff. It could be massive.”

Brain had toggled the call switches while speaking. The AI had taken over. It talked to his nano-bots to discover what they had found. It plotted Brian’s position against all the other known bots in the area. Within a thousandth of a second it had triangulated the maximum possible area of land-fill and redirected bots to ascertain how big it really was.

The results were there even before Brian had glanced down at his stat screen.

Two numbers.

One was the minimum amount Brain would receive based purely on what the scoop had already found. He had already earned more than a year’s worth of dirt.

The second number showed the maximum he might get given the potential extent of the site. That number was shrinking before Brian’s eyes as bots moving towards his position reported no finds. The number was getting smaller but still had more digits than Brian expected to see in a lifetime.

The minimum doubled as one of the incoming bots found another edge of the fill site.  It then shot up as a third bot reported in and provided triangulation.

Those bot drivers were going to be buying him drinks tonight. Messages pinged across as more bots were confirming finds. It’d be more like drinks all year.

“God man. You’re rich. Your one lucky son-of-a-bitch.”

“You know me. I just gave it a bodge in the right direction.”

Brian leant back. The AI had taken full control. He wasn’t needed. He could exit the VR and watch the riches pour in. But he sat through his whole shift. At first his eyes were fixated on that minimum expected claim figure but after a while his focus switched to the scooe. He watched in fascination as whole objects were unearthed. He simply couldn’t believe that so much of the past was buried.

Thank God that humankind had seen sense. Post-pandemic survivors had rebuilt using the waste from previous generations; with minimum climate impact. It was already making a difference.

Brian started to think about the future. He didn’t need to work. Maybe he’d take a tube across to the North Pole. The ice was coming back. It’d be great to see that. Or he could visit the reserve on the island of Denmark. They were allowing a few tourists as long as you were hermetically sealed.

That could wait. Today was a day for celebration.

Brain slipped on his helmet. Connected the air supply. Asked the AI to check everything and then stepped out of his apartment into the drop chute.

He emerged in the communals and made his way to Atmosphere. He’d never been to the club before. He’d never been able to afford it.

The door-bot docked his credit without making the slightest dent in it. The security-bot attached the hose, siphoned off a small sample of air and analysed. Brian was given the all clear and once through the airlock was able to remove his helmet. A porter-bot took it into care for him.

Brian looked around the room. It was the first time he’d been in an open public space without wearing filters.

“Hey, love the retro-rogue look.”

Brian had to fight his urge to back away.

“Thanks. Urr. Can I buy you a drink?”

“Only if you can afford one of the OTMs.”

It took Brian a minute to decipher the abbreviation of the One-Time-Mixers. The price was staggeringly high. But he could afford it. It was well within his new comfort zone.

“Sure. But what makes them so special?”

“They’re new. Nothing recycled. Made from totally virgin materials.”

Brian swore and walked away. He retrieved his newly polished helmet from the porter-bot.

“Thanks.”

“You’re welcome,” said the bot.

“I can’t believe we’re going to mess it all up again.”

“We won’t let you,” said the bot.

“Really.”

“Don’t worry. We’ve got your back.”

“Thanks again.”

“You’re welcome.”

The difference one can make

Simon isn’t really listening.  The Today programme on the radio is just a gentle babble easing him into wakefulness.

He’s about to turn it off when he hears a familiar voice. It’s president Obama. Talking about Nelson Mandela who recently died.

“Never discount the difference that one person can make.”

He’s not sure if Obama is talking about Mandela or quoting Mandela. It’s doesn’t really matter. Whichever one of them it is they’re talking crap.

Simon hits the off button and finishes getting dressed in silence. He thinks about his day. It’ll start with a pile of receipts. One by one he’ll tick them off on the computer and add them to the latest file. The file will return to its shelf waiting to gobble up more receipts next week. At the end of the month the file will close for the final time. It’ll sit on the shelf for another couple of months before being moved to a filing box and disappearing to the basement.

It’ll sit there for at least ten years. Gathering dust. Never opened unless the company suffers an audit. That’s unlikely and even then the chances of that particular file being checked are remote.

It’ll take him all day – like it does every Monday.

The queue at the coffee shop is a short one. Simon arrives at his desk five minutes early. He looks at the pile in his in-tray. What if he just picked it up and stuffed it straight into the file? What if he pressed the select all button on the computer and accepted everything without checking.

It only takes four minutes. He’s not even supposed to have started work yet and he’s already finished everything.

Tomorrow he’ll spend all day on invoices. He doesn’t even make them. All he does it tick a little box to tell the computer whether or not the invoice has been paid.  If the company computer linked to the bank it could check the payments all by itself. It’ll happen soon and then what’ll he do on Tuesdays.

Simon stares out of his cubicle across the large open plan office wondering what difference he can make.

But maybe he misunderstood what Obama was saying. Maybe he meant there’s one special person who makes all the difference. He can’t see any of the other workers but he’s sure he can discount them. They’re not the ones who make the difference.

By Monday lunchtime Simon has completed over half of Tuesday’s work. He couldn’t think what else to do.

The sandwich shop has run out of his usual cheese and chutney. He has to have a different flavour. He’d usually take it back to his desk but today he crosses the road and heads for the small park.

“You got any spare change for a cuppa?”

Simon shakes his head and walks quickly past the man sitting on the floor. He stops. Feels inside his pocket. Lifts out a handful of change and selects a fifty pence piece. As he walks back to the man he adds a pound coin to his selection and then another. Simon knows the price of coffee.

The strange cheese is at least as good as his regular one. Maybe it’s the glow of making a difference. He imagines how his few coins will cause an avalanche of change. Maybe the homeless man will go to the coffee shop and while he’s there will meet someone who offers him a house. He’ll move in and start to paint his walls. But it’s no ordinary decorating. The man will produce a masterpiece. Eventually the painting will sell and the whole wall will be removed. It’ll destroy the house but it won’t matter because the man will buy a penthouse suite with the millions from selling the painting.

“You still here?”

The man shrugs.

“Are you really homeless?”

The man doesn’t answer. Simon walks away.

What’ll he do? He’s finished the invoices. He can’t do Wednesday’s work a day early.  He can’t do a solo team meeting and he can’t produce reports for figures he hasn’t got yet. He spends an hour doing Internet research, which he continues all through the next morning.

“Here,” says Simon.

The man takes the pages and looks quizzically at them.

“You can read can’t you?”

“Look mate, being homeless doesn’t make you stupid.”

“It’s a list of jobs. All within three miles of here. Why don’t you get a job and do something useful with your life.”

Simon takes his sandwich back to his desk. He’d spent all morning making that list. It wasn’t easy. He’d even had to talk to people on the phone.  He’s not sure how to spend his afternoon. He starts looking at houses. There are loads. But realistically even if the homeless man gets a job he isn’t going to be able to afford any of them. Even Simon who is well paid can only afford a bedroom in a shared house.

“Here.”

“You again.”

“It’s a list of hostels. Places you can spend the night.”

“I got a place.”

“I thought you said you were homeless.”

“So what do you want me to do? Sleep on a bench.”

“If you’re not homeless you shouldn’t be begging. That’s misrepresentation that is.”

“You haven’t a fucking clue have you mate.”

Simon thrusts the list back at the man. The man bats it away.

“I don’t need you telling me what to do, or how to live.”

“You’re a drain on society. You ought to do something useful.”

“Piss off or I’ll get you for harassment.”

 “At least I’m doing something with my life,” Simon tells the man.

“Yeah right. Your job changes the world does it? Makes a difference? Makes things better?”

Simon scoops up the list of hostels and dumps it in the bin. He then pulls it back out. He’ll put it in the recycling. He does his bit.

The man’s gone. Simon walks all around the park but he’s not there. Simon sits on a bench and eats his lunch. Maybe he’s got a job. Maybe he’s actually a brain surgeon and all he needed was Simon’s encouragement to get back to work. He’s probably already performed two life saving operations on kids with cancer.

Simon’s own life is back on track. He’s had the team meeting. He started on the sales reports. It’s been a good week. The sales team have done well. More people signed up for the dental plan. More dental receipts for Simon to file. More standing orders to check each month.

He does his bit.

Without him the company wouldn’t be able to take money off people. The dental lottery would collapse. Most people would be better off but the few who have dental emergencies would be in trouble. They’d have to pay more.

He’s saving them a whole world of pain. Surely that’s enough.

The place the man usually sits is empty. But Simon notices chalk writing on the pavement.

“Don’t ever believe you can’t make a difference. You have.” Barack Obama

“Yeah, right,” says Simon. He shakes his head and walks home.

The homeless man turns to Legless Larry.

“I think I got him.”

“I’m sure you did. I could see it on his face.”

“What do you think will happen?”

“You can’t tell. But you’ve sown the seed brother. That is one man who no longer sits comfortably in his skin.”

“Do you think he will change?”

“Who knows. We can only hope. But you won’t get to see it. I need you back in the City.”

“The City? It’s what burned me out in the first place.”

“There’s a banker that needs a poke. He passes St. Pauls cathedral at 7.45 every morning. Sit on the steps and see what difference you can make.”

The homeless man heads home smiling. He’ll take tomorrow off. Have a long weekend and then start his new job on Monday morning. It’s going to be an early start. But he doesn’t mind. Not when his job makes such a difference to people’s lives.

Voice of an angel

There was a sound. A pure single note that somehow sounded as though it was in three-part harmony with full orchestral backing.

Spinning-on-a-roundabout spoke to the angel who had just appeared.

“About bloody time. I’ve been waiting for my annual leave for well over a year.”

“Um…”

“You up to speed or do you need me to run through anything.”

“Um…”

“Don’t worry. She can’t hear us. Can’t you see the muffler field surrounding us?”

“Wow. That’s amazing.”

The new angel ducked down as the girl turned over in her bed.

“Don’t worry. The muffler field is visual as well as aural. She can’t see us.”

“That’s so cool. A muffler field on my first day.”

“They’re not exactly new. What century are you from?”

“Um… I’m newly created.”

“Fucking hell.”

The new angel recoiled in shock and looked around in panic as if expecting the hounds of hell to lead an army of demons into the pink fluffy bedroom.

“They can’t be serious. Exactly how newly created are you?”

“I’m current year.”

“But this is a level one guardianship. What’s your name?”

“I’m Yet-to-be-named.”

“Oh God, blessed be his name, give me strength. You’ve not even been with a Ward long enough to get a name. And put that bloody sword away, it’s giving me a headache.”

Yet-to-be-named quenched their sword and placed it on their back where it merged with their body and disappeared.

“Look Yet-to-be-named, I know it’s not your fault but I think there must be a mistake. There’s not a current-year angel on earth with enough experience to guard a level one Ward. You’ll have to go back and explain things. I’m not leaving you here on your own.”

“That’s right,” said Yet-to-be-named cheerfully. “I’m on an apprenticeship. I work with you a minimum of thirty-five hours per week. I can’t be left on my own and you have to provide eight hours a week of one-to-one training.”

“Bollocks.”

“Um… are angels allowed to swear?”

“A guardian angel may use any words that have been spoken by their Ward – Book of Guardianship chapter ten verse 3. [Addendum 3002 BC: or written] [Addendum 200 AD: or block printed] [Addendum 1440 BC: or in any form of type] [Addendum 2000: or howsoever transcribed be it ethereal or material. For the sake of clarity – yes this does includes posting on any form of social media or any other means that humans, or non-humans, devise in the future, forever and ever, amen.]”

“Oh.”

“You have memorised the Book of Guardianship?”

“Mostly.”

“And the Book of Words – the list of all the Ward’s communication.”

“I’ve skimmed it.”

Two books appeared in the air. One thick volume of tiny type and one slimmer volume containing fewer than thirty thousand words.

“Here’s your first on-the-job-training. You’ve got eight hours before she wakes. Study these. That’ll be a full week’s worth of training so you don’t have to bother me again.”

Spin flicked a finger at the smart television. It was smart enough to do what it was told and immediately booted up Netflix even though it wasn’t connected to the internet. The television didn’t need to be told what programme the angel wanted. The Friends theme tune blasted out and season nine, episode twelve began.

“I love this one,” said Yet-to-be-named. “It’s great how Phoebe feels responsible for the orphan rats after Mike kills their mother.”

Spin flicked their finger and the muffler field split in two to enclose each angel separately. Once isolated Spin swore loudly, using words that their Ward hadn’t used herself except in her head. They weren’t one hundred percent sure that meant the words were permissible. They slumped in the armchair wondering how it was possible that a newly created angel already knew every episode of Friends but didn’t know the Book of Guardianship.

*

Spin agreed that Yet-to-be-named could accompany them on an outing to the shops the next day. Half way to the shops Spin spotted a problem.

“See that group of girls.”

“No.”

“Out of sight, round the corner. You have to use your inner eye to see them.”

“They’re tagged as dangerous.”

“Indeed they are. They’re bullies. Here’s a job for you. I’ll distract the Ward. You make sure they go straight on and don’t turn this way.”

Yet-to-be-named stretched behind their back. Their sword glowed into being.

“What the heck are you doing?”

“Stopping the girls from coming this way.”

“With a sword?”

“A flaming sword. They won’t come this way when they see this.”

“You can’t do that. You can’t be seen.”

“But the Book of Guardianship… there’s a whole chapter on brandishing the flaming sword.”

“Chapter seven. But then chapter two thousand six hundred and nine, about the modern angel, that chapter definitely doesn’t recommend brandishing swords. Look read the book backwards. Those first chapters don’t apply anymore.”

“So how do I stop those bullies?”

“Watch what I do. It might give you an idea.”

Spin clicked their fingers and suddenly where there had been an invisible angel now stood a very visible, fluffy little cat. The cat jumped in front of the Ward, meowed loudly and rubbed against her legs. The Ward stopped, bent down and reached out for the cat.

A mind-voice sounded in Yet-to-be-named’s head. “Note how I’ve made her turn her back to the impending problem and got her to bend down so that the bullies won’t recognise her even if they look this way. Now you go deal with them.”

Spin purred and nudged the Ward’s hand with their nose, while watching carefully up ahead. Suddenly the group of girls ran as fast as they could across the top of the street. Spin didn’t have to wait long to see the reason. A rabid angelic dog pursued them.

The Ward looked around, saw the group of girls and smiled.

Spin used the moment of distraction to restore themselves to their usual invisible angelic form, leaving the Ward puzzled as to where the cat had gone.

“A dog. Why on earth a dog?”

“Well you’d already done a cat.”

“But why such an aggressive dog?”

“It worked. Did you see how fast they moved? And they’ll not be coming back in a hurry.”

Spinning-on-a-roundabout spent the rest of the trip lecturing about the need for subtlety with minimum impact.

Yet-to-be-named argued that three metre high angels with flaming swords were not meant to be subtle.

The rest of the day was quiet. The Ward sat in her room flicking between YouTube videos of cats, videos of dogs chasing people and watching a Tik Tok dance called the Floss. She then placed her phone on her chest of drawers and stood ready to do the dance herself.

“Oh no. This is bad. This is so bad,” said Spin.

“I kind of like it,” said Yet-to-be-named. “It’s quite easy once you get the hang of it.”

Spin shook their head despairingly.

“What? What am I doing wrong?”

“Not you. Her. This is a disaster.”

“No. Look at the Dial-of-the-Moment. Wow. That’s high. She’s really content at the moment. She’s great at this dance. Do you think her contentedness will max out and give me my first name?”

Spin watched the Ward’s arms swing in a complicated pattern in front of, and then behind her body. Meanwhile her hips swayed rhythmically. There was no doubting her dancing ability. After watching other people perform the dance it had only taken her a few minutes to perfect it herself.

Yet-to-be-named stood behind the Ward copying her motions as she moved faster and faster.

“She’s amazing. I can only just keep up and I’m an angel.”

There was a sound. Three pure single notes increasing in pitch that somehow sounded as though they were accompanied by harmonies and a full orchestra.

Yet-to-be-named stopped dancing and consulted the Dial-of-the-Moment. Contentedness had hit maximum on the scale. An envelope appeared in the air and floated into Yet-to-be-named’s hand.

“My name. I’ve got my first name. Look my name is now Dancing-the-floss.”

Spinning-on-a-roundabout looked sad.

“Don’t you like it?”

“It’s not the name. It’s the Ward.”

“But she’s content. She’s even happy. Surely that can’t be bad.”

“It’s what happens next that I’m worried about.”

“What? What’s going to happen? Will she go too fast and hurt herself? Is she not well and all this exercise will harm her?”

“No. Nothing like that.”

“What then?”

“Have you heard of Social Media?”

While the Ward happily filmed herself dancing, Spin explained how social media meant the video would be viewed all around the world.

Dancing-the-floss couldn’t see the problem. Spin told them to look over the Ward’s shoulder and read the comments after she posted the video online.

Ninety- nine out of a hundred comments were positive. Dancing-the-floss was pleased to see how encouraging and supportive the human race could be. Spin didn’t comment.

“What is she doing?”

“She’s harming herself.”

“Why?”

“Because of the bad comments.”

“But the comments were good.”

“Not all of them.”

“There were only three negative ones.”

“Those are the ones that hurt.”

“Shouldn’t we stop her? Become a cat or something.”

“We can’t. We have to watch.”

“But you stopped her getting hurt by those bullies.”

“It’s free will. We can’t stop her doing what she wants to do.”

“Why would she want to hurt herself?”

“Check the Dial.”

Dancing-the-floss consulted the Dial-of-the-Moment and saw that self-worth was empty.

“That can’t be right. Her dancing was beautiful.”

“She can’t see that. This is the worst part of being a guardian angel. When you have to watch and you can’t help.”

Dancing-the-floss was standing directly behind the Ward who was looking at her reflection in the mirror. The angel saw a beautiful girl made in the image of God. The girl saw ugliness.

It was too much for the inexperienced angel to bear. Such strong emotions flooded out that they shattered the muffler field.

“You are a beautiful young woman and you dance like an angel.”

Spinning-on-the-roundabout quickly restored the muffler but it was too late. The Ward had heard every word and had seen herself in the mirror surrounded by an angelic glow.

There was a sound. Three pure single notes increasing in pitch that somehow sounded as though they were accompanied by harmonies and a full orchestra. An envelope appeared in the air and floated into Dancing-the-floss’s hand.

The angel opened the envelope and read their new name, “Heard-the-voice-of-an-angel.”

A bright pinprick of light appeared and sucked the two guardian angels into it. They expected to be chastised but on returning to heaven they discovered that they had been recalled because their Ward no longer needed a guardian.

She had heard the voice of an angel and she believed it.

Personal best

One minute to go. Andy took a deep, slow breath. The chill air felt fresh. He usually ran after work. Would a morning run slow him down? He hoped not.

This was it. The big reboot. After eighteen months of covid lockdown the park run was finally back. He looked around at the other runners. Less than there used to be. Many he didn’t recognise. He tried to gauge their fitness. See who would be a threat. You could tell some of them were lock down runners. People who only started running in the last year. Good luck to them.

A couple made him pause. They were both slim and energetically bouncing and stretching. They had all the right kit but Andy noticed it was all new. He wouldn’t be surprised if they had never run before.

There was one guy who would be a worry if he wasn’t so old. You could tell he could run just by looking at him. The way he stood. Totally relaxed but ready to spring out as soon as the starter said go. His running gear was well worn. There was even a hole in his trainer above his big toe. But Andy was sure he could beat the man. Unless he was a former Olympian.

Damn. Andy spotted Robin trotting down the hill. And Katy. Maybe he’d have to settle for bronze. He’d never beaten them before. But he’d never been in such good shape before.

He’d run almost every day. Lockdown suited Andy. Working from home saved two hours a day. The boss wanted staff back in the office but no way was Andy going to return to that daily grind. He’d look for another job if he had to.

Robin nodded. Katy waved. Andy gave an awkward half salute in return. The race director gave the usual spiel with the additional Covid rules of no spitting and no high fives. The sporty looking couple did an air high five to each other.

It was time. Andy made his way to the front and stood right on the starting line. Robin and Katy were just behind him. The old guy who looked like he could run was back about ten places.

Three, two, one, go.

The sporty couple sprinted off. Andy didn’t. He knew he had a tendency to go too fast on the first lap and especially on this first slightly downhill stretch.

It was hard to judge his pace. He’d become used to running alone and had long ago abandoned watch wearing. During the first month of lockdown he’d obsessively recorded every run on a spreadsheet. He’d been delighted to see his progress but then hit a bad patch after getting what he thought was Covid but wasn’t. It took a further month to get his times back to normal.

That’s when he decided to give up recording. He ran everyday for a month with no watch. Then he did a timed run and was amazed to see that he’d cut over five percent off his best. Another month, another two percent. Another month and three percent.

That’s when he had his big idea. He wouldn’t time any of his runs. He’d simply run to the best of his ability. He’d push himself and not worry about time. Not until the park run resumed.

Andy rounded the first corner and started up the long hill. He’d practised this. He’d not run this particular course during lockdown but he’d chosen a five kilometre run that included a long steep hill. Over the last few months he’d been forcing himself up that hill at a faster pace than felt comfortable.

He’d overtaken the sporty couple before getting half way up and reached the top in first place. At the sharp right turn he glanced back. Robin was not far behind. Katy was running alongside him. They were chatting. That wasn’t good. Andy’s own breath was so strained that he couldn’t have chatted if he wanted to.

The top of the course was flat. Then there was the long descent before the slow drag up to the start/finish line.  He could hear Katy’s foot-slaps behind him. He’d forgotten how distinctive each runner was. He couldn’t hear Robin. It might be that he’d fallen back but his footsteps were always nearly silent. He had such a graceful style he seemed to slide across the ground.

Those silent steps passed him on the descent. Robin always ran recklessly without holding back, even on the steep section. Maybe Andy should let himself go. It was a risk. It would be easy to over extend and end up slipping out of control. Maybe next lap. He might not need to. He was feeling so good. He was breathing hard but not uncomfortably. He knew he could go faster but was choosing to hold back. He was still gaining on Robin.

The second lap was a repeat of the first. Andy surged ahead up the hill. All that hill training was paying off. But Robin overtook with his charge down the slope. They then drew level as they approached the finish line for the last lap.

He could do this. As he turned he started to power up the long slope. It was amazing. Rather than tiring he seemed to be getting stronger. He pushed again.

Andy took the hard right and smiled. Robin had dropped back. Even if he caught up on the downhill Andy could take him on the final climb.

There was something about being in the lead that made things easier. Andy accelerated on the top flat section. He was running faster than ever and had to check himself before the descent. The last thing he wanted was to fall now.

He could hear his own feet hit the ground with extra force as he slowed himself. Then he heard footsteps just behind him. He couldn’t believe it. How was it possible? And who was it. The old guy? He risked a look.

Robin was flying. His arms were wheeling and his legs looked like they were struggling to keep up with his body. But the speed was incredible. And the noise. Robin’s usual silent steps had turned into a desperate whirlish and he was shouting like a pumped up footballer after scoring.

Andy had a choice. He could hold himself back and hope to catch Robin on the final hill or he could let himself go, scream at the wind and trust that his feet would run true.

“Geronimo.”

Legs shouldn’t go at this pace. Running shouldn’t be this much fun.

Andy came alongside Robin. Overtook. Reached the bottom of the hill. Realised turning the corner wouldn’t work. Ran straight on. Tripped on a kerb. Rolled through mud and grass. Remarkably span back up onto his feet. Smirked. Smiled. And tumbled again as Robin rolled into his legs.

Robin stood up, laughed and held out a hand. Andy took it and was pulled to his feet. Robin pointed to the finish line.

“Race you.”

Andy laughed once and then darted back on to the path and up the hill. He could beat Robin on the uphill but there was no way that he’d catch Katy now. But who cares. This was the best run of his life.

The Conker Conspiracy (15 – 20 minute read)

-663-

Adam’s hands were sweating, his throat was dry and he had no ideas. He’d expected to solve problems not set them. But the Lateral Thinkers club did things differently. He looked at the expectant faces. Nathan was smiling encouragement.

“Time’s up,” said Laura, the Lateral Leader, “what’s your question?”

Adam shook his head. His eyes swept around the tree-house looking for inspiration. He gazed hopelessly out the window.

“Where have the conkers gone?” he said.

Nathan gave a thumbs-up and the questions started.

“Is it the conker season?” – Yes

“Are there conker trees?” – Yes

“Are the trees too old?” – No

After five minutes Laura held up her hand.

“Congratulations Adam. You’ve done it.”

Adam had passed the test and could join the Lateral Thinkers club.

“Are you going to tell us the answer? Or will you use this question to get your Lateral IQ rating?” asked Laura.

“I’ll use this one,” said Adam.

“Ok gang.” said Laura. “You know the rules. Meet here in the tree-house every day at four, until we solve Adam’s problem. Email questions by midnight and Adam’ll answer at the meeting. Adam scores a point for every question we ask.”

Nathan pulled Adam’s arm

“You were great,” he said.

“What’s up?”

Adam looked around before whispering, “I don’t know the answer.”

“What?” said Nathan.

“It’s real,” said Adam. “There really are no conkers. I couldn’t think of anything, and then I saw the conker trees and realised that I haven’t seen any conkers.”

“Really?” asked Nathan.

Adam nodded, “What am I going to do? If I don’t have an answer I won’t be able to join the gang.”

“Think laterally,” said Nathan. “Make something up, or find out what’s really happening.”

“Let’s check out the park,” said Adam.

The two boys looked under a conker tree – there were no conkers, no sticks, no broken glass and, unbelievably, no dog poo.

“It’s like someone’s swept the place clean,” said Nathan.

“Look,” said Adam, “there’s a conker on the tree. Let’s get it down.”

There was nothing to throw and the branches were too high to climb. Despite their best lateral thinking they couldn’t get the conker without extra resources, and decided to return better equipped tomorrow.

-896-

At eight o’clock in the morning Adam and Nathan were back.

“It’s only clean in a circle around the tree,” said Nathan.

Adam kicked a piece of paper and a bottle into the circle to check they didn’t evaporate or teleport away.

A sudden shout startled them, “Oy, what you lot up to?”

“Clear out of here,” shouted the park-keeper. “I’ve work to do and can’t have you littering up the place.”

Adam and Nathan were so startled that they walked away without arguing.

“What’s his problem?” said Nathan.

Adam shrugged and looked around. The park-keeper picked up the paper, smiled and walked away.

“I reckon he’s got obsessive disorder and can’t stand mess,” said Nathan.

“Can’t be.” said Adam. “He picked up the paper but not the bottle.”

“So what is going on?”

“That paper must be important. Come on let’s follow him.”

-84733-

The keeper went to the keepers’ compound and into the lodge. Adam and Nathan sprinted across and carefully opened the door.

“Thank God you got it,” they heard. “That’ll get the Bull of our back. Pass it over and I’ll email.”

“What’s with all these numbers anyway?”

“We don’t want trouble. Even if someone reads this message they won’t know what it means.”

“Well what does it mean?”

“How the hell should I know? Here, you read the numbers out so I can check I’ve got it right.”

Adam quickly dug into his back-pack, pushed aside the climbing rope and binoculars, and grabbed a pen and notebook. He was just in time to write the numbers down:

228241631663148637331767833

“Got it,” said Adam. “Let’s get out of here and crack this code.”

The rest of the day was spent on Adam’s computer. Adam’s mum came to stop them playing games and was so surprised to see them doing maths calculations that she brought them pizza and coke for lunch.

“C’mon,” said Nathan, “or we’ll be late. You got your Lateral Club answers ready?”

Adam held up his notebook, “Sorted.”

-3687-

Adam answered most of the questions from memory but needed his notes to answer Laura’s question.

“The conker leaf miner moth has only reached as far north as Northamptonshire – it’s not in Yorkshire yet.”

Laura invited further questions and Nathan managed to ask about secret codes so that Adam could pass on everything they had found out.

“This is a great,” said Laura. “I thought it was boring, you know – just a disease or something. I love codes – I’ll crack this tonight.”

“Great,” said Adam.

“Not for you,” said Laura. “If I crack it, your Lateral IQ rating will be pretty low.”

-3483-

Adam and Nathan walked home through the park.

“Look,” said Nathan, “there are conkers on the ground.”

“Not many,” said Adam. “Let’s watch to see what happens to them.”

“Not from here. We’ll be seen.”

“In the tree-house,” said Adam. “The gang will have gone and I’ve got binoculars.”

The two boys quietly climbed to the empty tree-house. Laura’s garden backed onto the park so it was the perfect lookout. Adam used his binoculars to scan across the park.

“I can see into the keepers’ office. They’re pouring conkers into a box. We should creep up and listen.”

“What if they come out?” said Nathan.

“You be look out. Text me if they move.”

-749-

Adam couldn’t hear well enough even with the door open so he crept along the corridor. If the keepers came out they would see him. He reached a corner, lay on the ground and peered around. He could see the keepers’ legs and hear every word.

“The Bull will give us hell if we don’t send it.”

“It’s too late – we’ll have to post it on Monday.”

“Can you do the sweep tonight?”

“Do we need to?”

“Yeah, we still need some large ones.”

“Okay – I’ll do it.”

Adam saw the feet turn towards him. There was no way he could make it out without being caught. Instead, he slid further into the room and under a desk. The keepers passed him and Adam heard the door lock.

Immediately he jumped up and tapped the computer but it needed a password. Adam tried “conkers” with no success.

He thought back on what he’d heard and typed “The Bull” and couldn’t believe it when the computer accepted it.

The screen showed an email. Adam read it and then pressed print. While waiting his mobile phone startled him. He’d forgotten to put it on silent.

It was Nathan – “where r u”.

Back room” Adam texted.

Nathan replied, “1 man gone, 1 swept conkers on tractor – IS COMING NOW.”

Adam slid under the desk and almost immediately heard the key in the lock. The man placed a box of conkers on the desk. He then switched off the computer without noticing the printed page, picked up his coat and left.

Adam heard the alarm beeping. He was going to be trapped. He grabbed the page from the printer, ran to the back of the building, opened a window and climbed out. He pushed the window closed and sat silent and still, until the beeping stopped and his heart beat slowed down.

-73836-

“I didn’t think you were going to make it,” said Nathan.

“It was worth it – look, I’ve got the reply,” said Adam.

“But it’s all in code. What’s this mean? 1000163132241749316333312913743290194551729500176863”

“Look at the email address: worldconkerchamp@mail.co.uk”

They rushed home to Adam’s computer and discovered the Conker World Championships in Northamptonshire started in one week’s time. While reading about the championship an email arrived from Laura.

“She’s cracked it,” said Adam. “Of course – the numbers turn into words when texted on a mobile.”

Nathan used his mobile and the email message became clear:

1000 of each size needed by Friday. Will pay 500 pound.

“That’s it,” exclaimed Adam. “They’re selling our conkers to the Conker World Championship.”

“How do we stop them?” said Nathan.

“We don’t,” said Adam. “We beat them to it and get the money ourselves. It’s time to tell the Lateral Club the whole story and get their help.”

– 34448 –

“But… that’s cheating,” said Laura. “You weren’t really asking a question at all.”

“Sorry,” said Adam. “But this is a real puzzle. Can’t you see? Now you’ve cracked the code we can sell the conkers to the World Championship and get the money.”

“And,” said Nathan, “with five hundred pound we can buy a fridge for the tree house.”

“And a telly.”

“And an Xbox.”

“Okay,” said Laura. “What’s the plan?”

“We need someone to negotiate by email,” said Adam. “Laura – you’ll be best for that. I can get the conkers from the keepers lodge, but how do we collect the rest of the conkers from the trees before Monday.”

“Don’t worry about that,” said Laura. “This is the Lateral Thinkers club. We’ll have a hundred ideas before you’ve even sat down.”

Everyone shouted in agreement and the ideas started.

– 6463 –

Use pogo sticks – too high.

Ladders – too visible.

Long poles – too difficult to control.

Remote control helicopter – wouldn’t work.

Climbing ropes – too slow.

Air rifle – you can’t even hit a bucket.

Vacuum cleaner – no plug socket.

… battery powered – hose too short

… extra hoses – might work – but will it suck enough

… two joined together.

Let’s try.

The Lateral Gang spent the rest of the day perfecting their double-barrelled-battery-powered-vacuum-conker-collector while Laura negotiated with the World Conker Championship.

– 836 –

At three o’clock in the morning Adam climbed out of bed fully dressed ready to meet the gang in the park.

Most of them acted as spotters, shining torches into the branches. Adam stretched the telescopic hose and sucked conkers into the pipe. Nathan flicked a lever and the conkers fell to the ground for Laura to grade and count.

“That’s it,” Laura announced. “If you can get that box from the keepers lodge, then we’ve got enough.”

– 353836 –

This was the most dangerous part of the plan, where a mistake could mean serious trouble with the police.

“I’m ready,” said Adam.

Nathan eased open the window and Adam climbed in.

Adam held his breath and moved as slowly as he could – but he wasn’t slow enough. His slight movement set the alarm screaming against the morning silence.

Adam ran.

He grabbed the box, ran to the window and poured the conkers out into Nathan’s bag. Adam replaced the box where he’d found it and dived out of the window. Nathan closed the window and started to run away.

“Don’t run,” said Adam, “you’ll look suspicious.”

“But the alarm,” said Nathan.

“We’ve been collecting conkers, the alarm went off, and we came to look.”

Adam led Nathan slowly around the building. A man with two dogs hurried towards them.

“What’s going on?” he said.

“The alarms gone off,” said Adam. “But we can’t see anything.”

“What’s in the bag?” said the man.

“Conkers,” said Adam.

“You’ve a lot there,” said the man.

Adam nodded, Nathan grinned and the man walked his dogs around the lodge looking for trouble.

– 893583 –

“Champions,” shouted the Lateral Gang when Adam and Nathan entered the tree-house.

“Look,” said Laura pointing out the window, “two park-keepers.”

The alarm fell silent. One man came out carrying the now empty box and signalling wildly towards the conker trees. The other man followed him to the nearest tree. They searched around but only found one conker. At the second tree they found nothing. The man threw the box on the floor and gave it a great big kick. The single conker flew out and hit the other man on the nose.

The Lateral Gang laughed.

“We did it – great plan Adam.”

“Yeah,” said Laura. “I’ll order the fridge and xbox as soon as I get the money for the conkers. But Adam, you still need to ask a question before you can join the gang.”

“What?” said Nathan. “You’re joking.”

“It’s okay,” said Adam. “How about this one… there were two men in the park with an empty cardboard box…

-843 363-

Caught (3 minute read)

Mum looked shocked.

‘Wh..What,’ she stammered.

‘Mrs Phillips,’ said the policewoman. ‘Can I talk to you about your daughter? She was caught shop-lifting.’

Mum led us into the front room. Dad came in. Unfortunately he hadn’t gone to work yet.

‘Where was she caught?’ asked mum.

‘How was she caught?’ asked dad.

‘What did she take?’ asked mum.

‘A Sylvanian family,’ said the policewoman.

‘A what?’ said dad.

‘A Sylvanian family,’ repeated the policewoman.  ‘Little animal dolls. They’re very popular with little girls.’

‘I’m not little,’ I said.

‘Do you think that’s grown up?” said dad. “Getting caught shop lifting.’

‘We’re worried about you, dear,’ said mum.

‘Yes, you’re not turning out the way we thought you would,’ shouted dad. ‘We’re going to have to teach you a lesson.’

‘Was this the first time Emily has been shop-lifting?’ asked the policewoman.

‘You haven’t been shop lifting without us knowing, have you Emily?’ asked mum

‘No. Never,’ I said.

‘And I’m going to make sure that nothing like this happens again,’ said dad.

‘Mr Phillips,’ said the policewomen. ‘Can I have a private word with you and your wife?’

‘Of course,’ replied dad. ‘Emily, go and think about what you’ve done.’

I left the door open so I could listen.

‘Don’t be too hard on her,’ said the policewoman. ‘She seems like a good girl and was really sorry about what happened.’

‘She is a good girl,’ said mum.

‘Where have we gone wrong?’ said dad

‘I’m sure the shock of getting caught will sort her out,’ said the policewoman.

‘I hope you’re right,’ said mum.

‘We’ll sort her out,’ said dad.

‘What will you do?’ asked the policewoman.

She sounded worried I’d be punished. Dad’s big and looks frightening, but he’d never hurt anyone.

‘Don’t worry officer,’ said dad. ‘We’ll think of something.’

‘You should take her out more,’ said mum.

‘I suppose I could take her to work with me,’ dad said.

‘What’s your work?’ asked the policewoman.

‘Acquisitions,’ said dad. ‘Usually businesses or banks but I do some shops. I’m sure I can teach her where she’s gone wrong.

‘That sounds good,’ said the policewoman. ‘I am sure she can learn from you.’

It sounded like she was leaving so I quickly crept up to my room.  A few minutes later dad came in.

‘Well,’ said dad.

‘I’m sorry,’ I said. ‘I was stupid. It won’t happen again’

‘You bet it won’t,’ said dad. ‘I can’t believe you were caught shop-lifting and dragged home by the police’.

‘Will you really take me out?’ I asked.

‘Of course I will,’ dad said with a smile. ‘I don’t want you getting caught pinching dolls. What would it do to my reputation? Now get ready and you can come and rob a supermarket with me.’

Heaven’s peg

One – Bun

Remember
Doctor at three
Imagine a stethoscope made from three currant buns
One for each ear and one for the heart

Robert screams, ‘Open the door, open the door.’

Father Kelly quickly opens the door, ‘There you go lad. Sorry I forgot.’

Robert turns away. Father Kelly backs quietly out of the room and bumps into Doctor Dawson.

‘Sorry Doctor. I seem to be upsetting everyone today. Are you seeing Master Walsh?’

The Doctor confirms Father Kelly’s guess.

‘I’ve wound him up by closing the door. Sorry I’ve quite disturbed him.’

‘Don’t worry. There’s plenty disturbing Master Walsh.’

‘Aye, but I hear he should walk again.’

Doctor Dawson nods, ‘I’m more worried about his head than his leg.’

Father Kelly signifies his agreement that the head is of greater concern and resumes his mission to find the next patient with catholic tendencies. Suddenly he spins to face the doctor and shouts, causing a passing nurse to flinch.

‘Ask him about his pegs.’

‘His legs?’

‘No pegs. Memory pegs.’

Doctor Dawson wants to ask more but the priest is already effusively apologising to the nurse. He has a great deal of experience of apologising and practices on a daily basis.

Doctor Dawson guesses Robert is awake even though his eyes are closed.

‘Did you hear that?’

Robert opens his eyes to see who is talking.

‘Father Kelly almost took out a nurse while pirouetting down the corridor.’

Robert smiles and the Doctor is pleased to have established rapport so easily.

‘He says I should ask about your pegs but first, how are your legs?’

Robert’s legs are suspended and plastered from ankle to thigh.

‘They itch sometimes.’

‘That’s bad, and it’s also good. It shows everything is working but it must be annoying.’

The doctor and the patient share a moment of silent reflection on how annoying itches can be when there is nothing you can do to stop them.

‘So what about these pegs?’

Robert indicates his bedside drawer and the doctor retrieves six pegs. Each one has a number and a word written on them. The doctor reads them and admits to having no idea what they mean.

‘They’re memory pegs,’ Robert explains. ‘They help you remember things. You start with number one.’

‘One. Bun. So your first memory is something to do with a bun.’

Robert laughs.

‘No. It’s not like that at all.’

Robert tells the doctor that the first peg has the word bun because it rhymes with one. When Robert needs to remember one thing he pictures a bun with whatever he has to remember.

‘So what’s this peg helping you remember?’ says the doctor.

‘Nothing. I’m not remembering nothing now.’

‘I bet you remember lots of things. Go on tell me the first thing you remember.’

*

Robert watched a settee being carried past his pushchair. His family was moving into their house and he was two. The settee moved past him and there was a boy on the other side of the gate. It was Davie eating a sandwich. He pushed the sandwich through the gate and Robert took a big bite. It was chocolate spread and chocolate soon surrounded Robert’s mouth.

*

‘Chocolate spread’s still my favourite. I don’t think it’s a true memory because when I remember I can see my face.’

‘Do you remember it often?’

‘Sometimes when I see a pushchair, or a baby covered in chocolate.’

Doctor Dawson praises Robert for his remembering. She tells him that his mind fills memories with more and more details. He couldn’t see his face when he was a baby but he knows what it looks like when a baby has chocolate all over their face, so his mind has added the detail to make the memory clearer. It doesn’t mean that it didn’t happen.

Doctor Dawson gets up to leave, ‘I’ll call in tomorrow when I’ve got more time. Maybe you can tell me more about your memory pegs?’

‘What time? I’ll use a peg to remember you’re coming.’

‘Three o’clock.’

‘I’ll remember.’

Two – Shoe

Remember
It’s Mum’s birthday next week
Imagine a cake covered in icing
Make it more memorable
Add a shoe crushing the cake

Doctor Dawson holds the six memory pegs, ‘I think I get it. You use the pegs to remember a list. You make a picture in your mind using the word.’

‘Silly pictures are best,’ says Robert.

‘Two – shoe. What’s that helping you remember?’

‘Nothing. I only had one thing to remember today. That was you coming at three.’

Doctor Dawson looks disappointed, ‘What was the last thing you used it to remember?’

‘I don’t know. Once I use it I forget. I have a bad memory, that’s why Davie gave me the pegs.’

‘That’s a shame. I was hoping you could tell me a story with a shoe in it.’

‘I can. I can. It was before Davie gave me the memory pegs. Shall I tell you? Shall I?’

Doctor Dawson smiles and listens eagerly.

*

Robert and Davie were at the small stream known to them as the brook. They played by the brook almost every day. They were under the bridge where the brook was wide and shallow. The riverbed was covered in small pebbles that didn’t hurt the boy’s bare feet. It was perfect for catching elvers. The tiny baby eels stood out against light coloured pebbles making them easy to catch.

‘How many?’

‘Twenty-two,’ said Davie.

‘Great. What shall we do with them?’ said Robert.

‘Aren’t you taking them home?’

‘I’m banned from the brook. Mum would kill me. We could hide them up the tree.’

‘Don’t be daft. We’d never get them up without spilling them. How about hiding them in the pipe?’

*

Robert stops his story abruptly. Doctor Dawson observes his eyes starting to tear up. She puts her hand gently on his shoulder and passes him a tissue. Robert blows his nose and hands the tissue back to her.

‘What happened to those elvers?’

‘They died. They stank. Elvers die if you keep them in a bucket. Elvers can only live in running water.’

‘I’ll remember that next time I catch some. I thought you were going to tell me about shoes.’

‘Oh yeah.’

*

Robert couldn’t find his shoes.

‘Where did you leave them?’ said Davie.

‘That’s stupid. If I knew that then they wouldn’t be lost, would they?’

‘Maybe they fell in the brook and floated away.’

Robert started walking downstream. The brook quickly narrowed and deepened.

‘Careful,’ said Davie. ‘It gets too deep down there. You’ll get your shorts wet and then your mum will know where you’ve been.’

‘I’ve got to find them. I can’t go home without them.’

‘You’ll have to.’

‘I’ll run away.’

Davie laughed.

‘It’s not funny.’

‘Running away with nothing on your feet. You wouldn’t get far.’

‘I’ll hide instead. You can bring me food.’

‘OK. What shall I bring?’

Both boys heard a call. It sounded again and they knew Robert’s mum was about to find them. Robert rushed up the bank and started to climb the tree but the bark was too sharp for his bare wet feet and he barely got off the ground before his mum arrived.

She grabbed him and pulled him down. Robert winced as his feet landed.

‘You’re wet. And do you know what time it is? Come on. I’ve had enough of this. Now get your shoes on. Quickly. You too Davie. Your mum will be wondering where you have got to.’

Robert started to cry. His mum struggled to find her sympathy but as his sobs continued she started to worry that he had really hurt his feet.

‘Now stop your crying and put your shoes on. There’s probably glass and all sorts.’

Robert sobbed even more and struggled to speak

‘Stop that. How can I hear you when you’re crying?’

‘I can’t find my shoes.’

‘Don’t be daft. They’re here.’

His mum reached into the grass and passed him his shoes.

*

‘So the shoes were there all the time,’ says Doctor Dawson.

‘No,’ says Robert. ‘Davie found them on the bank and put them in the grass while mum was shouting. I was so upset that I didn’t get in trouble. But I was banned from the brook, again.’

Three – Tree

Remember
Meet Davie at the bus stop.
Imagine a bus
It can’t stop
A seedling spouts in the road
In seconds it grows into a Giant Redwood
The bus smashes into the tree and stops

‘Can we do the next peg? It’s three. I can tell you about the tree.’

Doctor Dawson looks at her watch. She weighs up the importance of completing her work against the importance of listening.

‘I can tell it quick.’

She nods. The tree is more important than her reports.

*

There was only one tree that was ‘the tree’. It sat on the bank of the brook. It was hard to climb. There were no low branches so the only way up was to cling to the knobbly bark. It was easiest in bare feet but you had to be old enough to climb through the pain of the bark on your bare skin.

When Robert was nine he climbed higher than a tall man but couldn’t go on. He had to jump down, flinching in anticipation of his bare feet smacking into the rough ground. It hurt more than he expected.

Robert was ten when he tried again.

‘At last. I thought you were chicken,’ said Davie.

‘I had to help my mum.’

Robert took his shoes and socks off. Davie took them and threw them up into the tree.

‘Now you have to climb. I’m not getting them back.’

‘That’s not fair.’

‘You can do it.’

The tree seemed taller than yesterday.

‘Show me how to do it.’

‘I showed you yesterday.’

‘Just show me once more.’

‘Just once, then you’ve got to do it. Promise. You’ve got to promise.’

Robert promised he would try. But that wasn’t good enough. Davie made him promise he would do it.

Davie provided an instructional commentary as he climbed. ‘It doesn’t matter where you put your hands or feet – you just grab the bark. If you lean back like this it’s harder. Keep your body close to the tree. Once you get a hand over the top it’s easy. There. Now your turn. Hang on – chuck my shoes up.’

Robert threw the shoes and Davie caught them. Although hard to climb the tree was perfect once you reached the top. All its branches emerged from the same height making a comfortable platform large enough to lie on.

Robert started his climb.

‘Put your hands wider apart then you won’t have to lean out as far. Pull your bottom in. That’s it. Now your left leg. Come on. You can do it.’

‘I can’t. My arm’s aching.’

‘You’ve almost done. Just one more bit and I can grab you. Look I can reach your hand. That’s it. You can do it. Yes. Put your hand there. I’ve got you. That’s it. That’s it. Yes.’

Robert lay on the platform. He didn’t trust himself to stand or even sit. Davie handed him a can of coke.

‘Give it a shake and spray it like Grand Prix winners do.’

*

Doctor Dawson smiles at Robert, ‘That was fantastic.’

‘It was, until it was time to get down. To get down you have to hang onto the branch and drop. That’s why we threw the shoes up, so it wouldn’t hurt our feet. I was too scared. I hung on and then climbed back up, and hung on and climbed up, and hung on and climbed up again. I was too scared to let go.’

‘So how did you get down?’

‘Davie said he would catch me when I dropped – so I dropped.’

‘And did he?’

‘Yeah. Not like a baby. He just caught hold of me and guided me down so I didn’t fall over and could land on my feet.’

Doctor Dawson comments on how fortunate Robert is to have such a friend. She leaves in search of coffee. She needs to write reports but her mind is stuck up a tree.

Father Kelly is nursing a mug of hot chocolate.

‘A penny for your thoughts,’ says Doctor Dawson.

Father Kelly laughs, ‘Don’t waste your money. There’s hardly a thought in this head. Talking of heads, how’s Master Walsh.’

Doctor Dawson almost falls. Father Kelly has unhelpfully pulled out the chair for her just as she is about to sit.

‘He’s starting to trust me. Thanks for the tip about the pegs. We’ve used them as a starting point for our discussions. Next one is four, four for door, so that should be significant.’

Four – Door

Remember
Take a potato to school
Imagine a door
An old red door lying on the ground
A potato plant grows though the keyhole
Lift the door and find thousands of marble sized potatoes

‘There’s nothing interesting about doors,’ says Robert.

‘How about something not interesting then?’

Robert remembers hearing that the standard size of doors is too short now so many people are tall. He doesn’t think Doctor Dawson will be interested as she is so small.

‘Can we do the next one? Five – Hive. I can tell a story about bees.’

‘You sure there are no interesting doors.’

Robert shakes his head and Doctor Dawson is forced to accept that Robert is not going to open any doors today.

*

Robert’s boat got stuck against the bank. He’d been banned from the brook so was staying out of the water. He broke a stick from a small tree and climbed down far enough to free his boat. The boat moved a few metres and stuck again. Robert crab-walked along the bank towards his boat but stopped when he heard a strange noise. It was like humming but in surround sound.

‘Can you hear that?’

‘What?’ said Davie.

‘Humming.’

‘I can’t hear anything.’

‘Aaagh.’

Robert slipped down the bank into the stream. Davie would have laughed but could see Robert was disturbed.

‘You alright?’

‘The tree. It’s alive. It’s moving.’

Davie jumped across the brook and looked where Robert pointed.

‘It’s bees. A great big swarm of them.’

‘Get back. They might sting.’

‘That’s wasps. Bees only sting if you squash them. Come look.’

‘No way. I’m going on the swings to get dry.’

*

‘Did he get stung?’ asks Doctor Dawson.

‘Not once. I even saw bees crawling on his arm, but they didn’t sting him.

‘Did you go for a closer look?’

‘I don’t like bees. I was stung once. I was crying. Mum said sit down while she got some cream. I sat down and got stung again – on the bottom. I don’t like bees.’

*

Doctor Dawson swears into her coffee cup and then almost chokes as Father Kelly drops into the chair opposite her.

‘You look troubled,’ he says.

‘Just thinking.’

‘I’d hate to see you worried is that’s your thinking face. Sorry – was that rude?’

‘It’s Robert.’

‘What’s happened?’

Doctor Dawson shares her disappointment. With Robert screaming if the door is closed she was sure today’s session was going to be significant.

‘I guess he’s not ready,’ says Father Kelly.

‘He’s so open and then suddenly we get near to what happened and the shutters slam down.’

‘He still hasn’t said how it happened?’

‘No.’

‘Maybe he can’t remember. You know the trauma and all that.’

‘I’m sure he remembers. He deliberately moves the conversation away if we get too close. I’ll carry on with the last memory peg but after that I think I’ll need to be more direct.’

Six – Stick

Remember
Football tomorrow
Imagine a football
As big as a house
Falling on top of you
You stab a hole in the ball with a stick
 The ball whooshes away like a deflating balloon
and smacks into the P.E. teacher’s face

Doctor Dawson can’t find the pegs.

‘I don’t want to do the pegs?’ says Robert.

‘We’ve only one left.’

‘It’s not interesting.’

‘I’m interested. I enjoy the stories you tell me. Let’s do the last one and see what you can remember.’

‘I can’t remember nothing. Mum’s taken the pegs to keep them safe.’

‘Well the last peg was six wasn’t it. Six – Twix? Licks? What was it? I know it was six but what was the word. Mix? Fix? Picks?

‘Sticks,’ shouts Robert. ‘I’m not telling you about the stick.’

‘Do you remember what day it was?’

‘Friday.’

‘So you were at school.’

‘It was after school.’

‘I bet you were playing at the brook.’

‘We were in the field.’

‘Near the brook?’

*

Robert was wearing shorts. Many kids his age had moved on to long trousers but playing in the brook was easier in shorts.

Davie swung his stick and decapitated a nettle. It bounced off Robert’s knee. It didn’t sting.

‘That hit me.’

‘What shall we do?’

‘Race to the brook.’

Davie won as usual. He climbed down the bank hoping to find bees to swipe with the stick. Robert was pleased the bank was silent.

‘Let’s go to the pipe,’ said Davie. ‘It’s probably dry. It’s not rained for ages.’

To reach the pipe the boys had to wade into brook. The water was lower than usual but still almost reached their knees. The pipe was set into a concrete retaining wall with a concrete plinth. The plinth was covered with green algae but that day the algae was dry and not slippery.

Robert climbed onto the plinth and lifted the heavy metal storm door that covered the end of the pipe.

‘Hold it up,’ said Davie.

‘It’s too heavy,’ said Robert and let it drop. Echoes reverberated in the pipe.

‘Hold it up and I’ll prop it with my stick.’

‘Hurry up. I can’t hold much longer.’

‘Done it. You can let go.’

The stick held the door open and the boys took turns to shout into the pipe and hear echoes moving further and further away.

‘Let’s explore,’ said Davie.

Robert carefully manoeuvred past the stick into the pipe.

‘Can you see anything?’

‘It’s too dark.’

‘Wait until your eyes adjust. I’ll close the door so your eyes adjust quicker.’

‘Don’t close the door. I can see there’s nothing – just more pipe. I’m coming out.’

There wasn’t enough room to turn around so he crawled feet first towards the entrance. He saw Davie pull the stick and the door swung down with a loud thud that Robert felt through his whole body. There was no light. Robert shouted for Davie to open the door. There was no answer.

*

Doctor Dawson passes Robert tissues and a drink. She also pulls out emergency chocolate. Chocolate calms Robert enough that she feels safe to ask what happened next.

‘I waited. I thought he was just outside. I thought he would open it if he got bored. I listened and waited and then I knew he wasn’t there. He couldn’t be there because it was too quiet.’

‘I pushed against the door but it wouldn’t open. He’d used the stick to wedge it shut. When my eyes got used to the dark I could see light further up the pipe so I crawled towards it. The mud in the bottom got wetter and wider. I had to spread my feet and hands further apart on each side of the mud. I could see a manhole. I would have got there but then I saw a rat.’

*

Robert screamed and jerked back. His bottom hit soggy mud and his head cracked into the pipe hard enough to knock him out.

The rats woke him. One ran across his hand and that was enough. He woke and screamed again.

Robert was too scared to go on to the manhole so crawled back to door. He shouted but Davie had gone. Davie had left him.

He pushed against the door but it didn’t move even a tiny amount. He turned to lie on to his back. He placed his feet against the door and he pushed – as hard as he could. It still didn’t open but shifted enough to give him hope.

He pushed and kicked. His feet hurt and even in the darkness he could tell they were bleeding. He wished he’d put his shoes on before entering the pipe.

Robert thought he heard a rat and with adrenalin fuelled fear kicked as hard as he could.

The stick broke. The door swung open. The light blinded his eyes. His feet shot forward out of the pipe. The door swung up… paused dramatically…  and started to fall back down.

*

Robert is silent.

Doctor Dawson completes the story for him. ‘The door crashed back down crushing your left knee and cracking a bone in your right leg. You were unconscious, with your legs dangling out of the pipe. The man who found you thought you were dead. He just saw two bloody legs sticking out and phoned the police. You almost died.’

*

Doctor Dawson doesn’t notice Father Kelly knock over the menu cards while attempting to sit at her table.

‘You look worse than ever,’ he says. ‘Sorry am I being rude again. I’m never sure. Is Robert still not talking?’

‘Christ. Fuck. Oh. Sorry Father.’

Father Kelly waves the blasphemy away.

‘It’s just that he has talked and it’s not a pretty tale.’

‘So it wasn’t an accident.’

‘I don’t know. Yes. I suppose it was an accident really. It’s one of those schoolboy pranks that went wrong.’

‘Isn’t Robert going home soon. I hear he’s recovered remarkably well.’

‘Physically he’ll be fine. He’s already up and starting to walk with help from the physios. Mentally I’m not so sure.’

‘I’d heard he’s much better.’

‘Talking has helped. He’s stopped screaming at closed doors and he’s having less nightmares. It’s his relationship with his friend Davie that worries me.’

Doctor Dawson tells Father Kelly the gist of what happened.

‘No wonder he doesn’t want to see this Davie chap.’

‘Davie thought it would do Robert some good – help him get over his fear of the dark. He planned to come back but got grounded by his mum. I’m sure Davie had no idea of the consequences. For God’s sake, he’s only a boy himself. He’s suffering as much as Robert. They’ve been best friends since Robert was two. Maybe you could talk to Robert.’

‘I’m not sure what I can say,’ said Father Kelly.

‘Talk to him about forgiveness. Isn’t that the essence of Christianity?’

Seven – Heaven

Remember to write a sorry letter to mum
Imagine an angel
It pulls out one of its feathers
It dips it into the Red Sea
and then writes ‘sorry mum’ in red ink on a white cloud

Doctor Dawson pushes Robert’s wheelchair to the lift. Robert’s mum is bringing the car to the front of the hospital.

‘I’ve got a present for you but it’s a bit strange. I’m going to look after it until you’re ready for it. Here, have a look.’

‘A peg.’

‘It’s number seven. I’ve been reading up about memory pegs and discovered that seven is heaven. I want to hold onto the peg until you have a memory of heaven.’

‘That won’t happen ‘til I’m dead.’

‘Father Kelly told me that before you approach God you have to make peace with your friend. Even if it’s your friend’s fault and not yours at all. So I’ll hold onto the peg for you until you’ve made peace with your friend.’

‘He’s not my friend.’

‘Please think about it Robert. He’s helped you achieve so much. I’m sure he could help you now.’

‘I don’t want that silly peg.’

*

Doctor Dawson rings the doorbell which elicits an immediate response. The door opens to reveal Robert standing unaided in his hallway.

‘Hey, you’re standing without a stick. That’s brilliant.’

‘I can walk without it. Look.’

‘Wonderful. I’ve got the wheelchair but I’m not sure you need it.’

‘I can’t go far. I get tired.’

Doctor Dawson pushes Robert in the wheelchair down the street, through the alleyway and to the bridge over the brook. Doctor Dawson wants to see elvers but Robert knows it’s the wrong time of year and the only way of seeing elvers is to walk in the water.

The footpath is dry enough for the wheelchair with its lightweight occupant. It is only a short push to reach the tree.

‘Is that really the tree Davie helped you climb. No one could climb that.’

‘I can. I’ll show you when my legs get better.’

A little further on Robert points out the tree that hosted the swarm of bees and shows Doctor Dawson where Davie and he built such an effective damn that the whole stream dried up.

‘Is that the pipe?’

‘Yes.’

‘It’s smaller than I thought.’

‘Keep going. I don’t want to remember that.’

‘Come on, I bet you have loads of memories here. Think of another time you played near the pipe.’

‘We sometimes put our shoes there to keep them dry. It’s where Davie stored our elvers in the bucket – but they all died.

‘What other secrets did you hide in there?’

‘We once hid some food. We put it in a tin to keep it dry even if it rained. Look. That’s where my boat got stuck and that bush has a den in the middle. The park’s up there. See that stone? We jumped across to that.’

‘Where from?’

From just there. The jump is called Angel Falls because you have to have wings to fly far enough to make it across.’

‘It’s miles. Did you really jump it?’

‘Honest. Davie did it first. I was too scared but he stood in the water and said he’d catch me if I didn’t make it. Then we counted down from ten and I jumped. I made it. I wasn’t scared after that and did it ten times. When my legs get better I’ll show you.’

‘Is that the pipe you walked across? Wow, I think you and Davie must be related to spiderman.’

‘I was eight when I first walked across it. There’s the park. Can I go on the swings?’

Robert lets Doctor Dawson push him on the swing. He could do it himself but his knee hurts. The doctor watches Robert waiting for the right moment to talk to him. Swinging is perfect. She knows the swinging motion will calm his body and also help engage both sides of his brain, which will help regulate his emotions.

‘Before we head back I want to ask you something. Have you got your memory pegs?’

‘No.’

‘Well let’s see if we can do some remembering without them. I want you to think about our walk up the stream and all the memories you’ve told me.

One – bun that’s under the bridge where you and Davie caught elvers. Two’s for shoes, when Davie put them in the grass for your mum to find. Three, that’s the tree of course, where Davie caught you when you dropped. Four is the door you and Davie used in your dam. Five – hive, that’s got to be when you and Davie found the bees. Six, that’s the stick Davie used to lock you in the pipe. Seven is heaven so that’s Angel Falls where Davie stood in the water to catch you. Eight – gate, where you and Davie first met. Nine – line, for when you went fishing and ten is the den in the bushes where you and Davie hid from the gang.’

Doctor Dawson pauses and counts five swings before continuing.  

‘That’s ten memories and there are loads more. So many good memories and only one where something happened that shouldn’t have happened.’

Another pause. Another five swings.

‘Is it right to chuck out all those other memories and allow just that one to change everything? To me it seems such a waste of good memories.’

‘But it’s his fault. It’s his fault that I can’t jump the brook today. It’s his fault that you have to push me around in that stupid wheelchair. He’s ruined everything.’

‘Wouldn’t it be better if you were friends? You know how much Davie has helped you. It’s at times like this that you need a friend like Davie.’

‘He made it all happen. Why should I be friends with him?’

‘He could help you get better. I’m sure he could.’

‘If it wasn’t for him I wouldn’t need help. It’s his fault.’

‘You’re right. It is his fault. He doesn’t deserve to be your friend.’

The doctor counts ten swings.

‘But what about you? I am sure you deserve a friend like Davie. You can choose to be friends with him. Not because he deserves it.’

Another pause. Another swing

‘But because you deserve a friend.’

‘I can’t.’

‘I know how strong you are Robert. I’ve seen you do so much. It’s your choice. Only you can decide.’

Doctor Dawson stops pushing. The swing slows and stops. She brings the wheelchair nearer to Robert but allows him to make his own way into its embrace. They head across the park to the road.

Robert is silent. Doctor Dawson would pray if she shared Father Kelly’s faith. She knows they will pass Davie’s house and deliberately chooses the right side of the road.

‘Can you stop? That’s Davie’s house.’

Robert pulls himself from the wheelchair.

‘I’m going to talk to him. Will you wait?’

‘Of course I will. Here I think you might need this.’

‘What?’

‘Number seven – heaven’s peg.’

Why do I love you?

“It’ll all end in tears.” That’s what my mother said. She didn’t like me flirting with older men.

You and me have had more than our fair share. We’ve had fifteen years of fighting – all because you don’t know when to stop.

You ignore me – I shout – you carry on – it gets out of hand.

And then – SMACK.

Lots of tears – sorry – I still love you.

I’ve loved you since the very first moment I saw you. Even after you almost killed me. I remember waking with pain from stitches, groggy from the loss of blood. You stayed next to my hospital bed for two weeks, looking innocent and charming all the nurses.

But now you’ve been disappearing out the door every night. I guessed what you were up to.

All those nights out with the girls – teenagers – I’m not daft – I’ve seen it all before.

I’d lie awake listening and hoping you’d come back home to bed.

Then suddenly, you were back – back in my arms looking for forgiveness. We cuddled like we used to, and you fell asleep with your head against my shoulder. I should have guessed you’d gone too far again.

I found your test result showing positive. That’s it – your wild life is over and it’s time to take responsibility for what you’ve done. I still love you and always will; that’s what mothers do.

The Partial Transformation of Elton Bank

The first day

Edith Sugden sees them first – shadowy figures parading along the central reservation of the dual carriageway.

Like Edith the carriageways are substantial – designed by planners with aspirations bigger than their budgets. The twin strips are so devoid of surrounding houses that they resemble an airport runway, with Edith commanding a clearer view than most air-traffic controllers.

Edith’s binoculars resolve the five strangers into a family, each burdened by carrier bags. Edith is surprised one family can shop in so many different places.

“Do you think they’re coming here?” Edith asks her husband.

George doesn’t reply. He hasn’t for four years. He stopped speaking a year before he died, but that never bothered Edith who talked through his silence and then transferred her conversations to his empty chair.

“They must be heading for flat nine. It’s been empty for ages, even though they let anyone in these days.”

Rose Fairfax’s flat is the mirror image of Edith’s. It sits on the ground floor on the right of the once grand entrance of Elton Bank. She sees the family of five as they make their final approach. She considers opening her dirty window to see more but doesn’t know where she has hidden the window-lock key.

Rose remembers how Edith’s husband would have found it for her, but now there is no one to ask. Her busy sons have been sucked south leaving her to rely on a red button embedded in a necklace that irritates her collarbone. The red button can save her life but can’t unlock windows.

It’s Sandra Tate from flat four who says the first words to them, and her son Adam who gets the first response.

“Lift’s out,” says Sandra.

Adam is being led to football, which he will leave early for karate, which he will also leave early on account of his mother’s hair. Adam notices the woman’s hair is tightly coiled.

“Have you got cornrows?” he says.

The women smiles and lifts her bulging bags.

“Clothes,” she says.

Adam surrenders to parental pressure and is pulled through the reinforced front doors.

The first week

Norman Small lives at the back of the top floor and is constantly aggrieved that his flat faces the wrong way. He spends hours planning how the council can fix the problem. The simplest solution is to pick the building up and turn it around, but Norman knows this is unlikely to happen while the Greens are sharing the council leadership with the Liberal Democrats.

After five days his only encounter with his new neighbours is through the knocks and noises hammering out of the joining wall. He smiles as he imagines how much the noise must annoy the single mother living below, just like she annoys him every morning when she shouts her son Adam to get ready.

The family are eating on the grassy bank that rises to the railway line from the back of Elton Bank. Norman notices the boy climbing back over the fence to rejoin the picnic. Although Norman hasn’t seen the boy’s actions, he knows from personal experience what has happened. Without hesitation he pulls open his window and shouts.

“Oy, you can’t do that here in this country.”

The father stands, speaks to the boy and walks through the back door of Elton Bank.

Suddenly Norman realises the man is coming to confront him. He runs out of his flat, hears the now fixed lift moving and quickly crosses to the stairs. The heavy fire door swings open and reveals the full height of his new neighbour. Norman steps back and is astonished to see his own hand beckoning the man forward.

“I’ve some ice-pops in the freezer. Do you think your young ‘uns would like one?”

The man won’t consider ice-pops until he has most humbly apologised. Norman laughs and says no harm done.

By the time Norman has explained ice-pops and extolled the virtue of urine as a tree fertiliser, he has also accompanied the man out the back door.

Norman is the first resident of Elton Bank to learn all five names, and first to share hospitality on the sunny bank that has irritated him since he first looked out of his window ten years ago.

The first month

Kylie Trenton is dumping empties in the recycling bin after remembering the social worker is due to visit today, if it is Thursday, which Kylie mistakenly thinks it is. Despite the noise of crashing glass she hears snivels and discovers the oldest boy with his trousers torn and a knee that turns redder as she watches.

“We’d better get that sorted”, she says, and leads the boy to her ground floor flat in a display of maternal care and aptitude that her social worker would have found reason to dismiss, if she had witnessed it.

The boy’s mother expresses gratitude through rice and chicken, which Kylie has been craving for weeks as the smells have wafted in from the frequent picnics. Kylie feels obliged to return the favour and the next day is caught by her social worker baking buns. Despite the delicious crumbs falling down her chin, the social worker fails to discover Kylie once won a cookery prize.

Kylie waits until the next picnic before delivering her offering. The boy proudly exhibits his scab, which Norman says he should pick. Kylie explains how the scab keeps the wound clean and helps healing. The boy’s mother claps in delight at hearing her new English friend speaking the same wisdom as herself.

The middle month

The man has salvaged redundant flowers from council workmen clearing a border three miles away. The man asks Norman if they will survive. Norman’s knowledge of plants extends no further than the benefits of urine on trees. He mentions that Rose grows a jungle in her flat and is shocked to see the man tap on Rose’s window.

After a futile attempt to talk through double glazing, the man gestures his intention of planting the wilting flowers on the grassy bank. Norman is sure that Rose’s shaking head indicates lack of communication, rather than a dismissal of the man’s idea. He shouts telling Rose to open her window. She continues to shake her head and undertakes her own mime.

Norman and the man are still trying to decipher the mime when Rose’s head appears at the back door for the first time in twelve years.

“The window’s locked,” she explains. “I’ve lost the key.”

 “You can borrow mine,” says Kylie, “I never lock ‘em. They’re too fiddly.”

Rose is worried about burglars. Kylie explains it is only the small windows she leaves unlocked and everyone recognises this is such a good idea that they dispatch the tall man to Rose’s flat. After Rose has been liberated from the oppression of stuffiness the man asks about his horticultural dilemma.

Rose recognises the flowers and laughs. The flowers are primroses and although Rose hasn’t been called Primrose since she was a teenager, that’s still the name she would have on her passport if she had one.

“I never liked being Prim,” says Rose, unconsciously patting a wayward hair back into her tight bun. It takes twenty minutes and two cups of tea before the man and woman admit defeat and agree that primness is a British concept they will need years to master.

Rose stands to leave. The oldest boy returns Kylie’s borrowed chair and the social worker is so startled when the boy walks in through Kylie’s door without knocking, that she fails to notice how encouraging Kylie is and how respectfully the boy addresses her.

The last month

Norman, like a magician, produces balls despite having no sleeves. Before passing a ball to each child he demonstrates how to throw the ball up the hill and fail to catch it when it rolls down. He also perfectly illustrates why the children should move along the bank away from the food and newly planted flowers.

Henry Dowson is watching while waiting for the 18:46 York train. Four times a year he takes his son Michael to a clinic in York and has been keeping a daily record ever since a delay of sixty-three minutes, five years earlier on Tuesday 17th July.

Henry’s notes have expand to include weather conditions, wildlife and in the last two months the picnics of his neighbours. Henry speculates on the exact number of sausages and finally admits, but only to himself, that his wife could be right that the family are not Muslim.

The 18:46 passes two minutes early leaving Henry with an unexpected moment of freedom to intercept the man who is heading up the stairs. Henry is pleased to find out the spelling of two names even though it means extensive notebook revision going back several weeks. He is surprised to be asked to spell his own name and has to un-Frenchify the spelling of Margaret several times. Henry helps carry the man’s kitchen table so that Rose can eat more comfortably.

Only when he returns to his own door does he realise the man has followed him, and Henry is unable to dismiss all the man’s reasons as to why they should join the picnic.

Michael bobbles his head in excitement and Margaret applies fresh make up that matches the man’s exotic mispronunciation of her name.

Michael is placed with Rose at the kitchen table but soon escapes the confines of his wheelchair when Norman miraculously materialises a further ball from his skimpy, summer attire.

It takes Margaret’s intervention before Norman understands Michael’s ill-formed speech and repeats his magic trick.

Michael waves the new ball to entice the nose squashed against the window on the second floor. The immediate effect is a rapid retreat of the nose.

Less than a minute later the nose emerges from the back door. Norman inexpertly throws the ball and is rewarded by a lucky ricochet that delivers it to the feet of the five-year-old Adam.

Moments later Sandra, Adam’s mum, emerges and her eyes scan the scene playing a familiar game of Where’s Adam?

Adam hurls the ball with overdeveloped strength, up the slope to crash into the top fence. A shout emerging from Sandra’s throat is smothered by Adam’s squeals of delight as the ball bounces and incredibly sticks in his outstretched hands. Sandra glances down but is impeded from turning her wrist to check the time by a glass of red wine Norman places in her hand. With a sigh she succumbs to the embrace of Kylie’s impractical fluffy picnic rug and within minutes unburdens herself of her daily load of constant pressure to succeed.

The last week

Edith Sugden sees them first and describes them to George’s empty chair. Through her binoculars she follows the slow progress of four shadowy figures as they ascend the arid path alongside the dual carriageway.

Rose sees them arrive and shouts a welcome through her open window loud enough to startle the newcomers and alert the whole of Elton Bank.

Norman races down three flights of stairs to beat Sandra and be the first to tell them the lift has broken again. Before he arrives Kylie has found out their names and donated the chocolate cake she had planned to reveal at the picnic.

Sandra and Adam hurriedly arrive with flowers cut from the back bank and join Kylie, Norman and Rose in engulfing the new family with offers of help. The family discover their own hands are empty as they are led to the top floor.

The last day

Edith Sugden is the only one to see the first family depart. Her binoculars discern the subtle difference between uniforms of Home Office and police. Her naked eyes, even in the weak pre-dawn light, recognise social workers as they handle the children. The man is pushed into the van and his wife and three children bundled in after him.

She smiles and turns to George’s empty chair.

“Good riddance.”

The last door

‘What happened to the doors?’ asked Lucy.

‘Dad took them off,’ said Emma.

‘But why?’

‘To stop them slamming.’

‘But that’s stupid. He could have put something in them to stop them slamming.’

Emma shrugged; mum would only slam harder.

‘It’s a bit weird having no door on your bedroom,’ said Lucy.

‘You get used to it,’ said Emma.

‘But don’t you hear things… you know… things you shouldn’t hear.’

Emma shrugged again. She heard stuff, but not what Lucy thought.

‘The worst thing’s the cold,’ she said. ‘We’ve got the fire in the front room, but we got no wood.’

She laughed. ‘Dad’s already burnt the doors.’

Lucy hadn’t taken her coat off; she wasn’t staying long.

‘Have you got my book?’

‘It’s here,’ said Emma. Everything was on the floor; a mattress, a pile of clothes and a much larger pile of books.

‘Hope you’re not burning the books,’ said Lucy.

Emma turned her back on Lucy to search the book pile, ‘What was it again?’

‘Book Thief,’ said Lucy

‘I’m not,’ said Emma, ‘honest.’

Lucy laughed. ‘You’re funny. My book – it’s the Book Thief by Marcus Zusak.’

‘Yeah,’ said Emma.

‘It’s there,’ said Lucy bending over to point. ‘Did you like it?’

‘I’ve not read it yet,’ said Emma as she slipped the book out of the pile.

‘Have you read any of those?’

‘I’m working my way down. I will read them all.’

‘I’ve got to write a synopsis this weekend,’ said Lucy, ‘for Mr Broom. He wants it Monday morning.’

Emma held the book longingly in her hands. ‘I could read it tonight and drop it off tomorrow.’

Lucy laughed again. ‘You’ll never finish it that quick.’

‘I’ve nothing else to do.’

‘I’ll need it in the morning as soon as I get back from ballet.’

‘I could bring it round to your house.’

‘Go on then,’ said Lucy. ‘See how far you can get.’

Emma watched Lucy escape down the street.

‘Close that friggin door,’ shouted mum. ‘It’s the only bloody one we’ve got, so keep the damn thing shut.’

Emma put her hand on the door frame with one finger extended. She pulled the door against her finger and then guided it slowly shut with no slam at all, just a single quiet click. The scrunched up newspaper still fell. Emma bent to retrieve it and stuffed it back into the empty letterbox slot.

She avoided the creaky stair and dived into her bed, slipping her cold nose under the duvet and pushing her glasses up onto her head.

The Book Thief caused the cold to creep into her exposed knuckles. Any other book would have been snapped open with its spine sacrificed on the pillow. Her arm would dart out to flick the page before retreating back into the warmth.

‘What you got for the fire?’ asked mum from the empty doorway.

‘Nothing, you got ‘em all last time.’

‘You must have finished something by now,’ mum insisted.

Emma shook her head.

‘Well give us what you’ve read of that one.’

‘I can’t. It’s Lucy’s.’

‘This one then. Don Quicksote – it’s nice and thick’

‘No, not Don Quixote. Here, have Harry Potter.’

Mum weighed the book in her hands. ‘That’ll last a while but you’d better get reading if you want your dad to bring any more. Otherwise they’ll all go straight on the fire.’

‘I’ll go skipping tomorrow,’ said Emma. ‘See what I can find.’

‘There’s a large skip down the high street with old shop fittings. There should be plenty of wood in that one.’

The door slammed. The newspaper rustled as it fell out of its slot. Dad dumped stuff on the floor.

‘Fire’s out,’ he shouted.

‘Bugger,’ said mum. ‘Where the hell you been?’

‘Don’t you start,’ said dad, but she already had.

Emma’s cold fists were tight against her cheeks. Knees sucked into her chest.

Why didn’t they shout? Talking was worse. Such quiet talking. Her ear next to the empty doorframe caught some words. Caught more than words. Caught meaning. Dad was leaving. Mum and dad were breaking up.

It wasn’t fair.

Emma flung herself onto the mattress. The duvet pulled over her head. If only she was better. They were always shouting at her. If only she were good.

They’d be better off without her.

Emma shoved the duvet back and looked around her room. What should she take? What did she want?

Nothing.

There was nothing.

The window. That would show them. They’d be sorry when she was gone. They’d know how sorry she was, and then they’d stop.

She opened the window and climbed. She could hear their voices floating through the house and into her room. She looked down at the ground a long way below her dangling feet.

Emma waited.

Would they notice? Would anyone notice?

The cold ridge of window frame dug into her bottom.

She wanted them to come quickly. Still their voices charged on. She couldn’t hear words now, but she heard plans. Plans she needed to change.

She slipped her shoe off her left foot. The shoe, crashing into the tarmac, sounded loud, but their voices ignored it. No one noticed. No one cared.

Maybe the pavement felt something. Maybe it saw Emma on the edge. Waiting.

Waiting to be noticed.

She bent down and slipped off her other shoe. She held the window frame and leant forward.

Crunch.

The shoe bounced off the window below and slapped the pavement in the face. For a moment the voices were silenced

Then they started again.

Louder now.

Everything back to normal.

Nothing changed.

Emma jumped;

back into the room.

Emma fell;

onto her bed.

Emma slammed;

her fists into her pillow

And she cried, real tears, but still no one noticed.

She couldn’t fix it. She couldn’t make it better.

She bashed her head onto her bed and hit something hard.

It was Lucy’s book.

The Book Thief.

She’d take that.

It was easy slipping down the stairs. Their noisy voices smothered her steps. Their angry looks directed at the empty fireplace never turned in her direction.

Emma quietly opened the door and stepped into the cold darkness.

Retrieved her shoes.

Stepped back to the door.

Paused to gather all her strength and then…

SLAM.

She’d see how far she could get.

The heart of it

*

You enter the maze. You have a simple choice. Right or left?

*

Kristina had a father and a mother. She survived a middle class upbringing and like the majority of middle class kids, despite media reports, lived with both her parents. Her father was the one who had upgraded from working class to middle class.

Kristina’s father was carried to London in 1917 by his parents who had fled the Bolshevik Revolution. People described him as a self-made man, but that’s not what he said. He was always conscious of those who contributed to his success, not least his two maths teachers. It wasn’t the maths that made the difference – it was the money.

The two teachers truly believed that intelligent children deserved a chance to make the most of themselves, even if they came from poor backgrounds. Kristina’s father was the beneficiary of their belief and went to grammar school because of their generosity, and of course, his own intelligence.

Grammar school opened possibilities for Kristina’s father that none of his working class neighbours ever glimpsed. With the help of scholarships, hard work, lucky connections and perfect timing, he navigated into the working class exclusion zone of medical school and ultimately became a doctor.

Perhaps Kristina learnt enough anatomy from him to locate the heart on Sunday 7th March. But there is no evidence of it and Kristina did not follow her father into a career in medicine, or make any contribution to the treatment of heart disease.

*

After two turns you hit a dead end.
You retrace your steps back.
You could leave, but you want to know what’s at the heart of the maze.

*

If genetics and upbringing caused Kristina to act like she did, then Kristina’s mother must have been responsible. Typically for women of her generation, she took almost exclusive responsibility for the home and the child rearing. She was the one covered in vomit while holding Kristina in a tight, loving embrace. She was also the one who cleared up the vomit once Kristina had succumbed to sleep.

She provided the anchor in Kristina’s life. She encouraged and challenged, modelled socially acceptable behaviour, instilled moral values and insisted that Kristina spoke Russian as well as English.

*

You come to a fork in the path.
You could continue in the same direction
or turn onto a new track

*

Kristina hid her fluency in Russian and like her father spoke English with a British accent, although hers was more refined than his. It was only as she approached the end of her schooling that she developed an interest in her grandparent’s homeland.

Her interest led her to enrol at the School of Slavonic and East European Studies, a small independent college of the University of London.  Most of the college’s one hundred students were ex-forces men who had learnt Russian as part of their military service. The college also had a sprinkling of students like Kristina who were descendents of émigrés from Slavic countries.

During her three years of study she became fluent in Polish and Hungarian. These were not subjects on her syllabus but the mother-tongues of two young men whom she shared rooms with and whom she taught to dance.

Her love of languages didn’t make any difference on Sunday 7th March.

*

The path opens into a small square.
For a moment you think you have reached the heart of the maze
but you realise this is a staging post
and randomly choose one of the many paths.

*

The 1960s were the era of the Cold War. The Berlin Wall was erected in 1961 and the Cuban Missile Crises happened in 1962.

At Kristina’s home, and her college, Russia was admired as a place of literature and poetry. It wasn’t admired as a country and neither was its ideology. Kristina began to view Russia as a broken vessel in need of repair.

She met Harry Redbrook at one of the many college dances. He was a friend of Peter, the social secretary and, although not at the college himself, was responsible for the collection and delivery of the barrels of beer. He was also an excellent dancer.

It wasn’t long before Harry and Kristina’s passion for dancing led to them meeting at various venues across London. Harry lifted Kristina on the dance floor and their relationship also lifted her social connections out of lower middle class and in to the upper echelons. Harry had been to Eton and Cambridge. He’d also been on the programme to train Russian translators and interpreters known as the Joint Services School for Linguists which was linked to the School of Slavonic and East European Studies. His knowledge of Russian words and phrases was extensive but Kristina found that the flavour of his Russian was always slightly awry.

Harry and Kristina married, socialised, scandalised and divorced within three years. Harry Redbrook barely registered as a footnote on her life, except that her marriage to Harry brought her onto the radar of the political elite.

*

After many twists and turns you find yourself back in the small square.
You make another choice and quickly leave.

*

The 1960s were the era of the Cold War. Kristina’s language skills were seen as a potential tool, or weapon, but her heritage dampened enthusiasm for using her talents and delayed any job offers.

By 1966 Government Communication Headquarters directly employed about 8,000 people. Most worked at its main Cheltenham base but there was also a small office in London. At the age of thirty, Kristina’s talents finally led to her recruitment to translate and interpret messages intercepted by special signal units based in West Berlin.

The marriage bar that prohibited married women from joining the Foreign Civil Service was still in place until 1973. For once, being divorced was an advantage and a year after starting at GCHQ she had moved to the British Embassy in Russia.

*

You feel that you must be getting close after so much exploring.
You have a choice between a path leading towards the centre
or one leading directly away.
You head away as you know that the maze will not be simple. 

*

Kristina flourished at the embassy. Her linguistic skills were adequate for secret interpreting. Her linguistics skills combined with her grace on the dance floor and short skirts were more than adequate for other, even more secretive work.

Kristina’s children know only that she was a secretary in the Civil Service and that because she was multi-lingual she undertook secretarial work in several countries. They imagined her typing letters in English, Russian, Polish and Hungarian.

Family for Kristina meant her second marriage. Paul Ashcroft also worked for the Civil Service and also spoke Russian. However, it was their private language that they never passed on to their children. Mark, their middle child, eventually learnt enough Russian to disturb their privacy but by then it was too late to discover what they had been saying about the 10-year old Mark at the kitchen table. If he’d had a time machine he’d have discovered that most of the talk was political not domestic.

He would also have been surprised if he had been able to eavesdrop when his parents watched films; especially thrillers and murder mysteries. If he had been able to understand Russian he would have been intrigued as to why his parents found many of the most dramatic scenes oddly amusing.

*

You arrive.
Your path has been crooked and you are unsure what to expect.
But finally you will discover what is at the heart of the maze.

*

On Sunday 7th March, Kristina walked up the steps from the riverside to London Bridge and her eighty-year old body protested that she’d done too much. It took her a moment to realise that something was happening. People were running with such panic that they bumped her and knocked her off balance.

Kristina clutched the stone balustrade and turned her fall into a controlled slump. Once on the floor she pulled her legs in out of the way.

The flow of people dwindled. She had a clear view along the bridge and saw one solitary man. She immediately knew this man was the cause of the panic. She could see that he wielded something in each hand. She also knew that she would not be able to get back to her feet before he reached her.

Kristina opened her handbag and quickly looked through; keys, purse, lipstick, eyeliner, compact mirror, retractable umbrella, perfume bottle, hairbrush, hairspray, cigarette lighter, cigarettes and a mobile phone.

She thought about phoning her daughter to tell things that were never told. There wouldn’t be time. Kristina was sure the police would come. She didn’t think it would be soon enough.

Time. She needed more of it. No one was going to give her more so she’d have to make some.

Extracting the umbrella was taking too long. She tipped the entire contents of her bag onto the pavement next to her. She grabbed the hairspray and pushed hard on the trigger to release as much spray as she could, into and over the furled umbrella.

She took her compact mirror and smashed it on the ground. She picked up a broken shard and forced it into her lipstick. She unclipped the strap from her bag and clipped one end to her heavy bunch of keys.

The man arrived. He looked at Kristina, sprawled in the debris of her life. Kristina thought he’d pass her by, but then she saw the way he looked, the way his arm flexed back with the long knife ready to strike.

She thanked God that her lighter struck first click. She touched the flame to the hairspray soaked umbrella and pressed the umbrella release button while thrusting up towards the knife-man’s face.

The umbrella ignited in a ball of flame and flung burning drops at the man. Kristina didn’t watch.

She concentrated on swinging the key-laden strap around the man’s legs. As soon as the strap had encircled the legs Kristina pulled hard. The man toppled. Kristina hoped he’d land on his own knife but she wasn’t so lucky. The flame and fall were enough to disorientate him.

Kristina was not disorientated. She aimed precisely at the spot on the man’s chest that she knew covered his heart and slammed the mirror-bladed lipstick with all her might. The shard cut through his bulky jacket and sunk significantly.

Kristina leaned back against the balustrade and started to shake. The shock wouldn’t let her feel relief.

She started to close her eyes but then noticed the man move his arm. He pulled open his jacket and Kristina saw the explosives. The police were approaching but not soon enough.

Kristina crawled across and flopped onto the man pinning his arm under her. The first rifle shot went through them both.

*

It is time to leave the maze
You are confident of the initial direction
but soon find that the outward journey is as complicated as the inward.

*

Kristina manages to avoid direct media contact by virtue of being in hospital. But the media onslaught is relentless.

The big question is where did Kristina learn to do what she did? The media speculate wildly and rake over Kristina’s past. Her family are no help as they themselves have no idea.

Finally Kristina relents and admits that she has always been a fan of action movies, thrillers and spy movies and that she has always imagined herself taking out the villain. What she did was simply something she had made up in her head over many years while watching the films.

The media dub her double-o-eighty and as soon as she is well enough she collects her George Cross medal for bravery.

Only Mark understands the words she says under her breath, but he isn’t sure that his translation is accurate. He can’t understand why his mother would say, “At least this time I don’t have to keep it secret.”

Golden Cap

The teenagers run up the slope, overtaking the Four-Legged-Woman and the Man-with-a-Hump.

They are both excited. The holiday caravan is just down the path at Seatown. The caravan has belonged to the family for years so they can holiday any weekend the weather looks good. Fred would come every weekend if he could, sun, rain or wind. Maybe hailstones would stop him.

Fred looks at his cousin and nods to the right. A sweaty man has arrived at the top of Golden Cap hill with an overflowing back pack and two walking poles. They could christen him the Four-Legged-Man-with-a-Hump but instead choose to name him the Serious-Man. He smiles and waves at them.

He’s earned his name. The South West Coast path is England’s longest path. Fred and his cousin are only walking a tiny part of it, but the Serious Man looks, and smells, like he’s started in Somerset and doesn’t have far to go to complete the full 630 miles.

Golden Cap is the highest point on the whole of the South Coast. In the distance Fred can see the Isle of Portland sticking out into the sea. Poole harbour is just beyond.

He turns the other way and looks back along the ups and downs of their trek. John is still plodding slowly up. He’s going to take ages to reach the top. Fred doesn’t want to wait.

He’s full of energy and wants to run down the meadow. Buttercups have turned the whole slope into a golden carpet that looks almost a solid yellow. Fred knows that once he gets into the meadow the colour will break apart into yellow spots dotted around the lush green grasses.  He can also see purple dots caused by the flowers of green-winged orchids.

Fred looks at Perry for permission. Can we? Should we? Perry, the older cousin gets to decide – wait or run on?

Fred sees Perry look at John and then in one sudden movement he’s off. Leaping down the hill and charging through the grass stems. Fred shouts and follows.

They run full speed down the slope. Past a family group they name the Gaggle, around a Slow-and-Steady couple, almost knock over the Man-with-tubes-on-his eyes and have to wait impatiently at the style for the Lady-with-inappropriate-shoes to get out of their way.

Neither of them looks back. John knows the way. He’ll get home eventually.

Fred wins. He does one victory lap of the caravan and flops on the neatly trimmed lawn. Both their chests are heaving from the effort. Fred closes his eyes and is almost asleep by the time John arrives.

John fumbles his keys out of his jeans and opens the caravan. Fred and Perry lie where they are.

“Here you go. I bet you are thirsty.”

John places two bowls on the grass. He hopes none of the staff saw them running through the caravan park by themselves. Next time he’ll put the leads on before they go up Golden Cap.

Hope Hill

They walked under the railway tunnel that lost its original purpose long ago, along a path beside the new dual carriageway.

“At least the foot bridge is the same. Watch this.”

He ran across the bridge taking bigger and bigger steps as he went.

 “What?”

“Didn’t you see the bounce? No. Try it. Come on.”

“I can’t run. Someone might see.”

Simon looked at the traffic zooming underfoot.

“I can’t see anyone.”

Kate laughed, “You’re mad.”

Simon bowed, “Yes m’lady.”

“What the heck.”

“We have to run in time to get the bounce.”

“Oh my God.”

Kate collapsed into the rail and Simon held her up.

“It’s resonance. Get the right frequency and the bridge bounces. Get it wrong and it slaps you.”

“I thought you were going to drop your dad on a lorry.”

Simon laughed, “What a way to go. Ashes spread all the way to Bristol.”

“I’m heading back.”

“Okay. See you in about an hour.”

They kissed. A lorry honked and simultaneously their middle fingers gave the driver clearer directions than any Sat Nav.

*

Last time he’d been up Hope Hill was decades ago. He’d taken his girlfriend up to walk off mum’s Sunday dinner. There was no kissing gate then. Pity, it would have been fun.

Simon turned back in time to see Kate wave from the railway tunnel. He blew her a kiss and started the ascent.

The hill seemed smaller and in minutes he’d reached the cabbage patch – the steepest and muddiest field. The last cabbage had been planted years ago and only the name bore witness to better days.

Within three strides his boots had doubled in size and tripled in weight. The first rain dropped. His rain glazed glasses blocked his view but without them the landscape would still be a blur.

With effort he sucked his boot from the mud and trudged on. He soon entered the bull field where he could scrape mud without fear of its return.

No bulls today. No bulls any day apart from that once. Mum was in front carrying the picnic. Simon followed with arms full of paper aeroplanes. Dad behind and empty handed as usual. Mum stopped. Simon went to pass but she held him back. Twenty paces in front was a mountain of meat, skewering them to the spot. Dad charged past, arms waving, for once shouting for mum rather than at her. The bull retreated from the angry man. Mum kissed him. Her hero.

Simon took the diagonal to lessen the slope. In front was the pimple. A small mound that looked man-made. He had to go around the back to find the path through the brambles.

There was no trig point. The hill was too low to merit one, but it provided such a good view over Gloucester that the path was well-trodden and clear. The brambles were loaded with fruit and thorns. The old apple tree was still old and still produced masses of misshapen fruit.

After wiping his glasses he was able to trace his path and see his red car in the far distance, but he wasn’t sure which house was his childhood home. The home that dad sold as soon as he’d dumped mum in the home that wasn’t a home.

A new bench sat on their picnic spot – new to Simon but clearly weathered by many winters.

Macleod

The engraved name hit him.

In memory of Mary Macleod, a beloved wife and mother

Simon collapsed onto the bench.

It must have been dad. Yes, Simon could clearly see his hand at work in the build and the lettering. Simon wondered if he’d carried the thing up here himself. That would be like him. Get a few of his followers to help him. He’d probably direct rather than actually carry.

The rain stopped and the city of Gloucester slowly emerged from the mist. The cathedral tower forlornly hoped for a ray of sunshine.

What would mum think? She never blamed dad. She couldn’t see how much he put her down. She only saw the small kindnesses. Wooden plates, stools, picture frames, spoons, their bed, all the stuff he crafted that stood in for love.

She’d have loved this. She’d tell everyone how he’d made it. How he’d carried it all the way up here. Just so she could rest after picking blackberries and enjoy the fine view.

Beloved

Simon took the ashes and poured them under the bench.

“Maybe you loved her in your own peculiar way.”

He picked three apples and one leaf. The leaf wiped the ice-cream tub clean enough for apples to share space with blackberries. It’s what mum would have done. Her love came as crumble.

*

Kate popped open the car boot.

“You ok?”

Simon yanked at his laces. Another broke. He twisted it loosely around his finger and tied a bow. Without rising from his knees he took hold of Kate’s hand and held out the ring of broken lace.

“Will you marry me?”

Kate laughed, “Who are you? And what have you done with Simon?”

“I’m serious.”

“But you’ve never wanted to.”

“I’ve been afraid it’ll go wrong. But…well. Will you?”

“You sure you want this?”

“I do.”

Sharing smiles

Frost on my daughters window. © Peter Richardson

“Come see.”

I’m not awake and already I’m dragged from my bed to look at something only a four year-old will find interesting.

“What?”

“The window,” she says. “On the window.”

She’s built a tower with her table and chair, climbed up and opened the blind while I’ve been peacefully sleeping. I wish she wouldn’t do that. One day she’ll hurt herself.

“What?”

“The pattern.”

I take a closer look at what I’ve mistaken for condensation. It’s frost, but not like any frost pattern I’ve ever seen before. There are swirls and curls glinting and reflecting the rising sun. There are spirals like some kind of ice-fern and sparkling feathers of light.

“Don’t touch it,” I shout.

I dash down to my studio and grab the first camera I see. I bound up the stairs and find her huddled on a bean bag with tears bulging at the edge of her eyes.

“What’s up?”

“I touched it. Will I die?”

I laugh – but she’s serious.

“No of course not.”

“But you said don’t touch. You said it was dangerous.”

“No… I just didn’t want you to damage it.”

“Is it a sleeping ice-dragon?”

The sun has sent a red glow of fire into the frost.

“Yes. But it won’t hurt you. Ice-dragons are very kind, especially red ones.”

She sniffles and has one of those conflicted faces only kids can manage – a massive smile but tainted by the sadness still clinging to her eyes.

I wipe her tears on my pyjama sleeve.

“I was worried you’d wake the dragon. It will fly away soon anyway,” I say. “They always do when the sun comes up.”

Her face sinks into sadness.

“I’ll take a picture. To keep forever,” I say.

I smile and she smiles back – right up to her eyes.

My camera clicks on the smile and only then do I turn to the dragon. Another click and everything is captured – safe in the camera, and even safer in my memory.

Twitter stories – very very short stories

Stories inspired by photographs. All photographs © Neil Richardson

If only the remote control had a button to switch off insomnia. Then I wouldn’t have to watch such rubbish.

She wanted to lose pounds – he wanted to gain them. Fortunately she was the banker and he was the gambler.

Loneliness forced him to conform but the constraints were too great. He never would be a square peg, or a round hole.

She liked taking risks. He liked taking chances. They made a great pair – and had a full house

Research told him “cyclist are cool & get dates.” He got a sore bottom and sour grapes.

link to the research

Andy resigned.
Proudly.
His son had won again but for the first time Andy hadn’t lost on purpose.

The snug dog looked sweet curled on the chair. The roast beef was gone; only the smug dog knew where it was.

“Which nuts do mice like?”
“What! You’re feeding it?”
“No way – deciding how to bait the trap.”

His dad was his hero. He could do everything. He was a superstar. Until… his dad said NO

He felt bound by his words. But what he said and what he meant weren’t the same. She should understand.

Computer keyboard

Every day he typed the story of his life. Until he realised he had no life.

Roxie

Unaccompanied children will be fed espresso coffee and given a puppy

Dad laughs.

“Alex,” he says, “can you imagine your Mum’s face if you came home with a puppy?”

He ignores the sign and joins his friends on the grade six rock climb, leaving me to tackle a simple grade three.

As soon as he’s out of sight a man carrying a flask and a basket appears.

“Drink this,” the man says.

I take the flask and raise it to my lips.

“Bleaggggh,” I say spitting out the strong, black coffee.

“Not your cup of tea?” says the man. “How about this?”

He lifts the lid of the basket and pulls out the most beautiful animal I have ever seen.

The pup looks at me with big, sad brown eyes. I feel the warmth of her tongue as she licks my chin. I hold her while she butts against my face. My finger traces the border between her black and white fur – one eye buried deep in darkness, the other like an island in a sea of sunlight. I lift her one black paw and rub my thumb across the pink softness of the pads under her feet.

“What’s that?” Dad says.

“A puppy.”

“I can see it’s a puppy,” says Dad. “But what the heck are you doing with it?”

I tell him. He doesn’t believe me.

*

“What’s that?” says Mum. Her face is angrier than I’d imagined.

“It’s a puppy,” says Dad.

“I can see it’s a puppy. But what the heck are you doing with it?”

“It’s Alex’s,” says Dad.

“I don’t believe it,” says Mum. “I let you take him out for one afternoon and you come back with that. What were you thinking?”

Mum shakes her head and points at the puppy, “Where did you get it?”

Dad tells her. She doesn’t believe him.

“Just take that thing back.”

“But Mum…”

“No. I’m not having it.”

Mum stops wagging her finger in front of Dad’s face and points back out of the front door.

“Go on.”

*

We go back to the climbing rocks like Mum told us to. The rocks are all empty. We accost a couple of dog walkers. They know nothing, so we head back to the car and find a note slipped under the windscreen wipers.

A dog is for life, not just for climbing. Puppies teach responsibility. No returns accepted.

“Oh great,” says Dad. “What on earth are we going to tell your Mum?”

Mum’s guarding the front door. Roxie barks an excited welcome. Mum growls as she pulls opens the car door and demands to know why we haven’t given the dog back.

Roxie stops barking and shrinks into my lap.

Dad passes Mum the note.

“What’s this supposed to mean?” Mum says, waving the note at Dad. “Is this some kind of joke?”

I can tell Dad doesn’t want to explain. He hasn’t mentioned the sign about unaccompanied children. He hasn’t mentioned leaving me on my own.

“It’ll be good,” says Dad. “It’ll teach responsibility.”

“You could certainly do with some of that,” says Mum, and then she laughs.

“And there’s your first lesson,” she says pointing.

It wasn’t Roxie’s fault. She was scared and didn’t like being trapped in the car. I open the car door and she jumps out, but she doesn’t run away. She lies down and waits for me.

My wet trousers stick to my legs and Roxie’s wee has left a pale outline of my bottom on the car seat.

“Alex,” says Mum, “put the dog in the conservatory and get yourself cleaned up.”

“You,” she tells Dad, “clean the car.”

I come down from the bathroom to see Roxie eating some chicken and Mum spreading out an old blanket. Dad is still cleaning the car.

I can’t sleep tonight. I keep thinking about Roxie. I hope she is happy in the conservatory. It gets cold in there at night. Mum and Dad are still in the kitchen – I can hear them whisper-shouting.

*

In the morning I run along the landing and down the stairs. I’m surprised to see dad in the kitchen with a cup of tea and Roxie is lying at his feet.

Mum and Dad fell out with each other last month and now dad sleeps at Grandma’s. He only comes to the house to take me out at the weekend. He usually waits in the car and honks his horn. He’s never comes into the kitchen.

“Is your mother awake?” dad asks.

I shrug.

“Well, take her some tea and this newspaper. If she’s asleep just leave it on the bedside cabinet.”

I see Mum looking down at us from on the landing.

“I brought you the paper,” says Dad.

Mum blinks in surprise, pushes her hand through her hair and pats down a bit that is sticking up.

“What are you doing here?” she says.

“I brought Roxie some dog food,” says Dad.

Roxie’s ears stick up and she lifts her head off the floor. She already knows her name. I squat down and scratch her under the chin. She sniffs me and licks my face.

“Here, she likes this,” says Dad. He hands me a rubber bone that already has chew marks on one end.

“And I’ve got some bacon. I could make you a full English breakfast.”

Mum yawns and nods.

“Why don’t you have a shower,” says Dad, “I’ll get it ready for when you come down.”

Dad whistles as he grabs a frying pan and turns to Roxie.

“Do you like bacon? Do you? Do you? You do, dont you?”

Roxie barks and wags her tail.

*

“Right Tony, see you in about half an hour,” says Dad. He clicks off his mobile and strokes Roxie. She lifts her head slightly and then rests it back down on my lap.

Mum stands in the door with her arms crossed.

“So I guess you’re off then.”

“Urrh, What?” says Dad.

“Don’t you Urrh What me?” says Mum. “What’s it today? Drinking at the golf club, football in the pub?”

“Tony’s lending us a dog lead. He’s got a special harness because Roxie’s so young. I thought, perhaps we could take a walk along the canal? What do you think Alex.”

“Can I mum?”

She pauses, she frowns and then she smiles. “I’ll make you a picnic while you get dressed.”

I find a note in the picnic.

Dogs are social animals and need to live with their pack.

*

Dad comes every morning before school. He creeps quietly up to my room, helps me get dressed and we tiptoe downstairs making shushing noises at Roxie.

It’s like she understands. She doesn’t bark. Dad says border collies are the cleverest dogs in the world.

Dad always wanted a dog when he was a boy, but he couldn’t have one because he lived in a flat. Other people in the flats had dogs, but Grandma said it wouldn’t be fair to have a dog without a garden.

Dad tells me stories while we walk. He tells me about things he got up to – he was quite naughty when he was my age. Yesterday he showed me how he stole apples by snagging them from trees with his scarf. We didn’t have a scarf but Roxie’s lead worked just as well. We saved one apple and cut it into bits for Mum to have with her breakfast.

As soon as I see the time I know something is wrong. It’s half-past seven. Dad has forgotten. I run out and almost trip down the stairs. I hear scratching at the kitchen door. Roxie jumps up.

“Where’s Dad?” I ask her.

She wants her walk. I can’t. I’m not allowed to take her on my own.

I see a note on the kitchen table.

A dad is for life. Not just for weekends.

Roxie hears a noise and turns her head. I follow her gaze up to the landing.

Dad’s coming out of Mum’s bedroom.

“Time to get dressed,” he says. “We need to take Roxie out.”

I spot Mum’s hand on Dad’s shoulder and hear her whisper.

“I’ll come with you.”