Hope

We ventured outside of the usual parameters with our latest theme of ‘Hope’ so that we can use these stories as part of the Shaftesbury Arts Centre open day on Saturday 3rd September. Do come along and hear us read if you’re around in town- we will be reading between 3pm and 4pm.

Hopes, by Monica D’Amico

Hopes used to be my breakfast,

My habit, my defence.

They woke me up in mornings

And take me ‘round for days.

Hopes used to be my supper,

My shield, my love, my nurse.

They carried me to bed

And stayed as dreams at night.

Hope used to be so natural

to my devoted heart:

hopes lifted up my soul

without any surprise.

Hopes used to be my style

No projects, plans or guides,

Just wishing for tomorrow

And waiting for the stars.

Hope was my long way home,

Dear friend, my goodnight tale.

The sound of thousands lives,

I’d never met before.

Hopes were my unknown journey,

The smell of fresh new paint

They led me to stories,

To landscapes, to new lands.

Hope was a breath of freedom,

A childish walk through clouds,

Hopes made any reality

Impossible to find.

I used to be a dreamer,

A lost soul in the sky.

Now hope, to me, you see,

Has the bitter taste of lies.

 

Would You Dance, by Becky Bye

“Would you dance with me?”

Those words caught in my throat, ragged, unnatural. I coughed a little, swallowed hard in an attempt to moisten my dry mouth.

I extended my upturned palm, slightly clammy, and hoped that she didn’t notice the tremble of my fingertips.

If she was at all nervous, she didn’t show it.

She smiled sweetly, the corners of that beautiful mouth curving upwards into a genuine smile, revealing perfect teeth and igniting a flash of mischief in her eyes.

Her fingers met mine and I felt my pulse quicken, unnatural heat rising to my face, scalding my cheeks.

She squeezed my hand more tightly and led me to the dance floor where we blended into the crowd.

As she placed her head on my shoulder, we became entwined together and suddenly became the only two people in the room.

Her perfume was intoxicating, lingering in her wake as we graced the floor, sweet and flowery, radiating from her pale skin. It made my head spin and my stomach twist.

I felt her hand slip around my waist and pull me closer, our fluttering hearts pressed together.

“Can I keep you?” I whispered, my lips pressed close to her ear.

She raised her head so that our eyes were locked and I noticed for the first time the splashes of gold hidden within the smooth brown.

She brought her lips to my cheek, delicately planting a secret there. Her skin felt cool against mine as she whispered the three words that sealed our fate.

“I hope so.”

Nautical

Our latest monthly theme was a nautical one, following the addition of a new member, Nick, who has worked as a yacht designer. Here are some samples of what we came up with.

Sequestered, by Richard Foreman

I am drawn to the shore, but it seems I cannot reach it. Sometimes I am so close I can hear the ever alternating ebb and crash, the crack of shoved, impacting pebbles, the hiss, the fizz… It’s just over this ridge, through this last field where sheep or cattle graze, beyond those thorny, scrawny, wind disfigured trees, that patch of tangled bramble or yellow blooming gorse. I only have to find a path. I only have to reach the edge of cliffs and find some track-way down.

I yearn to remove my shoes and socks, tread the slightly yielding sands and place my feet in the path of some cold, incoming surge of froth and water. I long to dance and splash and play the fool, there where land meets sea. To stride out ever deeper, throw my body forward and in that moment of immersion propel myself to swim.

I climb, I descend, I stride a line or zigzag through rougher terrain. I can hear the gulls, their sharp peals seem to echo around me as they circle and swoop above. I can smell the fresh, salty odour of the ocean that awaits me beyond these tangles and slopes that hinder my advance. Oh but the wind that blows it to me, it too pushes me back, making a labour of simple footsteps.

I keep pushing on. The sun, at its highest, seems to scorch my scalp. I am sweating, footsore, my muscles ache with effort. I have nothing to sustain me but the will to reach that ever-moving body of water, whose presence I desire. Surely I will see it soon, I only have find some gap or gate in this stark fence of barbed wire that stands before me now.

There must have been a path. That must be where I started. Others have reached the sea and returned to tell tales of clear waters, sheltered coves, bright and fascinating rock-pools, the passing of pleasurable hours. But, if path there was, it has disappeared, or I have turned away from it in some moment of careless distraction. The fence stretches either way, as far as I can see, the barbed wire new and too taut to manipulate a gap through which I could clamber. And then it turns a corner and I am forced to retreat from my destination. I have no memory of the gate or means by which I entered this enclosure, but if this impedance continues, I will find myself back at that point.

At least then I might find some other route, or perhaps the path I guess I lost – this time to lead me with greater certainty. But the sound I heard so seeming close is fading. The gulls too keep distant, circle higher, their cries drifting out of range. It is blackbird and song-thrush I’m hearing now, in the woodland from which the fence now divides me. Another corner and surely soon I will find the gateway out.

My weariness is now bone deep, each lift of a leg an effort. My spine is a long, dull ache; my stomach a void; my throat coarse with thirst. I don’t know how long I’ve been walking for, pressing myself on in isolation, but I know that soon I can walk no more. Perhaps the way back to wherever I came from will be easier. Perhaps there will be food and shelter there, someone to advise me, to show me the way.

Rest and a good night’s sleep are what I need.

Tomorrow I will surely find the shore.

The Old Man of The Sea, by Alex Chase

Waves broke against the crumbling, grey green stones of the ancient dock, gulls cried as they circled and wind whipped the hair of infrequent passers by. Under these glowering grey skies, the dark water held a threatening, angry look. The rain had stopped though, and the stonework was shiny and slick, puddles scattered across uneven paving. In the harbour, a few old fishing boats rode at anchor; the men who owned them could no longer afford to earn their living like this and many families had already moved inland to try and find work.

Only one person paid attention to these relics of a bygone age, he sat on the same bollard on which he always sat, smoke curling up from an ancient pipe clenched between yellow teeth. His grey beard was neatly trimmed, though somewhat stained now from decades of pipe smoke. His weathered, brown face spoke of many years at sea, both from time in the navy and later, on his own yacht; real sailing, not like the noisy diesel engines he’d tolerated on Her Majesty’s Ships. The old man (nobody could tell how old, was he seventy? Eighty? More?) was dressed like a sailor still, a dirty but thick turtleneck sweater on top of heavy duty trousers and some sea boots that had seen more of the world than most people.

As he gazed at the peaceful harbour, isolated from the maelstrom outside the sea wall, the old man allowed his mind to wander. How many years had he sat on this same bollard? Since moving down here after Nancy died; well that was at least ten years ago now. He smiled at her memory. No one had known why he always called her that when her real name was Ruth, no one but their closest families anyway. Of course these days it wasn’t something anyone ever asked either; their daughter Margaret knew, no one else really cared anymore. He shook off these maudlin thoughts and cast his mind further back in time.

He’d grown up with the sea, had been taught to sail by his father, another naval officer. He’d graduated from dinghies in the Lake District to yachts at sea before he’d reached adulthood. When the war came round, of course he’d joined the navy. Even with those foul diesels it was better than being stuck on land. He’d certainly fallen on his feet, as soon as they found out about his background he’d been sent off to officer training at the double.

In those dark early days of war it wasn’t long though before he was back out on the sea. Dunkirk meant that every able bodied man with any kind of sailing ability had been pressed into operation. He hadn’t been assigned to a ship yet, so he was given an old fishing boat whose owner was bed ridden and sent to France.

Tears rolled down the old man’s face as he remembered that day. At the time it had been grand, a great day to be a sailor. The landings, keeping the boat steady as the exhausted Tommies piled in, then off and dodging the strafing from above. Tacking away from the beach and up to one of the bigger transports just off the coast. He’d made several trips and had been proud of the work he’d done. It was only on arriving back in England and seeing the stretchers lined up on the harbour that he realised quite how terrible that beach had been and how lucky he was to have escaped unharmed. The next five years had been a blur of oceans across the world. Barely stopping for breath as successive tours had taken him from the North Atlantic to the Indian Ocean. Long periods of boredom, punctuated by terror as enemy ships pursued them or aircraft dropped bombs and torpedoes all around.

Then one day, as they were in Melbourne for a refit, his eye was caught by a group of WRENs chatting outside a café. One of them looked familiar, and as he stared (rather gormlessly perhaps), she glanced his way. Tears flowed once again down that rugged face as he recalled the spark of recognition that jumped both ways across the road between them. He’d nearly got himself run over by an army truck as he rushed across to engulf her in his arms and she’d been cursed roundly by a motorcycle messenger going the other way. But when they met midway it hardly mattered, the years since they’d first met on an island in a lake in the north melted away and the friendship they’d shared had grown into that tender and glorious love that only ever comes from being in another’s heart for many years.

The rest of the war had dragged terribly as they were assigned to seemingly opposite sides of the globe with nothing but letters to read and re-read as they waited for the day they could be united.

The old man’s features relaxed softly as he remembered those blissful days when they could finally be together. The decades of chasing round the world after his postings and then on their own little ship made the brown face glow as the years passed across his brows. The stormy weather that surrounded him disappeared and the sunlight of history shone around him. The present no longer mattered. The uncertainties of life scattered and faded away and sweet recollections folded that old man of the sea in their warm embrace.

 

Siren, by Becky Bye

The sun beat mercilessly down on the little whitewashed boat. The wood creaked as it expanded in the sun, bleached, made brittle by the heat.

Samuel closed his eyes and raised his face to the electric blue sky. Not a cloud, nor a whisper of breeze. He raked a dry tongue over cracked swollen lips and attempted to swallow, his throat as coarse as sandpaper. He looked down at his hands, the skin stretched tight over the protruding bones, browned by the sun and blistered by the wind.

When was the last time he had eaten? Yesterday? A week ago? He couldn’t remember. His stomach clenched as he thought briefly of food and quickly moved his mind onwards.

From a small leather flask, he allowed himself one very meagre mouthful of water. He toyed with it in his mouth, permitting his tongue to bath in the droplets, before he let his throat enjoy the brief cascade. His stomach gurgled as the water fell within the emptiness.

Then, that sound he had been waiting to hear once again. That voice. That sweet, haunting melody. Echoing somewhere far off, and yet sauntering somewhere closer. It was very quiet at first, so that he had to strain his ears to hear it, and it would come at him louder and louder, before disappearing altogether.

It made his skin prickle with cooling sweat, and his hair stand on end.

His knuckles protested as he gripped the side of the boat, peering down into the water, hoping for just one more glimpse of the face that the voice belonged to, the face that had lured him from the ship that night. Was it a month ago? More? He didn’t know.

His whole body protested as he craned his neck down towards the water and was surprised at the face looking back at him. He was someone he no longer recognised; a stranger with wild straggly hair and hollow cheek bones. He forced himself to look deeper, to find that face which had bewitched him; the pale face, with the ruby red lips and waves of fiery hair.

A subtle stream of bubbles meandered their way to the surface, bursting the contours of his reflection. A sharp intake of breath made his head spin as he saw her smile, just below the surface.

He didn’t know for how long he stared at her, it might only have been a few seconds, it could easily have been minutes, hours.

The sun had started to set, spitting shards of pink across the skin of the water. The temperature was cooler now, and goose bumps scattered themselves over Samuel’s parched skin.

He dared not break his gaze with the woman beneath the water and as she whispered something to him, another stream of bubbles rushed to the surface.

With a trembling hand, Samuel reached into the water, entangling his fingers with hers.

Without a word, she gently tugged him from the boat and the two of them slipped into the depths.

The little boat bobbed silently on the water, with only the rising moon for company.

 

Amazing Gaze, by Monica D’Amico

She was probably the most beautiful creature that had never been in front of him. Either kissed by the Sun or lighten by the Moon, her curves, her brownish colours were simply a joy for everyone’s eyes.

She stood, majestic and powerful by the sea, shining with the glittering waves, waiting, ready to hold who was coming into her arms.

They were condemned to share this beautiful fate: every day they looked one each other from the two edges of the sea. Travelling toward her, he couldn’t stop staring at her; moment by moment she became bigger and stronger, as if the dream became more real, as if Beauty could be solid. Her taste, her smell grew in the sound of the moving salty water underneath. And getting closer and closer the warmth of her ginger heart could be felt heating the water and his own cold body.

Travelling toward her, she could feel he coming closer, she could recognise one by one her children, safely taken home under his care. His iron strength, either proved by the violent winter wind or the proud summer sun, was the most gently touch she could receive. Their hug, eventually, was the prize for their departure.

They could share few moments, closer than ever, but still unable to embrace each other, stealing whispered looks to keep in mind during their mutual distance; like a mild taste to breathe all along their farewell. But before the breath was full enough, it was already time to go. He, tired and strong, could never look back and quickly run away from her, who female, mother and gorgeous kept her warm earthy gaze on his metallic nape.

She was the only one.

If everyone could be amazed by her spectacular view, who else, apart from her, could then look back to a simple ferryboat. But she was mother: her passionate flaming heart, boiling water and growing love, could not forget one only journey of her faithful lover, she waited once more, he to come back home.

Italy

With the arrival of a new Italian member to our group, we thought that we would use the theme of Italy as our next prompt. Here is what Mike and I came up with.

All Roads Lead to Rome (a pre-referendum cautionary tale), by Michael Bailey

The government have been promising me I’ll see Italy and die. But maybe they got the order wrong. Every year now I’ve been waiting to retire but they keep making the race longer. It’s like a marathon that is forty miles instead of the twenty six it used to be because the finishing line keeps getting put back. Oh, I know all the economics of it, shrinking productive base and ballooning dependent population, blah, blah, blah. We old fuckers just live too long. That’s what Democratically Reaffirmed Prime Minister Johnson and President for life Trump tell us. Taking advantage of state managed euthanasia is the new affirmation of social conscience.

It’s hard to put your finger on just when we tipped over the edge, though the build up was obvious enough. The shit hitting so many fans at once was overwhelming. Tactical nuclear weapons in the middle east left fewer people to perpetuate the refugee crisis that worried us so much in the twenty-teens; affirmative action to support the Chinese take over of Russia tamed the bear and overfed the panda so the East is now consumed in an orgy of indigestion; at the same time we paid Indians to castrate themselves with legal highs and lethally doped Africans with promises of whiter skin. The whole second and third worlds imploded while the first world cruised on regardless.

No there’s something more sinister, the way things just don’t hang together anymore, haven’t for a long time now. It started even before the Brexit bombshell. Since then things have just slipped apart.

On a personal level what I know is this – one day I couldn’t finish the crossword – just a couple of clues, sure its happened before. Next day worse, three or four answers quite beyond the time I was prepared to stick at them. Perhaps I was just loosing my marbles, the big A or was it D? No. Other stuff seems to work ok. I don’t go into a room and forget why I’m there. I know who is prime minister (though this is no longer a reliable test of sanity as the answer isn’t changing any time soon) so as I’ve been telling you it’s something more collective.

You know the great climate change started decades ago and now the extreme weather has added to our disconnection with the familiar. Spring flowers in November and December followed by snow and ice in July; deadly thunderstorms ranging across Europe; roads melting and people dying in the streets as temperatures top fifty for days on end. It feels as if the whole of nature is unravelling. What with malaria mosquitoes and killer hornets as the down side of the Scottish and Icelandic wine industries, I’m glad I am getting old and won’t have to put up with all this much longer.

But before I die, there is Italy waiting. Baking in Pizza, a furnace in Florence and roasting in Rome but still steeped in two millennia old history and the richest greenest olive oil you could ever want to drizzle on your pasta (that is if

you want the oil to cook your farfeli for you as some of the fallout from the middle east nuclear conflict resolution has added enough radioactive caesium to the soil of Italy to make their olive oil glow in the dark for centuries to come). That leaves the history (stones don’t get radioactive unless they are directly in the blast) as the big consolation for me. I want to walk in the footsteps of Cesar and Nero, Michaelangelo and Leonardo DaVinci, Lucretzia Borga and Mussolini, Verdi and Donazetti even if I do have to eat pasta imported from nuclear free South America.

So next week I’ll finally become a pensioner and get my free flight pass (one way non transferrable) and my retirement billeting in a fifth floor flat in central Naples where the radiation level is just low enough to be tolerable for the very old because we won’t be around long enough for most cancers to develop and no one will be very bothered even if they do.

Of course the radiation is a secondary consideration in this pan European gereatrc-cleansing strategy. The real purpose is to remove us and our confused thinking and unreliable memories so our thought waves no longer contaminate the sharp and eager minds of younger people. You see the increasing numbers of melted minded uber-age people reached a critical mass after which younger clearer thinking minds were simply swamped by our leaky thought patterns.

As our perpetual leaders were already living in splendid and brainwave protected isolation, they believed they had devised the ultimate solution. That makes me smile the most because once I and my fellow deportees get to Italy and put our heads together they’ll have another thought coming their way.

 

Dear Juliet, by Becky Bye

Thomas swirled the Barolo Riserva, watching the velvety slip of wine coat the sides of the glass. He touched it to his lips, feeling its crimson warmth, but not tasting the notes. The street hummed with chatter and he turned his gaze away from couples looking deeply into each other’s eyes, exchanging secrets over Italian cuisine.

With a deep sigh, he pushed his chair away from the table, casually dropped a few notes onto the crisp white cloth and walked into the shadows, thrusting his hands into his pockets. His feet guided him as he glanced at tourists milling around. He squeezed the paper in his pocket and increased his pace.

***

Her hand placed over her heart, Juliet watched as others spilled the contents of theirs, some hearts breaking, some mending, all of their hopes for a happily ever after weighing down upon her shoulders.

She overlooked the throng of visitors playing Romeo, hailing her from her balcony as she stood below, glistening bronze in the sunlight. Unblinking, she witnessed thousands of unrequited lovers, separated lovers, secret lovers, sharing their passions for one another, only with her.

The terracotta wall was peppered with slips of white, where wrinkled edges of hastily scribbled love notes protruded, gently flapping in the sweet Italian breeze.

Thomas waited until the buzzing of tourists had diminished slightly, no doubt rushing off in the direction from which he came; to long elegant dinners on the side streets of Verona, laughing with other couples and drinking copious amounts of wine.

With shaking hands, he went to the statue and placed his hand on Juliet’s, gazing up into her face. He glanced up at her breast, worn smooth with the caress of thousands of visitors and wondered if tradition was as important as his undeclared love. He wished silently and without hesitation, tucked his letter into a spare nook in the wall below the balcony.

Dear Juliet,

It is only now that I realise I have never been in love before, that is not until I met Kate. My passion for her is all consuming. I cannot eat, I cannot sleep, and my thoughts are saturated with the beauty of her. She doesn’t even know I exist. I long for her to know how I feel but I am too afraid to tell her that she is more perfect than anyone else I have ever met. Please Juliet, give me the courage to tell her how I feel, that my soul cries out for hers.

Awaiting in earnest,

Thomas

Thomas looked at his letter in the wall for a moment, silently hoping he had done enough, and without looking back, turned away from the balcony and disappeared into the streets of Verona.

***

The square was deserted as the moonlight cast its embrace across the cobbled floor, flashing silver across Juliet’s balcony.

Tiptoeing lightly, Kate approached the statue, gently placing her hand against Juliet’s and closing her eyes for a moment. Reaching in the back pocket of her jeans, she slipped out a creased envelope and, after placing it against her lips, found space in the wall. She took a few steps back, and cocked her head to one side, watching her letter merge into the sea of paper and she wondered if her attempt was a futile one.

Dear Juliet

I’m in love with a man I don’t even think knows I exist. His name is Thomas, and his is the first name on my lips when I wake in the morning, and the last face I picture before I sleep. My love for him haunts me and I long for him to know how I feel. My soul is on fire for him and I know that I cannot ever love another, for I have never been in love with any other.

Please Juliet, help him to notice me.

My future is in your hands,

Kate

***

Juliet gazed down at the most recent letters which had been so delicately entrusted to her. In the distance she could see Thomas approaching his hotel, hands in his pockets and shoulders hunched. Just a few moments behind, Kate followed unknowingly in the shadows of his footsteps.

May Day

May the 4th be with you all…ok, so we’re a little bit late for that, but May Day was our latest story prompt and Mike delivered a wonderful story for the occasion.

 

May Day, by Michael Bailey

Today is the day I have been looking forward to all year. I feel it in my bones. Something about the weather, the way the clouds press down on the water. There is a new soft feel to the river. It is taking its time, slowing, thickening as it eddies over the deep pool in the elbow of the bend. There are shadows here underneath the willow tree. You can’t see the sky, just the dark of the leafy canopy. The willow leaves reach down to trail their tips in the water, tickling the surface so the river flow makes them bob and skip making tiny ripples that feel like the high notes of a piano played over and over. Tinkling in repetitions that chase each other, criss-crossing, fingers playing on the ivory cool, ebony dark of the water.

It’s my favourite day because today the special insects will hatch and fill the air on their weightless and colourless wings. They rest on leaves, folding down transparent triangular sails over plump curved bodies, three long bristles waving in the breeze. They dance their air-borne courtship above the river’s flow, twisting and plunging, then drop to kiss the water, laying eggs through the meniscus so they sink to the pebbles on the bottom. Sometimes they misjudge, flattened to the surface by a sudden gust or sucked down by a rogue ripple. That’s my moment when those amber flies tremble in the centre of their sparkling ring. They make discordant tumbling notes an octave lower than the leafy trills, atonal but mesmerising music to me.

This is my moment when the fish rise swiftly to gulp the oily flies from the seam between air and water that tangles them in its moist embrace. The fish disappear again with their mouthful of water and air and insect leaving an audible plop and an expanding bulls-eye of dark and light.

Fishermen love this day. Their rubber booted feet crash into the river. Base notes grinding on the stones. Long deep heavy rolls of music like a church organ. The flow tugs at their legs so that even when they are still they are not silent but rumble with a thunder-storm’s menacing approach.

The fishermen’s shadows reach over the water, long and wavering as they flick their rods in languid arcs. Their silvery line snakes out in lengthening lightning flashes and somewhere beyond on the sparkling silken surface the deadly lure of feather and metal drops with a single noise, quiet as a heartbeat. The artificial fly floats, its spiky fingers coaxing a hesitant ghostly melody as breeze and current roll them on the river’s elastic skin.

Young fish are quick and foolish, I can tell you. They are over-excited by the sudden glut of rich food, unable to resist the siren whispers of the flies trapped between the sky and the river. They are soon caught, pulled in a cacophony of panic, their bodies writhing, fins and tails churning as the sharp hard steel tears the soft pink flesh of their mouths. Rough hands bruise their scales, trampling over delicate skin, deafening nerves attuned to the slightest vibration.

You can take it from me that old wise fish hang back. They avoid those unfamiliar shadows, the booming drum roll of the fishermen’s legs. They hold themselves suspended, close to the bottom, nose into the current, riding the water with imperceptible play of their fins and the subtle wave of their tail. They are patient, dark as shadows. Listening, listening. Each unmoving yet every nerve is taut with their response to the almost irresistible promise of this exquisite moment.

The sky is darkening now as the sun drops close to the western hill. A new chill freshens the water. The magical day of bursting transient life is almost done for another year. Fishermen are making their last despairing casts, muttering prayers for the big one. That blunt nosed torpedo of a fish, brown spotted flanks and a back the black green colour of deep water. They know it is there, lurking heavy and shy in the gloom.

One last flicker of lightning streaks across the sky, glinting with a final ray of sun, a single heartbeat throbs nearby. My body is stiff with the tension of the day and suddenly I’m hungry. I haven’t eaten at all, I’ve just been concentrating on the fishing. Now nothing else seems to matter. I bite. My mouth explodes in tearing pain and a sharp line cuts across my tongue as it rips my head around.

Mist

What with the very wet and misty March we had this year, we decided that our prompt to share for the first meeting in April (and to go with those April showers) would be ‘mist’ and we have produced quite a varied collection. We hope you enjoy reading them!

Long Exposure, by Michael Bailey

The light was fading so I had to work fast. I was alone in the old house. I knelt outside the locked wooden door and worked carefully at the loose panel. The house was silent around me. The noise I made as I eased the panel free sounded very loud, amplified by the almost empty room inside so that it echoed back at me. As I lifted the panel away a rush of stale air blew past me carrying a locked up smell and also something sharp and animal. I pushed my camera into the gap putting one foot of the tripod through the hole so the Nikon was suspended in the plane of the door that had not been opened for more than 60 years.

Click, the camera shutter closed as I took the last of three very long exposures using a wide-angle lens to capture the scene of gloom and dusty shadows. Then the light was really gone and it felt suddenly cold. I withdrew the tripod and camera and carefully replaced the panel. It looked slightly loose, shrunken with age as it had when I first noticed it but there was no sign of my intrusion.

Earlier in the day Peter recounted the history of the house to me when we were looking round choosing locations for the architectural shoot I had come to do. He said his family had lived in the house for six generations and that his great grandmother had died in the room. On her instructions, the door had been locked and nailed shut after her death. He said that If anyone had had any idea why the old lady had stipulated this bizarre measure in her will it had long since been forgotten.

I had been left to lock the house up as Peter was due back in town for an evening appointment. That had left me free to indulge my guilty passion for snooping and photographing long undisturbed rooms. I was excited by the thrill of chance discovery, the drunken pleasure of prying, looking behind the curtain. It was almost sexual, like voyeurism.

I’d already taken several other black and white pictures of the cellar and attic earlier in the day. I was using a long expired roll of HP5 negative film which might give interesting results. The pictures stolen through the door were the last three exposures on the roll so I rewound the film.

When I got home I couldn’t contain myself. Without even taking off my coat I went straight into the darkroom and pulled out a developing tank. Click, I pulled the cord to switch off the light. Now, in complete darkness I took the cassette apart, found the end of the exposed film and pushed it into the developing spool, feeding the film so that it wound itself between the wire spirals until it was fully loaded. I put the spool into the developing tank and screwed the light tight lid on. I pulled the cord again, closing my eyes against the sudden burst of light.

I made up developer solution and warmed it. After checking the developing time for pushing the film from 400 to 1600 ASA , I poured the developer into the tank and started the timer. I agitated the spool in the tank and drained the developer away when the timer rang. Quickly I added fixer in to stop any further development. When it was done I washed the spool and film under the cold tap.

Now for the moment of truth. Breathlessly, I pulled the wet film out of the spool, snapped a metal clip on each end and scanned the small oblong negative frames. I had to hold the dripping film above my head but I couldn’t wait to see those three long exposures at the end of the film. I could see the last one was fogged but the previous two looked OK. Actually the second one was a bit fogged as well, old film is unpredictable. I had to dry the film and then take a contact sheet to see what the pictures were like as positive images. I hung the film in a drying cabinet and went out into the studio for a much needed glass of wine.

Click, the red safe-light in the darkroom let me see what I was doing as I loaded the contact maker. I cut the negatives into strips and slid them into the contact maker then closed the glass down on the photographic paper. I exposed the negatives and paper under the enlarger. The paper went into a bath of developer and in less than half a minute the rows of minute photographs started to appear. When the blacks were fully rich I transferred the paper into a bath of fixer and then into the sink to wash in cold water. I hung the wet paper on a washing line stretched across the darkroom, checked I had closed the box of unexposed paper and switched on the full light. I felt suddenly tired. Darkroom work can be frustratingly slow when you are anxious to see your results.

My hand shook as I used a lupe to magnify the images and got my first real look at the long sealed room. In the first picture I could make out a sturdy chair next to a low table in the middle of the room. There appeared to be a cage made of strong metal bars on the table. The second picture showed the same scene but the centre of the frame where the cage was seemed slightly fogged. The fogging in the third frame completely obscured most of the picture with only the extreme edges showing any detail. Intriguing. I wanted full size pictures now. I took the strip with these final three shots and fed it into the negative holder of the enlarger.

Click. I pulled the cord and the dim red safe-light replaced the brightness making me blind for a moment. I used the focus finder to get the first image sharp then made a test exposure of the first frame on the strip. I decided what the ideal exposure was and made a proper print of the first frame taken through the door into the sealed room.

Again I hopped round in small circles as I waited for the image to appear in the developing bath, fixed and washed it then hung it up to dry. I moved the negative strip along one frame and made the next print. When the image appeared in the developer I thought it looked just the same as the first one. Odd but it’s sometimes it’s difficult to see properly in the safe light. I moved to

the final negative and made the exposure. I could immediately see under the enlarger that the whole room was sharp in the picture. I developed and fixed the print and switched the light back on as soon as the last print was washing.

The three prints were the same and when I looked at the film strip, three identical negative images of the dusty room. I went back to the contact sheet but now there were three clear pictures, no sign of the fogging I had seen earlier when I viewed the negatives and the freshly made contact sheet.

How odd. I got the lupe and looked closely at the prints. Actually there was a slight difference between picture one and the subsequent two. In the first the cage on the table in the middle of the room had its metal door slightly ajar. In the other two it was wide open. I was just wondering where the fogging in the negatives had gone when something wet and deathly cold wrapped itself tightly across my face and the light went out.

 

Keep Walking, Don’t Listen, by Richard Foreman

I didn’t take him seriously. I mean, come on… Sentient mist! Pull the other one. Stuff’s just water, tiny droplets of it hanging in the air.

He was a wind up merchant. Saw me in the pub, rucksack beside me, Peter Storm jacket draped across it, as I necked a quick shandy before hitting the hills. Thought he’d spook me. Sidled over. “Out walking, are you?” Seemed friendly enough, local accent, might have something useful to say. I smiled and nodded. We got talking. Told him I was planning the circular walk, taking in Great Fell.

Big bloke, very red face, mutton chop sideburns. Cable knit sweater and jeans. He gave me the standard warning first of all, how when you’re up there it can be blue skies and clear one minute, then in rolls the cloud. “You want to keep to the path. Don’t go strayin’.” Standard stuff, well meant, but I knew the drill. Except then he leaned closely toward me. “An’ if you ‘appen to notice a patch of it that’s got a sort of a greenish, mossy colour to it, then you keep walkin’. Don’t stop, whatever you do. An’ if you hear it – don’t listen.”

“Sorry.” I laughed uneasily. “ ‘If you hear it’?”

“That’s right,” he nodded, ignoring my incredulity, “In your mind. That’s where it speaks. And it’s got a bit of the devil in it, that mist. So keep walkin’. Don’t listen. Just remember that, you’ll be alright.”

I gave him a thumbs up. “Gotcha. I’ll be watching out for that.” I drained my glass, hastily. “Ought to be off now. Thanks.”

“Remember,” he said as I grabbed my gear. “Mossy colour. Keep walkin’. Don’t listen.”

Three hours later I was on the ridge track that would take me to the topmost point of the Fell. Here and there, the path came close to an edge, with more than one precipitous drop down a cliff face best left to climbers. The view was something else. To my right the range, of which I was on the highest, stretched out – each successive ridge concealing deep valleys – fading in aerial perspective to the point where I could see no more. To my left the foothills and the ensuing plain, where I could just make out the skyline of Bledgeley in the distance. I was exhilarated, high on altitude – though beginning to tire also. It had taken longer than I’d expected.

Skies had stayed clear thus far, but I could see cloud rolling over the tops of hills within a mile or two. I’d forgotten the warning but it came back to me then. I knew well enough I could be in that cloud within minutes if it continued to roll towards me. Started thinking that I should have got a bit more detail from the guy. I’d just wanted to get out of the pub, but up here, on my own, the warning somehow took on more credibility.

With a strong head wind the cloud moved quickly. It enveloped me before I reached the peak. No matter how familiar it can become, the feeling is always strange. From absolute clarity to this shrouded view, the vapour twists and coils around you, sometimes thickening, sometimes dispersing. Even the most well walked routes seem to lose their familiarity when only the nearest objects are visible. At times even they become hazy. Here, it was an absolute relief to know I was on such a well-defined track. I just had to keep moving along, trusting that it would soon take me down to a lower level, below the cloud layer.

I don’t think I noticed exactly when the tint of green began to become visible. I was in denial. I didn’t want to see it. The whole concept had seemed quite ridiculous when told to me by the ruddy faced, whiskered man, in the warmth and safety of the pub. Yet now,

that I’d not stopped and found out more from him seemed a grave omission. All I had was the advice. Keep walking. Don’t listen.

Don’t listen to what? There didn’t appear to be any sudden intrusions into my thoughts. There were no ‘voices’ in my head. But when you are told not to listen, and when you don’t know what it is that you shouldn’t be listening to, how can you avoid listening? I needed a hint. Some idea of what it was, so that I would know what to ignore. Yet there was nothing save thoughts that I could easily identify as my own. I kept telling myself it was madness, I should not take it seriously. That guy. Wind up merchant. Nutter, even.

But there was this mossy pallour to the mist that surrounded me. As if it carried some kind of spore, I thought. Perhaps I needed something to cover my mouth and my nose – to filter out these mist-tinting particles. That scarf in my rucksack. I almost stopped to dig it out, but then remembered: keep moving. Instead I pulled a handkerchief from my pocket, folded it to a triangle and – walking on all the while – tied it around my head, closing up the neck poppers of my jacket to tuck it in. My breathing was filtered. Except, of course, for that which I might already have ingested.

Then I stumbled, my boot colliding with an up-thrust of rock. I looked down and realised I was on rough ground. In fiddling about with the handkerchief, I had strayed off the track. I’d had to bend my head down to ascertain even this, as the greenish mist was thickening, becoming fog-like.

At this point my thoughts told me to stop, get the compass out of my rucksack, orient myself, and edge back slowly until I could be certain I’d relocated the path. It was wide enough and flat enough and I could not have strayed far. Yet immediately I wondered: could I trust this thought, when it appeared to contradict the only certain advice I’d been given? I had to keep moving, I had to be wary of any thoughts – even those I was sure were mine.

Compromise. I slowed my pace and slipped off one shoulder strap of the rucksack, until I could reach into the pocket and pull out the compass. Bledgely was to the north, my left when I’d been on the path. I was pretty certain I’d strayed to my right, southwards. I had to raise the compass closer to my face in order to read it.

Even as I did so, I took one footstep into thin air, immediately losing my balance and toppling forward.

And in those last moments of conscious existence, I heard it with certainty at last. I heard the voice of the mist, loud and exultant, suffused with malevolent bliss, over and over in my mind.

“Keep walking,” it said, with a distinct local accent. “Don’t listen.”

 

Within The Blue, by Becky Bye

The veil descends;

A fine cloak of grey,

Smothering the sun,

Attempting to light the way.

Tall shadows loom,

From a time long before,

Portals to the underworld

Or perhaps something more.

Five thousand years

Of mystery surrounds

These iconic pillars

Rising from the ground;

Stones so sombre

Keeping secrets at bay

Whilst quietly shrouded

In mists of grey.

 

Profane, by Alex Chase

The winter sun set over the giant stones, its cold light glistening in the icy air. The frost hung heavily on the ancient monument, matching the white fields surrounding it. In the distance, the beginnings of a mist gathered on the hills, covering the slopes with an ethereal vapour. The tourists had long since left, shivering despite the thick clothes that enveloped them; even the site staff had escaped the icy plain in favour of the warmth of their own homes. Now only security guards were left on duty, their lonely vigil enacted bravely from the warmth of the staff room and in the company of enough coffee to fill a small oil tanker. Soon, the only light on prehistoric man’s greatest feat was the full moon and its garland of stars.

Lizzy clambered up the hill, stealthily in case the security men had changed their minds and decided to patrol after all. It seemed unlikely, well, who’d know? The stones themselves weren’t about to tell any tales, and it was incredibly cold. To her right, Beth and Mandy were also making the ascent, and squabbling by the sounds that drifted across from them on the night air.

“I did so tell you, you just didn’t listen.”

“I always listen, and you didn’t say anything about that!”

Lizzy sighed, so much for being stealthy. At least they knew there wasn’t a guard around though, there was no way they’d have missed that tiff if they’d been anywhere within about five hundred yards.

The three met up at the circle. The massive trilithons towered above them with the grandeur of ages, glaring down at the fleshy intruders. Lizzy suddenly felt very small surrounded by these calciferous monsters. It didn’t help that a chill breeze had started to blow. Somehow the stones seemed to channel it right through all the layers of clothing that she had on, right into her bones. The distant mist was also rolling gradually towards them, and she didn’t fancy getting caught up here in that. Already its smoky tendrils had reached the road and were stretching, grasping, the field below. Her friends also clearly felt uncomfortable.

“I don’t like this very much, maybe we shouldn’t have come up here.” Mandy always was the “sensible” one of the three. Lizzy privately thought there was a bit more cowardice than good sense sometimes. This time though, Mandy might be right.

“It is a bit cold Liz, but wow! Look at this place!” Beth was much more reliable, if occasionally a bit impulsive.

“I wonder if I can get on top of one of the big ones.” Lizzy shook her head, she’d been expecting this. Beth was nothing if not predictable.

“I really wouldn’t, there’s no way up anyway. And we’d get in enough trouble already just being here.”

She’d barely uttered the words before she knew they would be ignored. The clue was in Beth trying to jump and grab one of the lintel stones. It was too high though, and as hard as she was trying, she couldn’t get a handhold on the massive stone post so that she could climb up.

“Well I can at least lie on the altar! Come on Mandy, you can be the high priestess doing a sacrifice!” Mandy hesitated,

“I’m really not sure Beth. It’s a bit spooky here already.”

“Oh come on! What’s going to happen? If the stones were haunted someone would have noticed by now!” Beth grabbed Mandy’s arm and dragged her to the centre of the circle.

“Actually, why don’t you be the sacrifice? You’ll only mess up the words if you’re the priestess.”

“Wait, what?”

Beth pushed Mandy on to the stone and stood above her, arms outstretched. At that moment, the breeze picked up and flung her hair skywards and for just one instant the effect was of some strange and terrible priestess conducting a forbidden ritual. She lifted her face to the sky and raised her voice,

“Great goddess of the stones, hear my prayer! Accept this sacrifice of blood and grant my heart’s desire!”

“Steady on!” Lizzy heard her own voice over Beth’s screech and Mandy’s whimpering,

“You’ve really scared her. What did you think you were doing?”

Before Beth could reply, the ground shook and Lizzy could have sworn she heard the whisper of a voice,

“Who dares profane the sacred stones?” It was gone before Lizzy could be sure she heard it, but then she saw the mist creeping in. It was no longer just an ordinary winter mist. Now it boiled around the stones, surrounding them, cutting them off from the outside world. It hissed as it touched first one stone, then another. The stones themselves shimmered and shone with an icy blue light as they appeared to grow, looming monstrously over the three girls, leaning inwards and threatening to topple, crushing anything beneath them. As the stones leaned ever closer, shards of icy mist crept between them like tentacles seeking prey to ensnare. Lizzy snatched her arm away from a patch of mist as it started to wrap itself around her wrist. This was all too much for poor Mandy, she screamed and darted under one of the great trilithons and into the mist. The scream cut off abruptly as she vanished.

“Mandy!” Lizzy screamed at the top of her voice, but her shout only echoed around the great stone circle.

“Profane, profane, profane” the whisper returned. The voice now seemingly taunting its helpless victims.

“I’m going to find her!” yelled Beth, “She can’t have gone far!”

“No! You’ll get lost, or worse. We don’t know what’s out there!” Lizzy was unable to keep the terror out of her voice now.

“Well I’m not waiting in here! Don’t worry, I’ll be back!”

“Beth, no!” But it was too late. Beth rushed through the same gap as Mandy and was swallowed up by the swirling mist.

“Profane, profane, profane” The voice once more sounded around the stones as Beth disappeared.

“Beth! Mandy! Answer me!” Lizzy screamed as the tears flooded down her face. But there was no reply. She knew she was alone.

 

Pancakes and Possession

Our latest story prompt was a bit of a mixture, with a few stories based on the theme of pancakes and others focusing on the theme of possession. We even had a poem to add to the mix this time. Regardless of theme, all of the stories were a great success with the rest of the group and we hope that you enjoy reading them!

Yours, by Michael Bailey

Gwen walked along the woodland path here and somewhere else. It was cool in the leafy shade, a relief from the searing sun outside on the lake. The path wound up the hillside between birch trees. A strong breeze shook the branches and made the leaves shiver. The birdsong died away as the temperature seemed to drop and Gwen felt the skin on her arms rise in goose-bumps. She looked behind her, there was nothing to be seen and yet a shadow moved at the corner of her vision. She stopped and looked again, the shadow didn’t move but hung like a dark area out of focus close to the path. “Get away from me. You have no place here, go back to where you belong,”, Gwen commanded. The shadow dissolved but Gwen didn’t feel reassured. She hurried on, turning down the hill and back into the sunlight at the lakeside.

She was still agitated when she met up with her partner, Rob. She told him what had happened and he asked if she was sure. She nodded. They went back up the path she had taken but all was peaceful and untroubled. They returned to the lake and sat on a bench looking left across the lake to the cleared track through the woods underneath the descent of a winter ski lift.

Rob lifted his binoculars and studied the vertical trackway. The supports of the lift cast black shadows that lay parallel at intervals like railway sleepers. He had thought he might spot a deer but instead he saw nothing. He couldn’t be sure, he couldn’t see anything to focus on but he got the impression of something outside his field of view moving from shadow to shadow towards them. Finally it disappeared behind the brick building that housed the end of the ski lift fifty yards away from where they sat. Now it was Rob who felt the hairs on his neck rise. He could sense something there, hidden behind the wall he was staring at. Gwen suggested they go into the hotel.

They talked about what might or might not be out there and drank a beer each, encouraging one another to put the incidents aside as the products of overactive imagination in this slightly spooky out-of-season ski resort. The shadows softened and the colours intensified into the golden hour of evening as they stayed at their table by the window and ate supper.

Upstairs in their room Rob was relaxing when Gwen burst sobbing from the shower. She said she was frightened, her eyes were wide and the suntan on her face had blanched where her skin was drawn and pale. Rob tried to put his arms around her but she pushed him away clutching her towel tighter around her shoulders. No, she said, I’m frightened of you. “Who are you?” she asked, staring hard at him. “I’m Rob and you are Gwen and we are the same as ever”, he told her. He suggested they go back into the bathroom and look in the mirror.

As she stood in front of the mirror over the sink with Rob standing behind her Gwen couldn’t bring herself to look. Rob gently raised her chin with his hand.

Look, he said, there is nothing to be frightened of. He put his hands on her shoulders and massaged them and her neck which was stiff with tension. As she relaxed she let her towel slip to the floor and he looked over her shoulder to admire her nakedness. Come on into bed he said, it’s all over, nothing to be frightened any more. He took her hand and led her into the bedroom.

Gwen kissed Rob tentatively at first and then with a desperation that went beyond their usual passion. She clung to him as he kissed her. She moaned and wrapped her legs around him pushing herself against him, pulling his buttocks with her hands, digging her fingernails into his skin.

Rob’s face was above Gwen’s as he entered her. In that familiar moment when intense feelings of love and oneness usually overcame him he suddenly saw Gwen’s face transformed into the mask of a wild beast, lips drawn back in a snarl that bunched under the merciless eyes staring at him. The long sharp white teeth were daggers bared in a grimace of savagery that would surely rip his throat open in an instant. Rob’s eyes popped as he thrust harder and heard his own voice “I love you, I don’t care, do what you want, I’ll never stop loving you.”

He blinked and Gwen’s face had the look of sublime and far away calm it always had when they made love. The terrifying mask had gone. Rob had no doubt that he had seen it and that he had somehow passed a test by reacting as he had. Accepting his fate without bargaining, without relinquishing his love for Gwen whoever or whatever she was.

In the morning Gwen was her old self, chatting about the history of the resort and of the region they had travelled through to get there. She said nothing of the strange apparition they might have imagined in the afternoon or of the terror they felt in the night. Rob didn’t want to upset her so he kept quiet as well.

Weeks later Gwen started crying one evening. Words tumbled from her as she told Rob she was afraid of what she was inside. Rob let her talk until she ran dry then gradually tried to comfort and reassure her that he loved her.

She was not convinced. “How can you love me when you don’t know who or what I am inside?” she asked. Rob smiled sadly and shook his head. “Gwen my love, I have already seen what you are and I know one day you may bite my head off, quite literally. But loving you makes me what I am and I am yours.

 

The Embassy Ball, by Alex Chase

Our eyes met

Across a crowded room

Kindred spirits shared a spark

A single thought

Your eyes shone

Brighter than the diamonds round your neck

And then we’re off

Our twin circles

Never quite align

Mutually exclusive gatherings

At the Embassy Shrove Tuesday Ball

As lackeys and toadies

Each more demanding than the last

Beg for favours

“Not me, it’s for a friend”.

I found out who you were

Married

Children

A duchess, in another life

The endless social swirl

Spins us ever further.

Apart we drift.

I saw you later on that night

But you were occupied

In quartering a crepe

Lemon and sugar

Simple tastes for one so glamorous

The music plays

I hesitate

“Ask her to dance”

A voice behind me says

I turn but no one’s there

Perhaps an angel

I turn again

Too late

You and your partner

Spin

Twin dervishes

Never pausing for breath

Much less a chance for other men

To tear you from his grip.

And then the evening’s done

The serving staff

Return to tidy up

The debris of the night’s soiree

And back to work

Though sore of head and heart.

What’s this?

Another function to attend

Perhaps this time

We can communicate

In words

And not just looks.

But then I read

Divorce

Society was not for you

And so the country girl went home

To her cows

And sheep.

And stable lads.

The life less gilded.

And I was left

Once more alone

Amid the spires and steeples

Of the urban wilderness

And so I go

Through endless parties

Conferences

And balls

Until I reach the end of term

And finally

Recalled to home

I look

At that great sea of toil and strife

And shines out just this

One moment full of happiness and bliss.

 

I’m So Lucky to be Alive, by Cuca Vega

‘I’m not a pancake!’ I kept repeating again and again to Jimmy, Joey and Tommy.

They wouldn’t believe me.

‘Seriously, I’m just a kind of flat donut, that’s all.’

Jimmy has been a rye bread all his life and the wisdom that comes from such a nutritious way of being prompt him to reflect. ‘Rather a flat donut, then?’

I jumped at the opportunity. ‘Yes! yes! A very flat donut without any jam inside.’

Joey wasn’t convinced and nodded his disbelieve to Tommy.

‘Look.’ I said. ‘Have a try. Just take a little piece of me and tell me I’m not a donut but a pancake.’

Tommy liked the idea and being a mini chocolate roll it was easy to move my way and have a taste.

‘What do you say Tommy?’ the square, sliced white bread Joey shouted from his shelf.

‘Uhmmm… I think Fenny is right; he does taste more “donuty” than pancake-like.’

Jimmy was satisfied and with that he decided: ‘Right then, you can be spared during breakfast time but you are gone in the afternoon tea.’

There!

That was all I wanted – a few more hours of glorious, vibrant life.

I was so happy I could have jiggled if I was not so flat. I did manage to ‘slop-slop’ my edges to show my delight.

It was already 5.30 in the morning. We were all freshly baked and ready for the day ahead. Jimmy and Joye would be eaten up first at breakfast time. Tommy and I, it was certain now, would be gobbled up during the afternoon tea.

Life is great!

I can sit here and savour another 12 hours or so of perfect joy.

I am so lucky to be alive.

 

Nothing Keeps, by Stephen Pellow

Every evening it’s the same. Home from work and it’s been a long day, I know, but there’s never a plan. No organisation. No structure. One by one each and every cupboard is opened and I peer inside to see if there is something – anything – that takes my fancy. Something different. We can’t keep having the same stuff week in, week out. Times are hard and the budget is tight, yes, but a bit of variety wouldn’t hurt.

Right, let’s start again from the beginning. I was looking but not seeing before perhaps. There has to be something more here. Could this be something promising? Store in a cool, dry place. That hasn’t really been an option. Cool is a phrase rarely attributed to this place. The expiry date has long passed. Nothing lasts forever no matter how many preservatives you inject into it. Never say forever. Nothing keeps.

And this? This has been here longer than I have and would probably kill me given half the opportunity. Can’t bin it really though, can I? It’s not part of the diet anymore… shouldn’t really need any physical reminder. In the bin it goes.

Something from somewhere I can’t even pronounce. There wasn’t any harm in experimenting, I suppose, but nothing good came of it either.

Well this is may be worth further investigation. A tin with no labels. Keeps things interesting. But after this long you need labels. Even if you ultimately aren’t going to enjoy what’s inside the can and especially if what’s inside has expired after leaving it so long. Without putting a label on it. Don’t even. Just sweep it off the shelf and straight into the bin. If it’s not good enough for me, I don’t want anyone else having it either.

Maybe check the fridge.

Ah, fruit. Strawberries no less. Their seeds are on the outside. They’re exposed to everything. I’d rather be the seeds of its neighbour in here, the tomato. Cushy and protected inside, shielded from the elements. From feeling.

I fear I may end up popcorn. It’s like I’ve been this little hard kernel. Small and insignificant, in a bag with hundreds of others just like me. Then I have my moment. I finally reach temperature. Maybe I even get there first and I pop and suddenly I’m twice or three times my size, and oh, so sweet. But then so is everyone else. They have their moments too and we are all the same again. The playing field levelled. Most likely I’m the one piece of popcorn that’s stuck to the bottom of the bag, going stale, or ends up on the floor and gets eaten by the dog. Worse still, I remain a kernel. I never had my moment. I never popped.

Or an egg yolk. It would be better to be one of those. A yolk rests within the membrane of the egg, that itself surrounded by a shell. But not a hard shell. It is fragile. It can be cracked all too easily, spilling the gold and the white out and mixing with milk and flour to make a perfect batter.

These cupboards depress me. Pancakes for tea again and then I really must go shopping. Never any bloody food in this house.

 

The Greatest Possession, by Becky Bye

He sat and stared fixedly at the woman talking in front of him, watching the red curves of her lips warp into different positions. He heard sounds, but the words wafted over him like a dream.

Sit still. DON’T panic.

He shifted his position slightly, feigning interest as best he could, crossing his left leg over his right knee, then swapping them over.

He felt his foot begin tapping uncontrollably and he focussed all of his energy onto it, willing it to stop. He linked his hands on his lap and squeezed until his knuckles bleached white. He bit his lip until he could taste metal.

Sit. Still.

The woman behind the desk was handing out a sheet of paper to him. He smiled, reaching out a trembling hand to take it from her and peered down at the paper. It fluttered in his grasp and he squinted, trying to stop the words from bleeding into one on the page.

Focus. You’re absolutely fine.

He realised that the woman had stopped talking and he looked up at her quickly, nodding his head and making noises in the affirmative, hoping that it was the right response. She stretched out her hands in front of her, the painted nails shiny on the pockmarked desk top.

He swallowed hard and placed the paper onto the desk as the woman resumed talking. He scratched his chin, though it didn’t itch.

Deep breaths.

He uncrossed his legs and shifted slightly on the chair, rubbing his palms down his thighs to remove some of the moisture that he could feel seeping through his pores.

Nothing is going to happen, just pay attention.

After a moment, the woman stood up, straightening out her pencil skirt over her thighs and extending her hand.

“Well, that will be all, thank you, we’ll be in touch.”

As their palms met, he felt the woman’s hand tense within his clammy fingers and she hastily withdrew her arm.  His lips trembled at the corners as he contorted them into something of a smile.

As he left the room his ears buzzed, his legs and feet clumsy as he tripped out of the woman’s office and into the hallway. The clinical smell of office equipment made him feel sick and he bustled outside.

The coolness of the air outside calmed him and he inhaled deeply. He sighed, knowing that they wouldn’t be in touch.

Messed that up didn’t you.

Panic attack 1, interview 0.

 

 

New Beginnings

Our latest story prompt to start off the New Year for 2016 was ‘new beginnings’ and gave us all a chance to stretch our writing limbs after being all wrapped up (see what we did there?) for Christmas. We hope you enjoy this selection from Mike, Richard and Stephen.

All Most New, by Michael Bailey

I held a fortune, enough to buy a house, a big house, in my hands, these hands. For a few minutes it was almost mine. I could weep. It was in the Town Hall Tuesday Antique fair. They call it antiques but it’s more of a bric a brac market. Old books, pottery and glass and jewellery, well not so old but not new. I was in for a nose around and I noticed this picture. It was behind dirty glass in a scruffy frame, the glass was cracked right across the middle. It gave me quite a jolt but I didn’t pick it up immediately because I didn’t want to draw attention to myself. I wanted time to think. The drawing looked very fine, I mean confident and precise lines drawn in single strokes, and the hand was instantly recognisable, could it really be?

When I say hand, I mean that the drawn hand was so distinctive that is shouted out the drawing hand of the artist. Long thin fingers with bulging knuckles. Each splayed finger separated from the next by a flat U shape like the profile of a coffee mug, not by the V you or I might draw. The finger nails were gloriously shaped. I knew, I was sure this was his work and not a copy even though there was no signature. It was from 1909 or 1910, the early artistic years of his all too brief life. I held my breath and looked away unable to believe my luck, a twentieth century master, right here for a few pounds. As casually as I could I wandered around the rest of the paltry stalls, picking up this piece of silver plated tat, turning over that grubby plate until I could bear to look again.

At second look it was even more difficult to remain calm. I could feel my hand tremble as I reached out to shift the brash, ugly stone that blocked access to the picture frame. The stone was heavy, some sort of marble with a freshly cut relief of a religious scene. A ridiculous reproduction of Byzantine style. I had seen enough of those when I lived in Jerusalem where they turn them out by the lorry load to sell to tourists. I turned it face down and leaned across to lift the picture as casually as I could.

I blew on the cracked glass to remove some of the dust and smeared the dirty surface with the palm of my hand, wiping an arc of glass slightly cleaner. A short glance, turning the frame this way and that confirmed to me that this was not a print. The pencil line was real pencil, the wash of gouache, real paint, nearly a hundred years old. I turned down the corners of my mouth, propped the picture back against the wall and wiped my hands ostentatiously on my outdoor coat in a show of removing the grime transferred by the brief contact with the dirty picture. Next I lifted the fresh stone relief back into place, pushing it even closer to the picture.

I avoided making any eye contact with the old lady who was minding the stall. It wasn’t hard to do as she sat slumped over her knitting with her thermos of tea and a Tupperware bowl of cakes at her elbow. I didn’t want to look too interested. I didn’t want to look interested at all. Well you don’t, do you.

I fumbled in my pockets and realised that, stupidly, I had come out without any money. My wallet was back at home, less than five minutes away. I had went into the High Street, quickening my pace as I got nearer to home but keeping my calm. I needn’t have bothered because as soon as I got through the door a storm of hysteria hit me. My aged mother was screaming and crying, standing in the middle of the living room waving her walking stick like a flail in front of her.

“A rat, a rat”. she had screamed. ”The cat brought a rat in and dropped it and now it is under the book case. Get it out, Get it out”. I had to calm her down, unblock the hollow base of the bookcase that she had barricaded with heavy Bibles, open the back door and use her walking stick to chase the rat from its hiding place and out into the garden.

That took some time and once done I had to make her tea to calm her down and clear up the mess from the vase of flowers that she had knocked to the ground and smashed in her panic.

I didn’t run back to the Town Hall with my wallet, I walked. When I got there the stall was gone and the place where the picture had been propped was empty. I was so upset my throat burned with acid indigestion so badly I choked. I almost cried. Never mind, I told myself, the Antique Fair is here every week.

The next week the stall wasn’t there. I asked one of the other stall holders, a chap in a baggy cardigan, why the old lady and her table of bits and bobs wasn’t there. Oh he said, hadn’t I heard. She died of a heart attack. It was the shock, he explained, the shock when she saw something she had sold reported on the news the next day. Headline news because it had been worth a fortune, more than a million pounds, he said. I had a vague recollection of something in the news a few days ago but I had been busy with my mother and another of her crises and hadn’t taken any notice. It was a carving of Christ from the first century, he said, two thousand years old yet so well preserved it looked brand new.

 

A Clean Break, by Stephen Pellow

Two more boxes to stack along the wall to the right of the front door with the others and that should be everything. Martin knew he didn’t have a lot of possessions, but to see everything he owned taking up a total space of 8 square feet in just 10 boxes depressed him slightly. Broken down it was 50 percent clothing and 50 percent books. Probably more of a 48/52 split in favour of the books.

The flat was rented out with a few furnishings. Martin didn’t have any furniture to call his own, save a small and flimsy flat packed desk and a plant pot for decoration his mother had given him as a housewarming present. That left a bed and dresser in the bedroom, and a couple of settees and a coffee table in the living room. The kitchen, while small, still contained an electric oven, fridge freezer and a washing machine.

Built into the base of the cordless telephone, which sat on a low table inside the front door at the start of the waiting line of boxes, was an answering machine. The light wasn’t blinking but the digital number said the last message had been saved rather than erased. He tapped the button and after the introduction, options and time stamp had been spoken by the synthesised voice of the machine, the message from weeks ago began playing.

“Hi, it’s me. By the time you play this message it will be apparent I am already gone and I recommend you leave and find somewhere else as soon as possible. This place… it’s poisoned now and for both of us to move on we need to be as clear of it as possible. Neither of us is at fault but we are both to blame. I don’t hate you, I hate us. At first it was great. It was new. You bought me something every week. Sometimes more than once a week. Who wouldn’t love someone spoiling them? Then we moved in together and were supposed to be a partnership. But you still felt compelled to buy me things all the time. It became cheap, no matter the money spent. Spring rolled round, as it inevitably does, I got tired of this town, and you bought me another fucking party frock…”

The voice on the machine cracked and paused.

“I’m sorry. Maybe I should have said something but I figured you buying me all those things should be making at least one of us happy. I’m not materialistic but perhaps you thought I was. Oh, you just made it all such hard work. Hard, hard work. I’m so tired of this town. This is a moment we both knew was coming. I feel I’ve been standing here before but this time… I ran out of faith long before I ran out of patience. The rent has been paid up until the end of the month and everything has been sorted with the landlady. She knows where to forward my mail but she won’t tell you. Maybe when time has passed I’ll try and get in touch, but the way I feel now I can’t see that happening. Good bye.”

The recording was digital, but Martin imagined the spools of a tape spinning for the ten seconds of silence that left the words hanging in the hallway before the beep cut it off.

“Right, that’s all yours done.” The synthesised voice had returned with more options but was interrupted by a softer, warmer one that made the hallway cosier and less cavernous than it had moments earlier.

Abi had arrived with Martin’s final two boxes. “I’ve just been chatting to the neighbours. They seem a cautious lot.” She placed the boxes on top of the ones closest to the door. “Just have to go pick up mine now. Martin? Are you alright?”

“Yeah,” Martin replied with his gaze still on the telephone. “Just… someone left a message on the answering machine. It doesn’t sound like things here ended happily.”

“Well, new beginnings for us here now. We’ll make this place home in no time.” She looked at the boxes. “Crikey, you don’t have much do you? I think I’ve got more things with what you’ve bought me alone than all of that put together!”

Martin released a low guttural groan of uncertainty. His finger rested on the base of the telephone. “When he left here, he still couldn’t let her go.”

“Can I listen?”

He tapped the button once more.

“You have one saved message.”

“Nah, not worth it.”

He stabbed the button before prompted.

“Message deleted.”

 

Stop, by Richard Foreman

He stands on the patio, looking over the garden. Winter’s bruising is starting to heal. An acre or so of lawn is beginning to grow again, less waterlogged by the day. Clusters of daffs in the flower beds are blooming, crocuses preparing to do the same. He’s dispensed with the services of the gardener. This year and after, it’s up to him. From now on, it’s only this kind of challenge he wants.

On the whole, people don’t call him mad to his face, but he’s seen a lot of raised eyebrows in the past few months. In the ornate board rooms, as he’s proffered resignations; in teak and leather garnished offices as he’s given terms of notice. He’s heard too many expressing their deepest regrets, while he can see something quite different in their eyes – minds racing to grasp any promotional opportunity that this rather unexpected development presents. It’s not so hard, he has realised, to say goodbye to all that.

Regret was more genuine amongst his consultancy clients. There were even one or two pleas. “Oh, come on, Charlie. You’ll need something to occupy your mind.” Too bad. Charles did not believe in half measures.

And Janet? He likes to think she’d have been with him on this one. Even in thirty seven years of married life, he’d never quite been sure what nestled within those mental nooks and crannies of hers. But that had been the spice. She had never ceased to be interesting, until Johnny Tumour came to take her away. No. Surely she’d have revelled in this. He can almost hear that familiar gurgle of her laughter. “Oh Charlie! How splendid! The boats will be rocking in the harbour!”

And so they were. Especially amongst the next gen, whose reactions were altogether more predictable. Anthony aghast, shock horror, expecting no doubt that family coffers should continue to expand until the old man dropped. “But dad, you’re nowhere near retirement age! And this… I mean, what on earth do you think you’re doing?” Tamsin’s concerns of a more beneficent nature, but with a somewhat nagging quality to them. “Dad, are you sure? Are you really sure? You used to say you loved the complexity of it all. The gambits. The white knuckle ride. Do you really want to turn your back on all of that?”

But that was exactly it. He did. Enough was enough. Money was not a problem. When the time came there would be plenty in the pot for both Anthony, Tams and their now expanding families. So why wait any longer?

It had come to him one afternoon. He’d been getting over some unpleasant peptic symptoms and had taken rare time off. Feeling a little brighter, he’d gone for a walk through the elegant suburbs that surrounded his home. It was around 3.30. He was surprised by the amount of traffic on the normally quiet roads. Curious as to the reason for this, he’d pieced it together on approaching the neighbourhood primary school. Pieced it together and realised that here was a whole drape of the tapestry that he had never observed, a slice of life he’d never been a part of. Most of the children, of course in such a neighbourhood, were being bundled into four by fours, hatchbacks and saloons. But some, accompanied or not by adults, were walking still, and though too far to pick up the content, he could hear the tone and timbre of their talk and laughter. It charmed him.

When he discovered the need, in a local newspaper, his whimsy of that leisurely afternoon became a plan. The plan. Anthony was wrong. This was nothing to do with retirement. This was a new beginning. A life change. All the raised eyebrows in the world could not divert Charles now. And in fact, given his status and suitability – as both parent and grandparent – the steps he needed to take were surprisingly easy. As was the training.

He looks at his Rollex. He has spent long enough in reverie, he realises, and returns to the house, locking the french windows behind him.

In the large cloakroom at the front of the building, he puts on the long, yellow, reflective coat and the peaked cap that were both issued to him on commencement. At the door he grabs the black and yellow metal pole with its circular sign at top. ‘Stop’, it says. It’s 8am. Time to go to work again.

 

Betrayal

Following the success of our Halloween themed writing prompt, we decided that we would have a monthly prompt, whereby each Storyslinger must write a short story of between 500 and 1000 words based on the decided theme. Our latest theme was ‘betrayal’ and here are the stories that were produced as a result;

Rock the Dock, by Mike Bailey

I can feel the ship move away from the dock and I wonder where he is. He said he felt sick and was going down to our stateroom for a pill and some brandy but he hasn’t come back. Damn him, I’m standing here saving his place for him while all the passengers wave their farewells to the crowds on the quayside. Right by my side there is a rail I have made ready for him, lifted from its pinion and just balanced in place. I need him here now in the clamour of departure. I told him I want to celebrate our lottery win. A quick kiss to make him bend towards me and a firm nudge in his weedy chest and he’ll tumble over the side and leave it all to me.

I chose the numbers, I used them on the ticket but when we won he said the money was ours. Big of him. My numbers, my ticket. Anyway as soon as we got the money the first thing we did was to go to the best jeweller in Hatton Garden to get my ring. The biggest diamond, a million pounds worth of white and blue light held on a platinum band. It feels like wearing a lighthouse, glinting out to sea to save ships or to ruin them at the flick of my finger. Very reluctantly, I left it down in the safe in our seagoing suite of a cabin because he said it would be a bit vulnerable up here with all this sea around us.

Oh damn him, always awkward, never doing what I want him to do. It goes right back to when we met. He went for my sister at first, silly twig like cow, no tits or bottom just a tangle of hair like an explosion in a wool shop. She’s a female version of him really. Of course she took after our daddy, tall and thin like a pipe-cleaner. I’ve inherited mum’s warm roundness thank goodness. He was only too happy to sink his fingers into my generous flesh once he I told him my sister was two-timing him. I had to let him know for his sake even if I had to make it up a bit. Well make it up, but the end justifies the means, doesn’t it.

Where in buggeration is he? We’re moving away from the dockside now. Everyone is waving and calling out their goodbyes. Goodbye England, next stop USA, seven whole days and nights of luxury and peace and then a new life spending the money, my money. In Las Vegas I’ll be the English queen bee courted by a hundred nubile Yankee drones.

I’m getting cold up here. I want to go down to our sumptuous cabin and take these clothes off and put my ring on and admire myself rolling on the bed in that big gilt mirror opposite. If only he would hurry up. He went away quick enough when they announced all visitors had to leave the liner. Now where is he? Late for his own funeral. Oh I can be cruelly witty, they will love that in Las Vegas. It’ll be so much more difficult to get him in the right place here by this doctored railing once we sail and I’m worried that some nosey sailor or even another passenger will spot where I have fixed things for his unexpected and terminal swim.

Now they are starting to turn away on the shore, heading back to their cars and home to their boring little houses. No more of that for me, darlings. I’m here heading for wall to wall luxury, champagne and lusty, thrusty young men with dazzling smiles and flat stomachs. I can see one couple is still staring out at us, tall and thin, arms round one another, look at her hair, what a mess.

I’ll give them a wave, bye-bye suckers. Oh look, she raised her arm and took a photograph, quite a flash, brilliant white and blue. There it is again as she waves her arm. Hang on, white and blue? It can’t be. My ring, my husband. You bastards I’ll kill you. Oh God, the railing, the fucking railing, I can’t get my balance, Noooo.

 

Ruin, by Elizabeth Woodgate

The girl in front of me had green streaks in her hair and cut off denim shorts so short I could see a bulge of buttock flesh through the black opaque tights she wore underneath. At my convent school we wore blue and grey kilts that hung below the knee and blue v neck jumpers. Tights were forbidden for some reason and we had to wear knee length grey socks. The teachers appointed a posture prefect in year eleven to help them monitor the juniors’ uniform. They monitored years nine and upwards themselves and were strict about neatness and polished shoes. I could imagine Miss Treves quivering at the sight of the girls in the sixth form I now attended. I was in my second week and still felt too tidy and clean even though I was in jeans and a t-shirt.

I was in the corridor trying to shuffle through the crowds to get to my History lesson but there was a jam like a crush of commuters in the underground. When I got to the steps that led out of the building, I turned and felt something yank my hair back.

– Ow! I cried out.

– Hang on. A voice behind me, male and quiet, said. Don’t turn round.

I did turn and saw a boy in a green cotton jacket with long straight hair to his shoulders.

– Your hair’s caught in my button, he said. Turn round.

A mass of bodies was gathering behind us. Impatient, it pushed forward and I stumbled down the first step, my hair still caught.

– Ow! I screamed this time. The boy wedged himself behind me, his arm round my waist while the bodies streamed in front of us down the stairs. I felt his heat and smelt his smell, tobacco and weed (although I wasn’t sure about this) and washing powder. When the rush died down, I stepped away from his body and stood like a child while he untangled things.

He was called Adam. I learnt other things about him: he was in a band, he was officially doing Sociology and English Literature but he spent most of his time at college in the Music Tech suite where the teachers let him tinker about with his own recordings. He was in his second year and had only been allowed to continue because his tutor had pleaded his case with the senior management. He was on a final warning as his attendance was still crap, he said. His mum had just walked out on his dad. She was with some other bloke now and he didn’t speak to her. His dad was drinking a lot. But his parents were insisting he finish his A levels. God knows why, he said.

Then I learnt different things: the smell of him under his clothes, the touch of his skin, the shape of his ribcage, the way his toes grew out of the bones on his sinewy feet.

My mother met Adam in our kitchen. She was holding a plastic carton of organic milk and moving towards a mug of tea on the counter. She stopped when we came in and stood framed by the quartet of vegetable pictures that hung on the wall behind her. A red onion, a dark purple aubergine, a

green pepper and a yellow tomato, all bigger and bulgier than anything that gets shipped to Sainsburys. They were painted by a Spanish artist who sold his work on a stall at the market in Malaga where my parents owned a holiday apartment. Next to the pictures was a cork noticeboard where my mother pinned shopping lists and leaflets for classical music concerts and craft fairs. My A level timetable, sent by the college, was up there too.

I knew the look on my mother’s face: lips pulled together and nostrils flared so that little white dents appeared on either side of her nose. I wanted then to tell Adam to leave and that I would never see him again. I also wanted him to ruin me. To smash me up into pieces that could not be put back together by my mother or my father or my teachers. To sweep up my old self and put it in the rubbish. I felt blood banging in my skull and pumping in my chest.

Adam stepped into this moment and said,

-Hi. Great kitchen. I like your onion.

He pointed to the wall behind my mother.

– It’s massive.

She turned to look at the small square of canvas, at the bulbous purplish globe and the long strands of onion stalk snaking into the corner of the picture. She turned back and smiled with the warmth of a woman on holiday, fresh off the beach, looking forward to a mojito at a kerbside bar.

-Yes, it’s huge, she said. She even giggled.

 

Betrayed, by Peter Jump

Put your foot in the knickers. In the other hole. The other hole. Well use the other foot then. Come on lets just get you bloody dressed so we can get out of here. Jesus, does it always take you this long?

I’m in the changing room at our local health centre trying to get my four-year-old daughter, Sophie, changed after her swimming lesson. As you might have gathered this isn’t something I usually do. It’s always Karen’s job, taking the kids to the pool, but this evening she’s otherwise engaged. Her spin class has been moved, or was it yoga? God knows, she always seems to be out doing something different. Anyway, it means I’m now landed with the excruciatingly tedious task of ensuring my children are professionally instructed over many weeks on how not to drown. Apparently, Daddy just chucking them in the deep end isn’t good enough.

There’s a granddad next to me – well he looks like a granddad; grey hair, wrinkly face, indulgent manor with the precocious boy he’s got with him – and a couple of other dads scattered around the room. They all look pretty pissed off (apart from granddad) so at least I’m not alone in my puddle of annoyance.

I’m about to tell Sophie to not bother with knickers and just put her tights on, when a big guy in a rugby shirt slams open the changing room door. He looks about my age, mid thirties, and by the over-energetic way he enters the room and starts looking around I’m guessing he’s a man on a mission.

He then strides over to another guy in a basketball top a few yards from me and stands square in front of him, fuming (heavy breathing, red face, general twitchiness) but saying nothing. Basketball dude squares up to him, so they’re just inches from each other. They look strangely similar – same brown eyes, same undersized nose – but Basketball is taller and quite skinny.

What are those two men doing, Daddy?

Nothing. Just carry on getting changed.

Nothing is, of course, precisely the opposite of what’s going on. But what exactly is going on?

You bastard! You fucking bastard! How could you do it? How could you fucking do it? Don’t think I don’t know exactly what you’ve done. Exactly.

The full volume tirade by Rugby leaves Basketball with a face covered in spittle and everyone else in the room silent, stationary and staring.

How could you do something like that? How the fuck could you?

Basketball looks as if he might be about to respond when Rugby pushes him hard by the shoulders into the wall just behind him.

What’s happening Daddy?

Quiet, quiet.

Basketball looks shocked by the sudden violence, but I sense he’s more likely to cry than push back. In fact a few seconds later I do hear crying, from a small boy at the far end of the changing room.

Rugby now takes his hands off Basketball and steps back, still staring hard at him.

How could you? How could you?

Rugby almost whispers the question, and now looks as if he’s the one going to cry. Then he looks around the room, looks at Granddad and his boy, locks eyes with me and Sophie.

God, this wasn’t how it was supposed to happen.

And with that he turns away and marches out the way he came, to the sound of the small boy’s wailing.

Why did the man push the other man?

I don’t know why the man pushed the other man.

Why don’t you go and find out?

I have to admit, I’m more than curious to know what that was all about. Some might say the answer’s obvious. But why here, why now?

See if you can dress yourself, Sophie. Daddy’s just got to pop off for a second.

It’s a daft impulse I know, but I can’t help going outside the centre to see if I can spot the man and get a clue as to what that was all about. It’s daft but I can’t help it.

In the car park it’s cold and windy and dark already – Christmas is only weeks away. I can’t see him and I’m about to go back when I notice a car door open off near the exit. The interior light is on and I can see Rugby sitting in the passenger seat next to someone. It’s a woman, with long blond hair. She shifts position to talk to the man and suddenly her face is lit up by the dash lights. She puts an arm round his shoulders as he puts a hand to his face, then they embrace, then they kiss, on the mouth. They kiss on the mouth as she stokes his head and he puts a hand on her waste. They’re still kissing as I turn to go back inside.

Did you find out why the man was angry?

Just get your vest on so we can get out of here and watch your sister having her lesson.

Did you find out?

Yes.

 

A Blacksmith Courted Me (Story based on folk song ‘The Blacksmith’), by Richard Foreman

Oh what’s the true meaning of all that transpires?

I look in the glass again and again, see only my own wan face, my dark ringed, uncomprehending eyes, and I shake my head once more. And the curls and the tresses around my face do dance and waver as if there had never been strange news, as if he had never gone abroad or stooped to gather the sweet primeroses.

There are stages where these tales are forever acted out. And there are acts, one after another, in which the stages of this tale unfold. With what does it begin? Ah, bliss. It begins with faith, with hope, with love and trust.

It begins with his hammer, striking the anvil, so clever, so steady. The sparks that flew across the smithy. With his smile as he paused to hear my entreaty, a request from my father, shoes for the horses, equipment in need of repair. And his tender eyes as he watched me, clutching my shawl close, a little afraid – for all the times I had walked past the smithy I had never once set foot inside. His broad and sturdy arms. The rosy glow in his cheeks. Oh, I had seen him many a time before. Ours is a small town. But that day I saw as if for the first time. I saw my love.

Said he: “Your father is a good man. This work I’ll do and he’ll settle with me when he can.”

As soon as I was able, I hurried away – for I could barely remain stood fast upon my own two feet, such were the feelings that o’erwhelmed me. Yet why should I mistake kindness for affection? Better not to let imaginings rob me of my good senses.

The trust, it grows, as sapling does to oak, seeming sure and steady. His ready smile and greeting whenever our paths did cross. The light in his eyes that shone for me alone, as he played so neat and trim upon his pipes for the young girls to dance at the summer fair. And then came his letter, the coarse paper near scorched by the ardour of which he wrote. So mayhap the fault is mine. I should not have lain beside him that night. I should have listened to some better counsel. I should not have believed him when he said he’d marry me. When he said he’d not deny me.

And then comes the break – the call to other lands to fight for king and country. Oh, with what concern he’d listen to my entreaties then. “You must not go,” said I, “to where the sun will burn your beauty.” “I cannot stay at home,” said he and spoke of duty. Duty I know. That cannot be denied.

The weeks of waiting. The months. The years. And set to steer me through it all, my wedding plans, my hopes, my foolish dreams. Whilst he did march to fife and drum from battlefield to battlefield. And all would be well if only he lived, had not the call to gather primeroses come upon him.

At last came that news so strange, a whisper from lips to ears, a buzz of words that spreads through the town. “He is married.” How can this be? My love is married to another and will not return to his forge, where I loved so well to watch him at swing with his hammer. I can find no sound meaning in this. And yet it is so.

What was there to be done? A message, perchance? A former claim to consider right well? A protest to rend his heart? Of these I thought, oft, at length, day after day, night after night. But too well I knew what he might say. For witness had I none of what he’d promised. And of where he’d made that promise, I knew I dared not speak.

God may reward him well for the slighting of me. I cannot speak for the Divine Will nor yet, like some practitioner of witchcraft or wizardry, can I seek to sway its course.

If love him still I do, and still do I, then all that’s to be achieved in this the final act is to wish him well. Him and his new love, may they prosper and thrive, may their babies be happy and blessed with health. May he deceive no more.

And there I am, still pale and drawn, staring at myself from out of the glass. Trying to make sense of what I cannot know, that tidal ebb and wash of the human heart, its vagaries, its weakness.

There is but one thing that I can be sure of.

If I was with my love, I’d do my duty.

 

Just Relax, by Becky Bye

I yawned, making my jaw click. I wondered if I had in fact dozed off, or simply been lulled into a state of semi consciousness by the heady scent of lavender and the eerie, yet comforting crooning of the whale song. I could no longer feel any hands on me and so gingerly, I raised my face from the hole, feeling a tattoo of towel fibres emblazoned across my forehead. Feeling awkwardly stiff, I tried to raise my arms in order to give myself leverage away from the table, but my limbs were frozen. My head throbbed as I heard my heart thundering in my ears and as I attempted to swallow my increasing fear, my mouth felt dry and rough.

I suddenly felt that cold delicate hand on my shoulder and that soft voice in my ear;

“Just relax,” his voice smooth like silk.

He placed his hands underneath me and began to gently raise me up. I was astounded that my body moved in one complete motion, alarmed that my limbs appeared unable to move independently. Very slowly and with one hand remaining at the small of my back, he eased me back onto my knees. With staggered movements like that of a wooden puppet, he inched away from me, his hands outstretched protectively, anticipating a fall.

As I looked down at myself, the once familiar contoured map of moles and purple webs of stretch marks had completely gone and under the amber glow of the candlelight, I flashed brilliant white.

“Perfect,” he said, looking at me with pride in his eyes and holding a mirror in front of me.

I gasped and felt my throat contract, but no sound would escape from my open mouth. I was, as he said, perfect. A beautifully sculpted goddess, like the ones I had seen scattered around the relaxation lounge as I waited for my appointment. My skin was white marble and my muscles pinched uncomfortably within their new body.

He was surprisingly gentle as he scooped me up in his toned arms.

“I know I promised you a 40% discount for the hour’s neck, back and shoulders,” he whispered, “but I’m afraid I’m going to have to keep you with the others.”

It’s Only Rock & Roll, by Stephen Pellow

I wonder if this night will be the night you decide to do something. Is tonight when you finally take action? I’ve been expecting a confrontation now for months. I’ve been playing these 4000 capacity theatres for weeks and weeks up and down the coast and I know you’re out there. You’re probably dressed head to toe in dark clothing and standing way off at the back – probably next to one of the drinks vendors so you can steep your anger in liquor.

I wouldn’t know if you’re watching or not. Truth is you could be standing in the front row waving right at me and I wouldn’t see you. Is that because the spot lights blind my eyes? You didn’t get this far, you wouldn’t know. You should see it from here… all those people; their faces just sort of “melt” together as they parrot back my vocals, my ears hearing it as a dull echo falling flat across the crowd.

The label was looking for a front man. Someone with presence and swagger they could get behind and market the hell out of. So I changed my name and my image and I already knew all the songs, it didn’t really matter where they came from. I changed a couple of the titles here and there. They didn’t really need you, or the others. It was me they heard on the demos so why not me be the one who signed that contract? Okay so maybe the contract was for the band but like I said they wanted a front man and until I came along, there really wasn’t a band now, was there?

You don’t have much luck with your singers do you? What was I, the third? Or forth? I even heard that you had quit music altogether. You went back to, what was it again? Sales? That’s a mugs way to make a living, mate. Oh, that’s right. Never mind. The others just seemed to move on, but you took it so personally. Was that because they were your songs? Your babies? What I did is no different than those wannabies who go on those television talent shows and sing other people’s songs.

Were you there at all tonight? Probably, and you heard us open with Raising my Love. Of course I tweaked it a bit and it’s now Waiting for Love, which the execs at the label assure me the chick demographic are lapping up. And Shower Song is now Only Forgiveness. I mean, Shower Song? How do you sell that?

These venues are only the start. As soon as the album launches we’ll be booking arenas nationwide. Your songs will be performed all over the country, downloaded all over the world.

As I finish the set and take my leave of the stage again I wonder; have you been listening? Watching? I bet you don’t even recognise your own music now. It must burn you to hear that audience bellow out your words, in your melodies, as I bask in their praise. Is tonight the night you’re waiting for me backstage? When I get what’s coming to me?

But not to worry if it is, it’s only rock and roll.

 

Halloween

With Halloween rapidly approaching, at our meeting this week, we decided to have a spooky theme where we each wrote a ghost story between 500 and 1000 words to share with the group. Below are the ones that we shared on the night and we hope you enjoy reading!

All That Jazz, by Peter Jump

When I stepped off the dark street into the pub the band was already playing, on a low stage at the far end of the lounge. I checked the wall clock and saw it was another ten minutes till they were supposed to start their set. Given the effort I’d made to get there on time – I’d sprinted most of the way – and my hatred of missing the beginning of anything, I immediately felt somewhat peeved.

As a consequence I chose to ignore the band for the time being and got straight to the bar for a drink. After pushing past a couple of overweight pensioners in tweed jackets I managed to catch the barmaid’s eye. Except that instead of asking me what I wanted to drink she just started giggling like a school girl (despite obviously not having been to school for several decades).

“You’re fogged up,” she said.

“Just one of the many hazards of being short sighted,” I replied, taking off my glasses to wipe them on my shirt. “But I find a pint of Guinness always makes things better.”

“Of course it does,” she said, reaching down for a glass, thereby revealing more cleavage through the top of her blouse that a woman her age had a right to.

“Do you have to wear them all the time?” she asked, placing the pint glass under the tap.

“I sometimes try going without them, but then I usually end up walking into lampposts or nearly getting run over.” The barmaid giggled again, though I hadn’t really been joking.

As she pored I inspected the band. It included a very thin middle-aged man on clarinet, along with a very tall and stocky man, probably late thirties, on trumpet. There was also a stringy woman who looked about 125 sat playing a banjo. There was music on a stand in front of her which she was squinting at through thick round glasses.

Interestingly, there was no drummer, and also no double base. But as compensation there was a man – he looked East Asian, possibly Chinese – playing, of all things, a Sousaphone, which was wrapped around his upper body like an immense python. It was very tarnished, looking as dull as an old penny, and had several large dents. Even so, as the player puffed hard into its mouthpiece it produced very clear and rich bass tones.

As the group started a very upbeat and also very loud rendition of When the Saints Come Marching In it became obvious this was a traditional jazz band. All I’d known was that jazz would be played, but not what kind. I preferred something more modern, but decided I’d listen anyway. After all, any live music is better than no music at all.

Seats had been arranged theatre style in three rows for those wanting to watch the band, and I was able to snag the last empty chair at the front. Looking about me, I saw that most of the audience was well over sixty, and dressed relatively formally in shirt and tie. So was this the typical audience for trad jazz?

Though I felt out of place, I soon found myself enjoying the music a little more than I’d imagined. Then, as the group started an extremely slow version of Summertime, a youngish man in a trench coat entered the pub carrying a bass drum, which he placed behind the ancient banjoist. He then proceeded to saunter in and out of the lounge for ten minutes, bringing in the rest of the drum kit.

“That one, he’s always late,” whispered the grey-haired octogenarian next to me. “Never on time, always late. Not like you, eh?”

By the time Summertime was over, the tardy drummer was sat on his stool, sticks in hand, and ready to bring some extra rhythm to Ain’t Misbehavin’. Over the course of the tune the clarinettist, the trumpeter and even the Sousaphone man had a chance to play extended solos. The banjoist, however, just strummed along regardless, her chords never seeming to match up much with the rest of the band’s efforts.

With the end of the song an interval was announced by the trumpeter. The players put down their instruments and then walked towards the bar. Soon they were all chatting with friends in the audience while knocking back their beers.

As I pondered getting myself another drink, my aged neighbour leaned towards me and asked, “How did you hear about the band?”

“Oh, I just, erm, I just saw maybe a, erm.” Now that I came to think of it, I couldn’t actually remember. I noticed posters on the wall of the lounge announcing live jazz would be on tonight, but as I’d never been to this pub before so that couldn’t have been how I knew.

To hide my embarrassment at not being able to answer his simple question I said, “What’s the band called?”

“No idea,” he replied. “They always seem to be on here, but I’ve never caught their name.”

After twenty minutes the band reconvened to play the old standard Alexander’s Ragtime Band. After a couple of minutes they stopped and the trumpeter stepped to his microphone and said, “Would anyone like to join us on stage? Perhaps try your hand at singing, or playing one of the instruments?”

A low murmur went round the room at this rather odd announcement, but after a minute or so nobody had come forward. The trumpeter then pointed at me and said, “You sir, you look like a jazz aficionado. Please, why don’t you take a turn on the Sousaphone.”

I laughed and waved away the request, not least because I hadn’t played any instrument since having a go at the violin when I was thirteen. But the trumpeter wasn’t to be put off and repeatedly implored me to come up. I found numerous wrinkly hands encouraging me out of my seat and before I knew it I was on the stage.

The Asian gentleman put the immense Sousaphone over my head and on my shoulders, then he muttered, “Don’t worry. It’s really easy. Play it just like you would a tuba.”

Of course, that was absolutely no help to me, but I thought the sooner I make a noise the sooner I’m off the stage. So I took a deep breath, puckered up, and blew into the mouthpiece.

To my immense surprise what came out of the instrument wasn’t an evil sound that could be used to ward off bad spirits. Instead, there was a proper, clear note. I then pressed a key and made a different note, and then another key and another note, and so on and so on, until I was playing a fair rendition of Alexander’s Ragtime Band, with the other players joining in.

When the tune was over there was a booming applause from everyone in the pub. Feeling almost euphoric, and with a big grin on my face, I was helped out of the Sousaphone. But as I made to return to my seat the clarinettist barred my way and thrust his instrument into my hands.

Tiger Rag,” he said. “You can do it. Yours is the first solo.”

Before I could hand the instrument back the band had started playing and I felt impelled to try a second unfamiliar instrument. And for a second time I managed to play a tune, in fact play it very well, to receive yet another big applause.

Next I was taking the trumpet and playing Wonderful World, and wondering why I’d never noticed my innate musical genius before now. And when that song finished I was finally allowed to retake my seat.

“You’re quite an accomplished musician, aren’t you,” said the old man next to me. “I bet you never realised how good you were till you tried just now.”

“No, I didn’t, as it happens.”

“I thought so. You’re not the first to arrive here to find he has a talent he neglected to use when he had the chance.”

“Had the chance?” I said, starting to get annoyed by what the man was saying. “What are you going on about?”

“Don’t you realise yet?” he replied, leaning back in his chair. “Haven’t you worked out where you are?”

“I’m in a pub near, somewhere near…”

“You’re in the place where the music goes on forever.”

Ah yes. Jazz heaven, where the music never stops. There were worse fates.

Not Tonight…But Soon, by Cuca Vega

I heard strange noises again. The same muffled cry of a child and thumping steps. I am not curious, I don’t believe in ghosts and I don’t like children anyway. Why would I have called the night nurse to see what the noise was about?

I turned and tossed painfully about the bed just like I have done many nights before. Sure the sounds would go away and the day would break before I had to make any decision or reach out for the buzzer.

I am old. I am tired. Why would any message come to me in the middle of the night? I cannot help anyone. I cannot even help myself.

Go away! I shouted in my head. Let me be. I insisted. The noise wouldn’t go away and I could almost discern words from a toddler in between the cry. Then the words ‘Wake up, mammy wake up!’ clear and directed at me.

With difficulty I sat up in bed afraid the voice would say anymore. It didn’t. My eyes wide open in the darkness of the room.

I am not anyone’s mammy. Why call me? The only child I had I never carried for more than 4-months. I never saw the tiny body or asked if it was a boy or a girl.

Little steps moved across the room. I saw a silhouette of a chubby boy. ‘What do you want?’ I thought. I said.

‘Hold me up.’ He replied.

‘I am old and frail and I am nobody’s mammy. I am not your mammy.’

‘Hold me up!’ the child persisted. Like a demand, an order.

I reached out with my trembling hands and grouped the air, cold air.

‘No! Not like this.’ The child protested. ‘With your heart, hold me up with your heart.’

My withered lips quivered and tears soaked my rice paper skin. What heart? I thought to myself. What heart? All I felt was dark and pain. I have no heart.

The little boy moved even closer and despite the murkiness of the night I saw his old, sad eyes, a toothless mouth and a wrinkly face. He begged me again for an embrace with my whole heart. I feared then I would consent. I would open my heart and let him in.

No! I can’t. I shut my eyes and lay back in bed. I am not ready to die. Not yet. Not tonight.

Silence and a shift in the air told me the child was gone. No longer in my room demanding what I am not yet prepared to give. For how much longer will I be able to choose? A crack in my chest is already opened. A little light seeps through.

Only stubbornness pumps blood in my veins. I know I have no time to fix the ugly mistakes I have made. It is too late and I know the little boy will return to my room again. Maybe not tonight… but soon.

The Green Box, by Mike Bailey

His father worked frantically in the rain, gouging at the black soil with a broken wooden stave and his bare hands as he burrowed deep into the ground like an animal. He worked in darkness and without noise. As soon as he was up to his waist in the hole he cradled the awkward bundle that had lain in the deeper shadow against the church wall and pushed it quickly down into the mud at his feet. He pulled the earth over it, burying his son as quickly as he had dug his grave.

By morning the storm water had obliterated any sign of the recent digging and those passing along the muddy path that ran beside the church wall noticed nothing. The boy’s body was safe now, protected by the church from Satan and his demons and by death from any further harm or disease. His spirit slept undisturbed.

Great scoops of sandy orange earth were gouged by the digger’s metal jaw. The hole next to the church in the high street widened where the pavement cobbles had been dug away. Shoppers and market traders bustled past the unannounced obstruction as the workers took a tea break. A safety barrier in red and white plastic prevented pedestrians from falling into the excavation while a stiff orange plastic sheet covered the trip hazard from road to pavement they had to cross.

A burly man took over from the digger. His shovel blade bit into the darker earth at the bottom of the pit. A deeper channel was needed for the new internet and phone cable. It would carry it from the new junction box close to the church wall out into the road to meet up with pipes and cables already buried there. Another slice of soil was cleaved from the side of the earth wall and fell crumbling to the bottom and with it something muddy yellow.

The workman who reached down into the earth had seen the yellow streak now lying against the dark earth. “Look at this”, he said. He held the bone up, turning it as he examined it. “Must be a dog, I guess”. He laid it on the road at the edge of the hole and bent to dig his fingers into the loose dirt. “Here’s another one. Must have been a big dog with legs this long”. The foreman said tersely he would look after the bones and that there was work to do, so get on with it.

By the end of the day the bones had been passed to the local museum, the cables had been connected and the paving bricks re-laid on top of the filled-in excavation. A new green painted box alongside the church wall protected wires and switch equipment from the elements and curious school children. At the local telephone exchange phone connections were rerouted to bring the newly installed equipment into service.

Mrs Clemence was talking to her daughter who lived down in the valley. She had described the tribulations of her day and was settling comfortably into a well rehearsed catalogue of the various failings of the ageing body when she was interrupted by a loud cry. She asked he daughter if she had the television tuned to one of the crime dramas she was so fond of. Before her daughter could reply the cry of a child in pain startled them both. “What was that?” the old lady asked. “It must be a crossed line”, her daughter replied, “Ring off and I’ll call you back”.

The telephone service provider received several complaints about interrupted calls and noises on the line. Several people in the town phoned the emergency services to report hearing a child in obvious distress when they lifted their telephone receiver to make a call. Tests were run on the wiring circuits. No faults were found but the complaints of interference continued.

Tom unfolded his aluminium stool and set it down in the shadow of the church wall. He adjusted the headphones over his ears and clipped the jaws of the contact wire onto the exposed metal junction. Instead of the quiet electronic hum he was used to there was an empty silence as if he was listening to the depths of a well. He tried another circuit, and another. Each time he had a sense of vertigo as the silence dragged him down. He shook his head to clear the sensation and eased the headphones away from his ears. The noise of the high street returned, a reassuring bustle of voices, footsteps and traffic.

He bent his head towards the green box again and resettled the headset in place. “Oh, it hurts so sir. Please stop it hurting, I beg you”. The voice was a child’s, a young boy. The pain and the fear were as clear as the words. Tom jumped up and the headphones were jerked from his ears by the wire clipped to the junction frame. He trembled as he unclipped the wire and threw the headset into his bag. He closed the green box and locked it, put his bag and folded stool in the van and slammed the door shut. He stood looking back at the junction box. Feeling calmer, he was still sweating and breathing heavily.

People waiting at the bus stop on the opposite side of the high street saw the telephone engineer turn from his van and start to walk away from the church. One of them said afterwards that it was as if he had walked into a wall. He stopped suddenly and clasped his hands to his head. Another lady was sure she heard him cry “No, no, leave me alone”. Others said he simply screamed as he fell to his knees. When the ambulance attendant cradled his head and shone torchlight into the vacant eyes there was no reaction. He could have been dead except that his mouth kept producing a child’s voice, “No, don’t you go away, I won’t let you leave me. Please stop it hurting. Oh, it hurts so”.

Winning Shot, by Becky Bye

I set up my tripod and placed myself behind the camera. The beauty of the Abbey was such that even in its ruinous state, there would be little work required from me in getting the winning shot.

As my finger hovered over the shutter, I watched the ruin flare with colour through the lense. The sunlight caught the sharp angles of protruding stone and scattered the light across the highly decorated floor tiles.

I smiled to myself as the shutter clicks reverberated around me and I imagined the haunting voices of choral song once echoing down these corridors in a similar way.

A hand on my shoulder made me jump. My little brother giggled skipping around me in taunting circles as I attempted to grab him.

“Daniel,” I hissed, “we have to be quiet so we don’t disturb the other visitors.”

He raised his face to mine and poked out his tongue.

“Look, I promise we won’t be much longer. Hey, it said on the sign that there is dressing up in the next room, why don’t we go try it out?”

Immediately his face shone and he sped off round the corner, his feet rattling over the roughly cobbled floors.

Reluctant to leave the tranquillity of the space, I gathered up my camera and followed in Daniel’s direction.

The next room was once the Abbey’s kitchen, an enormous fireplace rising high at one end of the room. The bricks were stained black from years of smoke and ash and the room smelt damp and musty. It was a comforting sort of smell and it was easy to imagine this room bustling with activity. A set of stairs in one corner led to lodgings above and a small wooden door at the opposite end to the fireplace stood tauntingly in one corner, bearing a small white plaque that simply stated ‘private’.

Daniel had obviously been distracted elsewhere and so leaning my tripod against the wall and checking to make sure that no-one was looking, I walked towards the private door and gave it a gentle tug. It didn’t budge, but a tiny keyhole was carved just above the handle. I bent down and peered through it, seeing nothing but the smudge of darkness. Frustrated, I pulled my iphone out of my pocket and shone the torch through the small hole. A couple of worn away steps led down to a blocked up doorway.

Even in the dim light, I could see that the mortar between the bricks was old and crumbling, suggesting that this doorway had in fact been blocked up for some time. I wondered what the point of the private sign was as there seemed no need for a visitor deterrent from a blocked up doorway.

A finger in my ribs made my skin leap and I dropped my phone with a clatter to the floor. I span round on Daniel, my heart thumping.

“Watcha doin?” he asked, his arms folded. “That says private, we aren’t allowed in there.”

I opened my mouth to argue but Daniel interjected. “Can we dress up now? You promised!”

“I was waiting for you slowcoach!” I said, breathing more steadily and reached for a rail of monks robes. I helped Daniel into the outfit and tied the rope around his middle, holding the robe in place. I positioned him in front of the fireplace, his hands clasped together and his head bowed low, so that the dark hood obscured his face.

“Ok, keep still,” I insisted.

I clicked the shutter several times, before Daniel started to fidget.

“Your turn now!” he said, wriggling to remove himself from the robes and thrusting them at me.

I smiled and shook my head. “I don’t feel like dressing up. Why don’t you run ahead to the gift shop and I’ll buy us an ice cream. I just want to get a couple more shots of this room, ok?”

Daniel shrugged. “Ok, but I want an ice cream AND sweets!” He grinned and sped off, dropping his robes to the floor.

I picked them up and returned them to the rack in the corner. Turning my tripod round to face the private door, I noticed that it was beautifully decorated with ornate carvings of animals, which I hadn’t paid any attention to before.

After taking a few more shots I went to locate my brother and found him chatting animatedly to the Abbey guide, his mouth already smeared with ice cream. “Daniel! I told you to wait for me.” I turned to the guide. “I’m so sorry.”

The man laughed, “Please don’t worry, he’s not doing any harm. Help yourself to an ice cream and I’ll tally it up on the till.”

I rummaged in my pocket for some change and handed it to the man.

“Do you have any questions about the site?” he asked, “she’s a bit of a beauty though sadly fell into ruin like so many others during the dissolution.” He sighed, “She managed to hold onto her secrets though.”

My skin prickled and I felt the question about the doorway burning on my tongue. “What do you mean?”

He eyed he me intently and then leaned forward onto the counter. “There was once great treasure here; gold, silver, jewels and no-one knows what happened to it. Old King Henry certainly never got his hands on it. The story goes that a monk was given the treasure and told to build a secret room under the Abbey and hide it there so that it would be safe. The monk died before he could tell anyone where he had hidden the treasure. Archaeologists have had a look around the grounds but have never found anything.”

I felt my stomach jolt with excitement at the possibility of hidden treasure beneath my feet.

“If you ask me,” the guide continued, “then the entrance has to be behind the doorway in the kitchen. There is no key for that door, hasn’t been for as long as I’ve been here, which is over forty years. I’d love to get my hands on whatever secrets lie behind that door.” He chuckled, “Anyway, you don’t want to hear the theories of a boring old man. I hope you enjoyed your visit.”

When I got home, I couldn’t wait to develop the photos. The first shots of the Abbey standing majestically in the sunlight had come out beautifully. The ones of Daniel in his monk’s robes were a little dark, his robes blending in with the blackness of the fireplace behind him.

As I reached for the pictures of the door I gasped, feeling the colour drain from my face and my hands start to tremble. The door was open and stood just inside the doorway, I could make out the silhouette of a monk, his face obscured by his hood, and in his outstretched hand was a tiny brass key.

New Published Story: “Shuffle” by Jennifer K. Oliver

Hi everyone. I thought I’d take advantage of the blog and announce my short dark fantasy / horror story “Shuffle” has just been published at the wonderful Kaleidotrope magazine in their summer 2015 issue! I am beyond thrilled. The story is available online for free here:

Shuffle,” a 3300 word post-apocalyptic story about a dead thing reclaiming its life and realising perhaps death is better.

I hope you enjoy.

Website of the SAC Writing Group based in Dorset, UK.

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