Hotel Escarbar

peeling_wallpaperLoulou reclined on the bed in her underwear and watched Brett as he performed press-ups on the bare floorboards in his boxer shorts. His arms and chest were slick with sweat and she noticed that his biceps bulged and deflated rhythmically with every repetition. He liked being watched although he pretended not to. Loulou took a long drag on her cigarette before forming an O with her red lips and expertly puffing out a series of smoke rings into the stifling room.

The hotel they were staying in was surprisingly cheap and unsurprisingly awful. The wallpaper was peeling and they shared the room with dozens of cockroaches who were so bold, they didn’t wait until the lights went off before they scuttled across the floor. Loulou had gone to run a bath and the taps had coughed and spluttered before giving up a trickle of rusty brown water. She had abandoned the idea of bathing and lain on the thin mattress with its pink satin coverlet and started smoking.

Brett had returned from the store with whisky, more cigarettes and ice, lots of ice. He unbuttoned his shirt and removed his chinos before dropping to the floor to start his exercise regime. He smirked as he sensed Loulou’s eyes flicking up and down his body but he took his time as he knew she would wait for him to finish, no matter how many cigarettes it took.

Brett finished his squat thrusts and started cooling his muscles by stretching first his arms then his long, toned legs. Realising the time was close, Loulou wriggled across the slippery fabric towards the nightstand but Brett, lithe and energetic, leapt across the room and reached it first. He grabbed the box and held it up out of Loulou’s reach, teasing her and taking pleasure in watching her frustration grow.

He held up a hand and Loulou shuffled back obediently watching, as he placed the box on the bed and opened it slowly. She fidgeted as he removed the contents, laying them out carefully before replacing the lid and discarding the box, his eyes fixed unwaveringly on hers. Loulou’s pupils dilated as he proffered a small, black velvet bag towards her which she grasped eagerly and dipped her scarlet-tipped hand into its dark recesses. Brett clapped his hands together briskly, “Right Louise, you know the rules. No names, abbreviations, prefixes or suffixes. Let’s play Scrabble!”

Stalemate

stalemateChris Newman held his position whilst the battle raged around him. He knew the enemy was within the building but, without backup, it would be suicide to go in. He stood with his back against the wall, holding his rifle in readiness.

“Hey you! I know you’re out there. Scared to come and get me?” a lone voice taunted from within the bunker.

“Don’t worry,” Chris yelled back. “They’ll be along shortly and then you’re finished. Anyway, I don’t hear many of your comrades in there with you.”

“Yeah, it’s just me in here on my lonesome as all my amigos upped and left me,” the voice replied.

“Just as well,” Chris retorts, wiping perspiration from his face with one of his sleeves. “No-one will hear you cry like a girl when we blow you to Kingdom Come.”

“Now then, that’s not very nice,” the voice replied in a mock hurt tone. “I thought we were getting along famously then you go and say something horrible like that.”

“Sorry to burst your bubble but we’re on opposing sides so this won’t end well for one of us… preferably you.” Chris heard shuffling sounds and wondered what was going on inside the bunker.

The sound of gunfire was getting closer and Chris sincerely hoped the screaming that followed wasn’t his backup being dispatched.

“It doesn’t sound like we’ve got long so let me tell you a little story,” the voice said.

“Once upon a time there was a little boy who only ever wanted to be an accountant. His father came from a military family and wanted the boy to become a brave soldier like him and his father before him. The boy didn’t like playing war games and just wanted to do sums and work with spreadsheets.

“The little boy grew older and was sent to military school, which he detested, so that he could learn how to be a man. He ran away on countless occasions but was always caught and disciplined, with the punishments getting increasingly more barbaric. Standing to attention in the rain for hours on end, running laps of the snowy sports pitch in his gym kit, holding weights with outstretched arms until his muscles screamed in agony.

“The school finally asked him to leave as his behaviour was affecting the morale of the other students. The words “expel” and “excluded” were never used, as that might have caused a scandal, but he was politely asked to go home and never come back.

“His father was furious and sent his son to the local comprehensive as a perceived punishment. However the boy loved it, made loads of friends and studied subjects such as computing rather than military strategy. The best thing was that he felt like he fitted in for the first time in his life and really liked it.

“The boy ignored his father’s wishes and enrolled in accountancy college, got a distinction in his final exams and secured a good job with a respectable firm of accountants. This allowed him to finally move out from under his father’s shadow, become the man he wanted to be and everyone lived happily ever after. The End.”

“That’s a very moving story, but what’s it got to do with me?” queried Chris.

A figure ran out of the bunker, screaming and firing his gun but Chris was too surprised to lift his rifle in time. Chris was shot and landed heavily on his back, the breath knocked out of him. He lay gasping as yellow paint dribbled down the sides of his camouflage jacket.

“I told you that story so you’d know how much I hate paintball,” the figure said. “Especially when it’s a pointless team building exercise devised by the accountancy firm I work for.” The lone figure shot Chris again for good measure and walked away from the sound of gunfire.

The Book Lovers

booklovers“Who was she?” That was the first thought that came into my mind when I saw her in the bookshop. Her long, silver plait snaked over one shoulder until she flicked it behind her where it came to a stop, bisecting her back perfectly. Her hair made it almost impossible to determine her age as her unlined face had a timeless quality to it; she could have been anywhere between forty and sixty. As she moved about the stacks, I noticed she had a dancer’s litheness of movement, bending gracefully to read the spines of books and placing her feet just so.

I watched her out of the corner of my eye as I unpacked a box of newly delivered books, enjoying the feel of leather and cloth against my fingertips and inhaling the spicy aroma of the tea-coloured pages. My attention was diverted when I noticed a pristine copy “The Great British Book of Birds” and I spent several minutes marvelling over the beautifully vibrant colour plates and skimming through the chapter describing how to preserve a gentleman’s carefully collected birds’ eggs. I stroked the book as I closed it then glanced up but the silver lady had gone. I was certain she hadn’t left, as she would have walked past me, so she must have made her way into the non-fiction section at the rear of the shop.

I priced a handful of the newly acquired books and went to find her. The shelves were all made of mahogany from a bygone era but when the sun shone through the high window, it transformed this back room into a softly glowing space where dust motes floated in the mellow sunlight. I had placed two comfortable armchairs in here to encourage browsers to sit and bide awhile and this was where she had settled with one leg tucked beneath her and her chin resting elegantly in the palm of her hand.

I moved quietly as I slotted the bird book amongst its kin in the ornithological section and found suitable homes for the others, all the while hoping to catch a glimpse of what the silver lady was reading. I was squinting and trying to discern the book’s title when I realised I was being calmly observed by a pair of inquisitive hazel eyes.

“I’m so sorry, I didn’t mean to interrupt,” I apologised in a rush. “I thought if I could see what you were reading I could offer suggestions for other books you might like.”

“That’s very kind of you. It’s Robert Hooke’s Micrographia. The text is a little hard going but the microscopic drawings are fascinating. Here, look at this flea,” she turned the book towards me so I could look at it. “The detail is amazing, you can even see the hairs on its legs.”

Her face lit up with a child-like wonder as she flicked through the pages then smiled up at me. Oh dear, I thought, as my stomach flipped and somersaulted like a panicked fish, this is what it’s like to fall in love.

Genius

red shoeI met a genius on the train today.

I got on at Bristol Temple Meads at dusk, feeling decidedly ropey and just wanted to fall asleep until a guard kicked me off at Southampton. I was clutching a carrier bag full of Lucozade and Haribo Fangtastics, my surefire hangover cure. I was hoping for a seat in the quiet carriage but as I looked around, a sea of heads stretched out before me, most with iPads or Kindles but some with actual paperbacks. I sighed and went through to the next compartment. Ditto, although it was a lot noisier with rugby fans celebrating a win at Cardiff Arms Park. I made my way through the train, wondering if I’d ever get a seat then groaning as I realised I might have to stand for the whole two and a half hour journey. Perhaps I’d be allowed to curl up in a corner of the guard’s carriage, amongst the bikes and surfboards? Or maybe an old lady would take pity on my fragile state and offer her seat to me?

The door to the last carriage hissed open and I shuffled dejectedly along, having already resigned myself to sitting on the floor when I spotted a seat. I picked up my pace worried it might be a hallucination brought on by alcohol poisoning but no, there were in fact three spare seats on a completely full train with standing room only. I didn’t care and slumped onto the velour fabric with a huge sense of relief.

I was woken by a sharp prod in my chest. I ignored it, shifted in my seat and tried to go back to sleep. Another prod, accompanied by, “Wake up, mate! You’re snoring.” I opened my eyes and was startled to find myself looking at the face of the hairiest man I’d ever seen, six inches from mine. He had long, dark, frizzy hair and beard and looked like the lead singer of a 70s rock band. I got a whiff of his pungent odour and switched to breathing through my mouth instead of my nose.

“I’m Tor, pleased to meet you. I was hoping someone would sit here soon as these journeys can be really boring unless you’ve got someone to chat to,” he fidgeted while he spoke then smiled at me displaying yellow teeth.

“I’m sorry but I’m really tired and just need some sleep,” closing my eyes.

Tor ignored this and said, “I’ve invented time travel.”

My eyes flicked open in horror as I realised why these seats had been empty. I’d made the worst possible mistake on public transport and had sat opposite The Loony.

“Yeah, all those scientists have been working on it for years and I invented a time machine in my mate’s shed.”

I tried not to look directly at him, as you would the sun during an eclipse, but I’d engaged with him and now I was trapped.

“It’s not like the Tardis or that fancy machine from the film. Have a guess what it is.”

I sighed and realised he wasn’t going to let me sleep so I might as well have some fun, “A wardrobe, like the one that takes you to Narnia?”

“Nah mate, that’s a portal to another world not a time machine.”

“A cardboard box?”

“Nah, you’re not even trying.”

“A hat? A nice trilby?”

“Close but no cigar, mate.”

“I give up. What is it?”

“Shoes,” he said theatrically as he made a “ta dah” movement with his hands.

“Shoes?”

He nodded and grinned, displaying his nicotine stained teeth again.

“You’ve invented time travelling shoes?” I asked in disbelief.

“Yeah. They’re a nice pair of trainers I got from a charity shop for two quid.”

“What did you do to them to make them travel in time?” I shouldn’t have carried on the conversation but he’d drawn me in and now I was intrigued. He was good, he was very good.

Tor looked around him to check no-one was listening then whispered louder than most people talk, “I painted them red.”

“What, like the ruby slippers?”

“Exactly, mate,” he cried clapping his hands together. “I knew you’d get it.”

“So, you click your heels together, say where and when you want to go and …”

“I’m whisked down a wormhole quicker than you can say Jack Sprat.”

“So where have you been? The Battle of Hastings or to witness the Big Bang?”

“Nah, somewhere much better.”

“Where?” I asked and actually leaned forward in my seat.

“The Tesco down the road from me last Wednesday.”

“What?” I exclaimed.

“Yeah, I’d missed the bus so didn’t get there in time to get the cheap meat and cakes. It would’ve been cold beans for a week if I hadn’t got down there.”

“Why don’t you use the shoes to better advantage? You know, put a bet on a surprise Grand National winner and make some money?”

“But that would be dishonest,” he said, with a shocked expression.

“Okay, okay, I didn’t mean to offend you.”

“Tickets please,” the inspector called out as he entered the carriage.

“Mate, I gotta scarper as I haven’t got a ticket.”

“Hang on, you just said…”

“No time mate, good talking to you,” Tor said as he clicked his heels and disappeared with a quiet pop.

SugaPuff

SugaPuffThe metal panel clattered off the wall of the silent office. Mark clambered inelegantly out of the air conditioning duct and onto the top of the photocopier then lost his footing and landed in a heap on the floor, like a puppet whose strings had been cut. He disentangled his gangly arms and legs and stood up to his full 6′ 4″ height, brushing bits of fluff from his black polo neck jumper and trousers. He had planned to wear a balaclava but at the last minute had decided that it was unnecessary and a bit of a cliché. Unable to stop himself, he looked around to see who had witnessed his clumsy entrance then remembered that it was 3am and he was completely alone.

Despite this he tiptoed in a pantomime fashion across the carpet until he realised how ridiculous he must look. He reached his destination and glanced around at the gonks with nylon hair in a variety of fluorescent colours and pink hearts decorating the desk. He paused briefly to muster his courage then hesitantly lowered himself into the chair, as you would with a too hot bath, a flush rising from his neck to his forehead as he did so. He took a moment to start breathing again then fired up the computer. He couldn’t help but notice that a photo of a pretty blonde holding a chihuahua puppy in a pastel-pink heart-shaped frame took pride of place next to the monitor.

The computer had completed its start-up process and the login page was displayed. He typed “Samantha Ward” into the user name line, pressed return and then watched as the cursor blinked patiently at him from the password line. He looked around the desk for inspiration: gonk was too short and chihuahua too difficult to spell first thing in the morning. He had an idea and typed “pinkheart” into the space. Invalid password. Blast, only two more attempts. He thought harder and tried “purplegonk”. Invalid password. Last chance. Mark had a lightbulb moment and typed in “SugaPuff”, taking care with the spelling and capitalisation. Bingo! Of course, Samantha had used the name of her new puppy.

Once Mark had gained access into the computer, he waited a moment for the home page to load and was delighted to see a photo of the pretty girl hugging her puppy as the background picture. Samantha’s blonde hair shone in the sun and her sapphire blue eyes were hidden by Jackie O sunglasses. He felt a twinge of jealousy when he realised SugaPuff was licking his owner’s face and she was squealing in delight. “Oh, if only that was me,” Mark sighed out loud and made himself jump in the silence. Mark checked his watch. 3.12am. He clicked on the email icon and opened the last message, sent by him at 10.27pm.

Mark cringed as he read the contents of the email:

My Darling Samantha,

The sun is dimmed by your loveliness and the moon weeps stars at your beauty. Flowers bloom in your footsteps and birds sing joyfully as you pass by. Your skin is as soft and unblemished as a peach, your hair shimmers like ripe barley in the sun and your eyes reflect a perfect blue sky on a summer’s day. Every man is undone by you, especially me, who worships you as Aphrodite, the goddess of love. No woman is more perfect, more beautiful or more loveable than you as you are the epitome of womankind. I am not worthy of you but know that I would do anything for you and the power of love will sustain me for an eternity.

I will always love you,

Mark

He had drunk a bottle of red wine then thought it an excellent idea to declare his undying love to Samantha. He had composed the email, then fallen asleep at his computer and woken in a cold sweat, and with an imprint of the keyboard on his face, when he realised he’d actually pressed the send button. Mark had panicked, then forced himself to calm down and hatched the plan to break into his office and destroy the evidence.

Mark pressed delete and breathed a sigh of relief. Samantha would never know about his passion for her as he would prefer his love to remain hidden rather than having to suffer the embarrassment of rejection. Anyway, he was used to his love being unrequited as he had never been able to tell a woman how he felt, not after Marie Newman had broken his heart when he was fourteen. She had agreed to go on a date with him to the cinema to see Beaches (her choice, not his) and had stood him up. He had waited over two hours, the reasons for her non-appearance becoming more fanciful in his mind the later it became. He didn’t realise it had been a cruel joke until he went to school the following day and everyone sang “The Wind Beneath Your Wings” at him and he’d ended up taking refuge underneath the stage in the main hall. Mark logged out and switched off the computer, checked that everything was in place on Samantha’s desk and then climbed on top of the photocopier and retraced his route out of the building.

Mark felt dreadful but managed to drag himself into work the following day. By the time he had returned home, he had only managed three hours sleep and had woken with a monumental hangover. His only consolation was that Samantha would never read his email and he would avoid the embarrassment of everyone in the office finding out.

Mark was inputting that month’s sale figures into a spreadsheet when he smelled perfume, Samantha’s perfume, and whirled round in his chair. There she was, closer than she had ever been before, so that he was able to admire her flawless skin and bask in her unparalleled beauty.

“Hi Mark. Wow, you look really hungover! Heavy night on the tiles, I bet!”

Mark smiled ruefully but didn’t say anything.

“Hey, I just found an email which I think is from you.”

Mark froze with fear. He couldn’t believe he hadn’t checked Samantha’s recycle bin and just assumed that her emails were deleted every time she logged out. He could feel adrenaline pumping round his body, preparing him to run fast, anywhere but here.

“Email?” Mark finally managed with his Sahara-dry mouth. “I don’t remember sending you an email,” he said as nonchalantly as possible.

Samantha looked at him in puzzlement, “But you’re Mark Telford, aren’t you?”

Mark couldn’t speak so just nodded.

“I was really surprised when I read it but it was so sweet of you. You know I’ve just split up with my boyfriend and been feeling a bit low, so that was very kind of you to try and cheer me up.” Samantha leant over, gave him hug and whispered in his ear, “Don’t worry, I won’t say a word.” Samantha rubbed his back briefly before releasing him then gave him a brilliant smile showing off her gleaming white teeth before turning away and walking back to her desk.

Mark stared after her in amazement. She was perfect, absolutely perfect, and his love for her fizzed and bubbled like champagne. He would dream about that hug forever and would tend the eternal flame of his love for her while being so very privileged to worship her from afar.

The Sphinx

Sphinx2At an entrance to the park there are two stone gateposts four-sided, bevelled at the top, Egyptian-looking. I’d walked past before, never really noticing them, but today they’d piqued my curiosity; such an exotic gateway to a place where people take their children to feed the ducks or young lovers laze on the grass in the summer. I ventured in wondering why I had never stepped over the threshold before. Just because it was located on the other side of the town from where I lived wasn’t a good enough reason.

The park was well laid out with specimen trees of Japanese maple and cherries that would have looked beautiful in their autumn colours. Birches glowed in the half-light of a dull February day and I couldn’t resist the satin feel of them, running my fingers around their trunks and peeling translucent bark off in tiny strips.

Something caught my eye through the trees, possibly a statue but I wasn’t sure. I wandered deeper into the park, catching glimpses here and there. The path completed it’s circuitous route through the trees and the park opened up to reveal a rectangular pond, filled with glassy water reflecting the grey sky, with Cleopatra’s Needle at one end and a sphinx guarding the other. I approached the stone figure and stared into it’s inscrutable, androgynous face. I ran my hand down it’s flank, enjoying the feel of cold, rough limestone under my fingers, finishing up at the tip of the lion’s tail which flicked. “Who dares touch me?” a voice demanded. The tail flicked again in irritation and I made my way back to the sphinx’s head with some trepidation. “Well?”, the stone eyes blinked at me as I looked at my feet and mumbled an apology. “Not good enough. If you can answer my fiendish riddle I’ll let you go.” “What happens if I can’t answer it,” I asked nervously. “Then I’ll have to eat you,” the sphinx replied. “What is greater than God, more evil than the devil, the poor have it, the rich need it, and if you eat it, you’ll die?” My mind became blank, a dark, swirling void containing nothing of any use. I’d always hated riddles and couldn’t think of a response that would save my life. I could feel sweat inching down my back as the seconds ticked by. “I’ll have to hurry you,” said the sphinx, sounding like a quiz show host. “Nothing. I know nothing so you’ll have to eat me,” I said with a resigned sigh.

The sphinx emitted a cry of intense frustration and rage. “Who told you?” it screamed. “I don’t know the answer so just get it over with,” I closed my eyes and waited for the inevitable. “Nothing IS the answer so leave this place and never return.” I opened my eyes gingerly and the sphinx was once again inanimate. I didn’t need to be told twice so ran as fast as my legs would carry me.

Lost and Found

large houseThe young woman walked through the woods, unsure how she had come to be there. Her mind was fuzzy and she felt as if she had just awoken from a drugged sleep. An image of a large house with immaculate gardens flickered in her mind like an old film but when she tried to grasp the memory, it slipped away from her. She found it difficult to move quickly without tripping over exposed roots and tree stumps so she made her slow, stumbling way through the autumnal forest.

With relief, she suddenly remembered why she was there. She was visiting her friend, Jemima, for a weekend house party and someone had suggested playing hide and seek. This childish game had appealed to them and many clapped their hands with glee. Jemima’s brother, Robert, was down from London where he was something in the City had looked indulgently upon his sister and her friends, whilst reading The Times. Robert was blond and tanned with an athlete’s physique so caused quite a stir amongst the female guests, whose eyes shone more brightly and hair needed touching far more than was necessary whenever he was around. She had hung back, mesmerised by his good looks but feeling far too gauche to approach to him.

Several of the more forward girls declared Robert “it” so he gamely turned his back and started counting steadily to one hundred. She and the others had squealed with excitement and scattered like hens across the lawn. Most had kept close to the house, or disappeared inside to find neglected rooms in which to hide, but she remembered Jemima had mentioned a secret glade, where statues glowed in the half-light. She thought it the perfect hiding place so ran away from the house, leaving behind echoed giggles and an abandoned croquet game, and plunged into the trees’ silent depths.

She followed the path, her shoes kicking through crisp, brown leaves, heading towards the river where Jemima had said the glade could be found. A small path intersected the main ride so she turned onto it, thinking it looked exactly like it should lead to a secret glade. After several minutes she realised she was hopelessly lost and had no idea in which direction either the river or the house lay.

The shadows had started to lengthen when she heard someone calling her name, “Sylvia!” She froze like a startled doe for a moment then quickened her pace, moving away from the sound. She thought she recognised the man’s voice, although it sounded different somehow, and it scared her.

“Sylvia, where are you?” the man called, a trace of panic in his voice. He sounded closer so she tried to speed up but her legs wouldn’t move quickly enough. “Sylvia! There you are!” the man cried out with relief. She turned to see an old man walking towards her, arms extended. She screamed and lashed out at him as he approached, his hands covered his head to protect it from the volley of blows she had rained down on him.

“Calm down, Sylvia, it’s me!” he entreated as she continued to pummel him. “Go away!” she yelled, “Leave me alone! Mama told me never to speak to strangers!” He grabbed Sylvia’s wrists and drew her to him, enfolding her in an inescapable embrace. She continued to struggle and let out a piercing scream in the hope that Jemima or one of the other guests would hear and come to her rescue.

Robert held Sylvia until her hysteria had subsided. The unseasonable warmth of the day had fled and the air had turned chilly so Robert removed his jacket and rested it across his wife’s shoulders. Her pale cream shoes were streaked with green smears and threads on the hem of her skirt had been pulled by brambles. This touched him deeply so he cupped Sylvia’s face in his hands and kissed her gently on the lips. They were cold and dry and she neither responded nor drew away from him. Her face was etched with lines caused by all the emotions she had ever experienced but was now as expressionless as a mask. This was the first time she had failed to recognise him and sadness overwhelmed him like a tidal wave. When had his beautiful, vibrant wife turned into a confused, scared, old woman? Sylvia had become quiet and biddable so he put an arm around her waist and, gently guiding her, they made their cautious, shuffling way home.