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.

Modern Love

white sofaTamai and Kaiko sit close together on the white sofa, almost but not quite touching, stealing shy glances when they believe the other isn’t looking. Kaiko reaches out and clasps Tamai’s hand in his and she blushes furiously, casting her gaze downwards. Their fingers are elegant and slim and, intertwined as they are, it is difficult to tell them apart. Tamai colours even more deeply as Kaiko disentangles their grasp then lifts Tamai’s hand to his mouth and places a gentle kiss in her palm. This is the blossoming of their first love.

Tamai and Kaiko could be mistaken for siblings with their androgynous features, large, dark eyes and slim build. Professor Ishida himself has commented on it as he watches their tentative steps through this fledgling stage of courtship. He views their progress via a battery of high-definition camera equipment, secreted around the laboratory, and his team of researchers record every aspect of the teenagers’ behaviour. The scientists measure the temperature of their subjects via state-of-the-art thermal imaging cameras.

Kaiko brushes hair from Tamai’s face and gently strokes her cheek, her skin as soft as velvet. They stare deeply into each other’s eyes, as if the answer to every question posed in the world can be found in them. Kaiko tilts his head slightly and leans in for their first kiss. Their lips barely touch but they are both transformed. As they open their eyes and stare at each other in wonder, Kaiko and Tamai realise that they have left childhood behind and are now embarking on the long road to adulthood. Tamai glances around the room and is amazed by how different everything looks. She then realises that it is not the room but her perception that has changed. Empowered, she kisses Kaiko more passionately and waves of desire threaten to overwhelm her.

Much later, Professor Ishida silently enters the laboratory so as not to disturb his subjects who have fallen asleep in each other’s arms. He switches them both off then locates the relevant port at the back of Tamai’s head, inserts the USB stick and uploads that day’s data before wiping all trace of Kaiko from her memory bank. Two of the stronger members of his team extricate Kaiko from Tamai’s embrace then carry him from the laboratory, leaving Tamai on her own in the large, white bed.

Tamai and Yukai sit close together on the white sofa, almost but not quite touching. Yukai reaches for Tamai’s hand but she withdraws it, knowing that this feels wrong. She yearns for the love of someone else who exists only as a ghost in her memory.

Home Visit

horses

Sharon Kent heaved herself out of her Fiat 500 and puffed her way up the driveway to the anonymous bungalow. She rang the doorbell and waited patiently until she heard a rhythmic thud and shuffling feet and saw an indistinct shape through the frosted glass. There was a rattle as the chain was attached and the door opened a crack. Sharon could only see a sliver of the person behind the door and got a glimpse of powder soft skin, a cream coloured silk blouse and a gimlet eye. “Miss Ida Jennings?” A brief nod encouraged her to continue, “I’m Sharon Kent from Social Services.” She flashed an ID badge with an unflattering photograph and the Council logo into the gap. “May I come in and speak to you about your home care review?” The door closed briefly, the chain was removed and the door opened fully to allow Sharon to get a good look at her new client. Miss Jennings was short and round with white hair styled in soft curls. “Come in,” she said as she turned and made her way slowly down the hallway, taking small steps and leaning heavily on her zimmer frame. Sharon closed the door behind her, inhaled the familiar smell of talcum and overcooked vegetables, then followed her client’s painfully slow progress to the living room.

“Take a seat and I’ll go and make some tea,” said Miss Jennings as she turned to start her glacial progress to the kitchen. “Please let me,” said Sharon. “No!” replied Miss Jennings sharply then checked herself, “No thank you, I’m perfectly capable.” Sharon heard her make her way next door and a click as the kettle was switched on. She wandered around the room, looking at the bookshelves, mostly autobiographies and travel books, and photographs on the mantel of a smiling girl who aged from childhood to middle age via motherhood in a few frames.

There were ornaments, too many, arranged in neat rows. Shiny, porcelain shire horses with fake brass accessories, a snow globe depicting the Empire State Building and emblazoned with I ♥ New York, nesting Babushka dolls, the last one smaller than your fingernail, and other mementoes from trips to far flung places. Sharon sighed. The furthest she’d ever been abroad was a day trip to Calais and what a disappointment that had been. The French port had been grey and depressing, shrouded in rain, and she had spent most of the time in a monumental supermarket, shopping for cheap red wine and incredibly smelly cheese.

The room was tidy and clean but the decor was circa 1978, despite looking fairly recently decorated. The one item which looked out of place was a black leather recliner which brooded in the corner like the Mastermind chair. Sharon thought she had a few more minutes before Miss Jennings returned so lowered herself carefully into the monolithic chair. It exhaled quietly as she settled herself and leant back, her ample frame expertly supported. She decided it was the most comfortable thing she’d ever sat in and she had to have one. She knew they weren’t cheap but it would be worth it to feel this weightless whenever she watched her soaps. Sharon heard clattering in the kitchen and reluctantly levered herself out of the chair to offer her assistance in carrying the tea tray.

Miss Jennings poured tea into china cups decorated with garish pink roses and then added far too much milk for Sharon’s taste. She offered a plate of rich tea biscuits to Sharon who was unable to hide her disappointment as she reluctantly took one of the bland, beige discs. Rich tea indeed. They weren’t even coated in chocolate so what was so rich about them?

“Miss Jennings. May I call you Ida?”

A short pause. “I’d rather you didn’t as I’d prefer to keep this at a professional level and first name terms implies … friendship.” Miss Jennings hesitated over that last word as if it left an unpleasant taste in her mouth.

Sharon flushed briefly at this slight and thought, not for the first time, how everyone expects the elderly to be saccharine sweet. Someone who is bad-tempered, grumpy or just plain nasty when they are younger doesn’t suddenly receive a personality transplant when they retire. In Sharon’s experience, the worst offenders had dispensed with social niceties altogether and revelled in calling a spade a spade before hitting you round the head with it.

Sharon counted to ten under her breath and started again, “Miss Jennings, I’m here to talk to you about your home care package.”

“Yes, you said that already. I’m not feeble-minded you know; it’s my body that’s failing, not my brain.”

Sharon bit her tongue, “You need some help and I’ve been appointed to discuss your options with you.”

“Options? As far as I can see I only have two options: stay here and endure an over-worked, under-paid care assistant invading my house twice a day or go into a home for the permanently bewildered where my will to live will be sapped by watching mind-numbing daytime television and being forced to sing along to Vera Lynn to remind us of the good old war years, even though I’d barely been born.”

Sharon laughed and said brightly, “Well, that would only be what you deserve, Miss Jennings.”

Miss Jennings froze briefly before placing her teacup carefully on its saucer, “Pardon?”

“If that’s your idea of hell, then that’s where you deserve to live until your dying day,” smiled Sharon.

Miss Jennings narrowed her eyes, “Who are you?”

“I’m your social worker, as I think we’ve already established.”

“No really, Sharon is it?”

“Ms Kent to you as you’ve made it clear you want to keep this relationship on a professional footing,” Sharon smoothed her skirt over her knees.

“Do I know you?”

“Do you remember a little girl called Sharon Buckby from forty years ago?”

“I’ve known so many Sharons, Susans and Sarahs over the years, you’ll have to enlighten me further.”

“Alright. It’s 1975 and you’re managing the Birchglen Children’s Home in Northampton. You like to think you’re firm but fair, but that’s far from the truth. You play children off against each other, always girls, spreading rumours and watching as friendships fall apart and the most vulnerable girl is left alone and friendless. Then you humiliate her for your own pleasure, the other girls playing along because they’re just relieved it’s not them. Ring any bells?” Sharon stared hard at Miss Jennings, her cheeks flushed and jaw clenched.

“I remember no such thing!”

“So you weren’t at Birchglen in the mid-seventies?”

“Yes, of course I was but none of that ever happened. Has a meddling psychotherapist been implanting memories of child abuse into your mind during your sessions? I wasn’t soft on my charges but do I really look like a monster?” replied Miss Jennings, holding out her arms in a gesture of submission.

Sharon looked Miss Jennings up and down and a tiny flicker of doubt caught light in her mind. She looked like central casting’s idea of a doting grandmother from any number of interchangeable television adverts. Sharon silenced the traitorous thoughts before they could grow and paralyse her. She knew that Miss Jennings had only ever been married to her job so would never be anyone’s grandmother, doting or otherwise. Those pictures of the smiling girl on her mantel were of her niece not of a daughter.

“Stop twisting my words! So you’re saying that you didn’t starve me and then, when you found me searching the slop bucket for edible leftovers, you didn’t fill a trough and make me eat from it on all fours, like a pig?”

Miss Jennings struggled to suppress a smirk and lost, “Oh, that was you, was it? One of my most imaginative punishments, even if I do say so myself.”

Sharon felt the relief as forty years of torment lifted from her shoulders, “Finally, you’ve admitted it. I endured nine years of your cruelty but I don’t want revenge, just an apology.”

“Well, you won’t get one from me. You were such a lumpy, potato-faced child it made me so cross to watch as you shuffled around so meekly. I chose girls I thought needed toughening up to prepare them for the harsh reality of life.”

“But I was a seven year old orphan,” Sharon said plaintively.

“You weren’t an orphan! Your mother abandoned you because she already had five children and couldn’t afford to feed you all. That woman was no better than she ought to be as you all had different fathers. She did keep your brothers and sisters though.” Miss Jennings finished slyly, watching Sharon closely for her reaction.

“Brothers and sisters? Where are they?” Sharon demanded.

“No idea and you’ll never find out as Birchglen burned down in 1988 and all the records were destroyed,” replied Miss Jennings nonchalantly.

“Why raise my hopes up then dash them to the ground?” Sharon cried, tears welling in her eyes.

Miss Jennings shook her head sadly, “You still haven’t learned that life is inherently unfair, have you? All my lessons were for nought. As you call yourself Ms Kent, I assume that you are divorced. I’m also willing to wager that you are childless. If you had grown a backbone at Birchglen, you might have avoided all these disappointments and made something of your life.”

Sharon grabbed a heavy brass lamp and smashed it into the side of Miss Jennings’ head. It was worth it just to see the look of shock in her accusing blue eyes. Miss Jennings made a strange gurgling, choking noise as blood spurted from the wound, staining her silk blouse a vibrant red. That’ll be a nightmare to get out, Sharon thought randomly and clapped a hand over her mouth to stifle a giggle. She pulled her chair closer and watched as the life drained out of Miss Jennings. It took several minutes.

Sharon cocked her head to one side and thought how funny Miss Jennings looked, covered in blood and with that big dent in her head. Her eyes widened when she realised that Miss Jennings’ critical voice had finally been silenced. Not just in reality but also the voice she’d carried in her head for all those years, the one that constantly undermined her by saying she was too fat, too ugly, too scared, too weak and too stupid to ever amount to anything. Sharon beamed all the way to the police station. She was finally free.

Snowed Under

snowed underIt’s 2pm on a Friday in February and the clouds have that bruised look that can only mean one thing. Snow. Everyone is getting jittery as they don’t want to be snowed in at work at the start of the weekend. You can almost hear what’s on everyone’s mind, “There’s no place like home, there’s no place like home” and the relief is palpable when we’re let out of work two hours early. There’s a polite stampede and no-one asks what their colleagues are up to this weekend. No need as it will be the same for everyone; keep warm, stockpile food and hope the electric doesn’t go off so that you can catch up with the latest must-see boxset. I’m on True Blood season three but Sue, who sits opposite me, has just started Breaking Bad and has been raving about it all week.

I dash out to my grubby white Peugeot 107, hugging my not-quite-thick-enough coat around me, shout a hurried, “Drive safe” to anyone within earshot and get in, just as the first thick snowflakes hit the windscreen. I’m running low on fuel but decide I have enough to get home and doubt I’ll need the car until Monday. I’m just about to start the engine when my mobile rings. “Hey Gran, what’s up?”

“Oh Kerry love, could you come round when you finish work? The pilot light’s gone out on my boiler and I’ve no hot water. I’ve tried to relight it but the button’s too stiff and I can’t be lifting pans with my arthritis.”

I suppress a sigh and the image of a brooding Erik Northman, which was going to sustain me until I got home, evaporates, “Sure Gran, I’ll be there as quick as I can.”

A few flakes quickly become a flurry then escalates to blizzard conditions within ten minutes. I have a choice and can either take the high road over the moors or go the long way round and add another three quarters of an hour to my journey. I decide to risk it and point my little car towards the lesser travelled road.

Things don’t start too badly but as the snow settles, the tyres begin to lose grip and I slow to a crawl to avoid sliding all over the road. I struggle to keep the car from running away with me as I descend the moors, lose control and end up in a ditch. Luckily I wasn’t going fast enough for the airbag to go off but I’m a bit shaken and the car is half on its side in a fairly deep gully. I check my mobile but there’s not even an emergency signal.

At least the engine’s still running so I turn down the heater to try and conserve what little fuel I have left. Snow soon settles on the windscreen and the inside of the car becomes darker as the light quickly fades outside. How long will it take Gran to call for help when I don’t show up? I’m always late so she’ll probably leave it a while but then they still have to find me.

The lights on the dashboard glow orange and the fuel gauge is well into the red so I must be running on fumes. My stomach starts to growl and I rummage in my handbag for my emergency Twix but it’s not there. I must have got peckish one morning and forgotten to replace it. I find some cough sweets at the bottom of my bag, pick off the fluff as best I can and pop one in my mouth.

The car starts to cough and splutter which goes on for a while then with a final hiccup, the engine dies. At first the silence is complete, then I hear the wind whistling from outside. Any residual heat quickly dissipates and I start to shiver, wishing I’d chosen a more practical winter coat. My fingers are warm enough, gloved and jammed under each armpit, but I can’t feel my toes. I’m wearing heels, not stupidly high but not exactly practical for walking through snow drifts.

My teeth won’t stop chattering and it’s getting on my nerves. Every exposed bit of skin is tingling from the cold and my feet are numb. I read somewhere that freezing to death is not an unpleasant way to go as your body slowly shuts down and you don’t feel a thing.

Much later, don’t know what time. Everything’s numb, no energy. Can’t keep eyes open. Just a little sleep ‘til help comes.

Willow_tree

Warrior

I grew up reading horror and my favourite author was Stephen King. Some of my favourite stories aren’t even horror in the traditional sense, such as The Body which was turned into the film Stand By Me, The Jaunt which is a terrifying science fiction story and Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption adapted into one of the most uplifting films of all time. After a break of a few years, I’ve been reading Stephen King again and this is my homage to him.

Warrior

Gathering together his weapons, Josh knows that today will be the final showdown. There can be only one victor and he wants to make darn sure it’s him.

Walking quickly with his head down, Josh tries to make himself inconspicuous. This is impossible due to his flame-red hair and overweight body, caused by what his mom insists are his “big bones” not the huge meals she serves him.

If he could just get to school without Clay Boone, King of Neanderthals, catching him, that’d be a perfect end to the week. Clay and his gang have been in detention as punishment for locking Mrs Emerson in the supplies cupboard. She would have been in there all night had Mr Krasinski not heard her cries for help as he did his rounds before locking up. Mrs Emerson fixes her grey hair in a bun and is due to retire at the end of the school year so that had been a really mean trick to play on her. This had been an unexpected piece of good fortune for him though as he only had to avoid them in the mornings, when they were less likely to torment him.

Casting a quick glance over his shoulder before crossing the street, Josh’s heart sinks as he spots the unmistakeable figure of Clay a hundred yards behind him. Clay’s buddies surround him like small fishing boats bobbing around a mighty oil tanker. Tall for his age and muscular from helping out on the family farm, he is also two years older than the other boys due to being held back to retake seventh grade twice.

Josh darts surprisingly quickly behind a large bush in Mr Grimaldi’s front yard. “You there, boy!” Josh panics and almost makes a run for it. “You, big boy. No throwing trash in my yard,” shouts Mr Grimaldi. “Stupid dago!” yells Clay, flipping him the bird and laughing. They walk off singing, “When the moon hits your eye like a big pizza pie, that’s amore!” Josh starts when he realises Mr Grimaldi is standing right next to him. “No run from that one, boy. Hide.” Mr Grimaldi turns and walks back to his house without another word.

Checking the coast is clear, Josh crosses the street and is within sight of the school building when he’s ambushed by Clay and his gang. “Hey there, copper top. Where d’ya think ya going?” Clay threatens in his deep drawl. He gives Josh a shove with his huge shovel-like hand and Josh stumbles but manages to stay upright, his substantial bulk in his favor for once. He is saved by the bell as it rings for class and Mr Shepard appears at the top of the steps to catch anyone foolish enough to be tardy. Clay draws himself up to his full height and looms over Josh, “If I see you later you’re dead, fatboy.”

Josh manages to avoid Clay for the rest of the day, carefully checking the rest room and sitting close to a large group of older kids at lunch, silently chewing his way through enough food to feed him and several of his classmates. He sits near the front in class and fights the urge to put his hand up for any of the questions, although he knows the answers to all of them. His favorite subject is history and they’re covering the Trojan Wars, where some Greek soldiers hid in a giant wooden horse which the Trojans brought into their city, being too stupid to realise it was a trap. An inkling of an idea starts to form in Josh’s mind.

It takes Josh a few days to formulate his plan and collect what he needs. The crucial item proves the most difficult to obtain, requiring nerves of steel and a very long stick.

Clay and his friends are hanging around their den, a clearing in a scrappy piece of woodland on the edge of town. They like it there because nobody bothers them, mainly because the swampy ground breeds mosquitoes the size of Buicks. Clay is relaxing in an old lawn chair he stole from Mr Grimaldi’s yard, while the rest of the gang are arguing about who is best, the Lone Ranger’s horse, Silver, or Champion the Wonder Horse. Billy Maddox is the only one still in favour of Silver whilst the others all agree that Champion is much smarter.

Fed up with being outnumbered, Billy goes off to take a whizz behind one of the weeping willow trees. “Hey fellas! Lookit what I found!” Billy cries. The others rush over to see whilst Clay continues to lounge in his chair. “Bring it here,” demands Clay, a lazy bully used to getting his own way. Billy appears carrying a medium-sized cardboard box, the top of which is taped up. “Open it,” Clay orders so Billy pulls out his penknife and cuts the seal. “Jesus!” he cries as he falls down on his ass in his haste to get away. A distinct noise can be heard emanating from the box. “It’s a goddamned rattlesnake!” cries Billy, his face white with shock. The others cautiously approach the box and quickly retreat when they’ve seen the angry reptile with their own eyes.

“Bunch of pussies,” Clay sneers. “Ain’t you never seen no rattlesnake afore?” Clay slowly gets up out of the chair, “I’m gonna kill it and wear the rattle round my neck.” The smaller boys retreat as he approaches the box. “Build a fire cos they make good eating.” Clay suddenly yelps in pain as a jagged stone hits him on the side of the head. He stands bolt upright, looking around, his temple bleeding, “What the…?” Another stone hits him on the forehead and blood pours into his eye. “Don’t just stand there, do something!” he roars as another stone hits him in the neck. The boys assess the situation and scatter in several different directions. Most go along the main path but Billy Maddox runs towards the creek and falls into a hidden trap six feet deep, lined with wooden planks and the floor writhing with snakes.

“Help me!” screams Billy as he scrabbles at the smooth sided hole, “For the love of God, someone please help me!” No-one apart from Clay remains and he has curled into a ball to protect his bleeding head from further pummelling.

“LEAVE THIS PLACE!” booms a deep, resounding voice. “YOU DO NOT BELONG HERE. IF YOU RETURN, YOU WILL NOT LIVE TO REGRET IT.” Clay gibbers as he rises to his feet and wipes the blood from his eyes. There is a look of sheer terror on his face as he backs away from the clearing before turning and running towards town.

A childish giggle breaks the silence and there’s a rustle of leaves as Josh heaves himself out of the dogwood tree and carefully climbs to the ground. He pockets his catapult and walks along the path to where Billy Maddox is still trying in vain to get out of the trap. Josh leans over the hole, “They’re only corn snakes, Billy, they can’t hurt you.” Billy carries on scrabbling at the boards. “If I let you out, will you take a message to Clay?” “Yes, yes, anything,” whimpers Billy. Josh drags a makeshift ladder over to the trap and calls down to Billy, “Tell him to leave me alone or it’ll be worse next time, much worse.” “A-a-anything you say,” stutters Billy, “just get me outta here!” Josh kicks the ladder into the hole and Billy scrambles up and out like a weasel down a greasy pipe. He runs along the path without a backward glance. “Don’t you forget now!” Josh calls after him.

Josh sits for a while enjoying the peace of the clearing and how the slender leaves of the willows cast dappled shade. “Dammit,” Josh curses as he smacks his hand against his arm. He lifts his hand and a smear of blood is all that remains of the mosquito unlucky enough to mess with Josh Trebbin, Warrior of Angel’s Creek.

Tragedy and Comedy

comedy-tragedyWhat do you do when you like your characters too much to kill them off? I started writing this story and had in mind that it would have a sad ending but once the characters had come to life on the page, I found I couldn’t do that to them. So I simply changed the ending.

To Sleep

I can’t move my arms and I’m so tired my eyeballs feel like they’ve been replaced by lumps of grit. Even blinking hurts. Perversely I’ve had the opportunity to sleep these last few hours but I couldn’t. I tried counting sheep and doing complex mathematical sums in my head but not one wink to be had. This is torture, pure and simple. Abi is working late but should be home any minute. We’re going out to celebrate our anniversary, four years, but all I can think of is cool sheets and an undisturbed seven hours. Bliss.

We met at a party. My mate Phil worked with the sister of Abi’s flatmate so we blagged an invite. It felt mapped out, like something important was destined to happen on that humid night in August. The party was jumping when we arrived, too many bodies trying to squeeze into the kitchen or dance in the poky lounge. A wall of heat hit us as we walked in and it felt like the best kind of gig; vibrant, sweaty and alive. The bass was thumping so hard you could feel it in your chest, like a heartbeat.

Phil and I grabbed a beer each then shoehorned our way into the lounge and boogied around in there for a while. It was very intimate, everyone rubbing up against each other, but a great way to start the evening. I was dancing with this foxy girl, all skimpy top and skintight jeans, when I got that hairs-rising-on-the-back-of-your-neck feeling that someone was looking at me. I glanced over my shoulder and, sure enough, there was a petite girl with short, dark hair staring at me, a wry smile etched on her lips. It put me off my stride and where moments before I was more than happy dancing with Miss Skimpy, now I’d lost my groove and it felt almost wrong to be dancing with her. I waggled my beer bottle at her, disentangled myself from the writhing mass and headed towards the kitchen. There wasn’t much more space in there but I managed to find my way to the sink where beers were bobbing in icy water. I grabbed the nearest one and held the chilled, perspiring bottle against my forehead. It felt cool and delicious.

Miss Skimpy hadn’t missed me and was now dancing with a beardy hipster type. Slightly irked that I had been replaced so quickly, I searched the room for Phil and noticed him leaning against the mantelpiece, attempting to conduct a conversation with a cute looking girl over the very loud music. Leaving him to it, I went through the French doors, down a couple of steps and into the garden. Despite the humidity, it felt fresher outside and there were groups of people enjoying the fact that you didn’t have to yell directly into someone’s ear to be heard. A familiar smell wafted towards me, sweet and pungent, which reminded me I had a joint in my pocket for just such an occasion. I had just taken my first toke when a voice behind me said, “You’re nicked, mate.” I spun around and found myself looking down at the petite girl with the elfin haircut. “Gotcha!” she grinned, punching my arm lightly. “Are you gonna share or do I have to go and make friends with those people over there?” indicating a group whose laughter drifted across to us.

“Be my guest,” I said, handing her the joint. She inhaled deeply, held her breath for what seemed like an eternity then slowly exhaled smoke which hung around her like a halo. “If it’s any consolation, you don’t have much in common.” “What?” “That girl you were dancing with. Puddles have more depth than she does so unless you want to talk about nail bars and Made in Chelsea, you’re better off out of it.” “Who says I wanted to have a conversation with her?” I deadpanned. That grin again, “Touché, mister.”

She handed the joint back to me, staring directly into my eyes as she did so. Her gaze was disconcertingly honest and I noticed that she had eyes the colour of moss and freckles on her nose. We chatted for a while and realised we had a lot in common; similar taste in films, books and holiday destinations and discovered we both worked in the music industry; Abi in A&R for a medium-sized label with solid indie credentials and me as a sound engineer. We also found we knew a lot of the same people and were surprised we hadn’t bumped into each other before.

I had finished my beer and my throat was dry from all the talking so I volunteered to brave the crush to get more refreshments. As I sidled through the tidal wave of bodies, a strange feeling hit me and I struggled for air. Then I realised, this is it, this is what love feels like, being punched in the gut. That particular image probably wouldn’t look quite so romantic on Valentine’s cards though.

Abandoning my quest I retraced my steps, needing desperately to get back to Abi. I hurried down the steps and across the parched lawn towards her. I stood in front of Abi breathless with emotion and looked down at her with fresh eyes, so completely different from who I was five minutes ago; a changed man. The air between us became charged as Abi felt it too. I closed my eyes and leaned down to kiss her when I heard sniggering. My eyes snapped open to see her giggling and covering her mouth to suppress the laughter. “I’m sorry but you just looked so serious, like a love-struck teenager going in for his first kiss.” I was just about to take offence when she stood up on tiptoe, flung her arms around my neck and gave me the sweetest, softest kiss of my life. “Wow!” she exclaimed when we resurfaced, “Does that mean we’re going steady now?”

There’s the door. My left arm’s got pins and needles so I shift slightly to ease the discomfort. “How are my two favourite people in the whole world?” Abi calls out at she rushes into the lounge. “I’m trapped but Freya seems fine,” I reply. Abi gently plucks the sleeping baby from me and kisses the downy fluff on top of her head. I stand up, flexing my arm to try to restore circulation, “I’ll hop in the shower while you two catch up on gossip.” “My sister’s coming round in half an hour so you’d better be quick. No wandering around in your underwear showing off your cute tush.” “Sure thing, hot stuff,” I reply embracing my wife and daughter. Sleep? Highly overrated if you ask me.

Be Careful What You Wish For…

lanterns

This is another story that popped into my head almost fully formed. I couldn’t think of a title at first but I think this suits it rather well.

Goliath

I am very good at waiting; I have had a lot of practice. A hundred years is but a week to me, a year a mere blink of an eye. I have been in existence for time beyond measure. Although I am trapped, I will wait. Someone will release me. They always do.

Tim and Cassie parked the car in the driveway, stretching their limbs as they got out, undoing the knots in their muscles as a result of the long journey. His grandfather’s house was much as Tim remembered it; large, built of sandstone and strangely neutral. He visited regularly as a child, once being left for three weeks in the summer when his mother and father decided to tour Europe. However, despite knowing the house well, Tim couldn’t say that he’d ever warmed to it. He didn’t dislike it but conversely he never felt completely comfortable there either. The design of the house added to its air of inscrutability; large, stone lintels over recessed windows giving the impression of hooded eyes.

The house was an ideal playground for a child, with long corridors and unused rooms, perfect for hide and seek if he’d have had anyone to play with. He spent many hours arranging imaginary jousting tournaments along the upstairs corridor which ran the whole width of the house. There were many bedrooms which had not been slept in for years, with dust covers over the furniture and the unaired bed linen giving off a musty odour. When an excited eight year old Tim had discovered a large wardrobe in the Blue Room, all he had received was a bump on his head when he’d tried to walk through the back of it into Narnia.

Tim grabbed the suitcases from the car and took them into the large hallway. Tim’s grandfather hadn’t lived in the house for two years, not since he’d moved into the nursing home. It had been cleaned once a month but felt hollow and airless as houses do when no-one has lived and breathed in them for some time. Tim went round the ground floor peeling back the shutters and flinging open windows to let the April sunshine and spring breeze freshen the rooms.

Cassie brought the Waitrose bags full of provisions through to the kitchen and found Tim standing at the sink, staring out at the manicured lawn. Everything had been business as usual while Tim’s grandfather had been away, as if he’d expected to make a full recovery and return to live there. The problem was that you don’t get better from Alzheimers.

“Are you alright, love?” Cassie asked, laying a hand on Tim’s back and giving it a consolatory rub.

“Yeah, fine. We’d better get the suitcases upstairs and start thinking about dinner. We need an early night as we’ve got a lot to do tomorrow.”

Tim strode out of the kitchen towards the hallway, leaving Cassie staring after him with concern etched on her face.

They woke early and after a breakfast of toast and cereal, made a start on sorting out Tim’s grandfather’s effects. They started in his bedroom, a room so full of dark, heavy wooden furniture that it made the large room appear small and cluttered. Cassie cleared the wardrobe while Tim sorted through the chest of drawers.

Apart from Cassie occasionally asking whether an item of clothing should go on the charity pile or in a bin bag, they worked in companionable silence with Classic FM playing quietly on their portable digital radio. Normally, they’d listen to 6 Music, or Absolute Radio if they wanted some retro tunes, but today the strains of Mahler and Tchaikovsky were more suited to their sombre task.

They’d both taken a week off work after the funeral to sort out the house and it looked like they were going to need every minute of it. Tim’s grandfather had travelled extensively in his life and had brought back souvenirs from his time spent living in Kenya and South America. These included a Masai warrior’s shield to a carving of an Aztec fertility goddess.

Tim had contacted an auction house to come and collect the most prized pieces to sell later as neither of them knew the value of the collection.

Once they’d cleared all the clothes, kitchen equipment and a lifetime’s worth of belongings, Tim and Cassie started going around the house with two packs of coloured post-it notes, deciding what should go to auction and what could be collected by the house clearance firm. Both were booked for Friday, leaving only a few days for them to finish going through the rambling house.

Thursday dawned bright and clear and having worked so diligently, Tim and Cassie had completed every room and only had the attic left. Tim had climbed the extendable stairs into the loft space the previous afternoon to have a brief recce and reported back to Cassie that there was a lot to sort through and they might not get it finished by the end of the following day.

They ascended the stairs and started working their way from each end of the attic, looking through tea chests and packing crates, the idea being to meet in the middle when they were finished. As Tim was rummaging through one of the boxes he discovered a small Moroccan lantern, the bronze tarnished and mottled. Tim picked it up and started to clean a small patch with the sleeve of his jumper. A blinding flash of light and billowing smoke were followed by a large explosion which propelled him across the attic floorboards. Emanating from the air above the lamp was a light so bright it illuminated even the darkest corners of the attic.

“What the…?” Tim and Cassie chorused in unison.

The smoke cleared and the light dimmed enough for them to see a large shape had emerged from the flames, although there was no heat and nothing had caught fire. The figure was huge and filled the loft to the eaves.

“You have freed me from my prison and to repay that debt I will grant you a single wish,” the figure declared in a voice that was deep and booming.

“You’ve got to be kidding me. You’re a real life genie?” Tim asked after a long pause.

“I am Goliath, the most powerful of the Jinn. I know not of this Jeannie.”

“How long have you been in that lantern?” Cassie asked.

“Five and ninety years. I have been held captive for much longer so it went by quite quickly.”

“How did you fit in that lantern when you’re so big?” Tim asked, as he edged his way slowly around the Jinn towards Cassie.

“A magic spell cast by my enslaver shrank me so that I could fit in the lamp.”

“Enslaver? Who was that?”

“Your father’s father,” replied Goliath.

A stunned silence followed as Tim tried to absorb this information.

“My grandfather trapped you in this lantern?” Tim spluttered.

“After I had granted him his wish, yes. I thought it was not a grateful gesture.”

“A wish! What wish?”

“Eternal life.”

“But my grandfather just died so that’s a load of tosh.”

“I am a powerful being but no-one can live forever so a long life was compromised upon.”

“Wait a minute. You said you’d been kept prisoner for ninety five years so how old was my grandfather when you granted him the wish?”

“Five and thirty years old.”

“So he was a hundred and thirty when he died?”

“Yes. That is a long life for a human, I think.”

“That’s quite old but I’m sure he probably expected to live longer than that. Five hundred years would have been more what he had in mind. Anyway, for the last two years he didn’t even recognise his own family.”

“His wish was granted and he lived a long life.”

“So you’re saying that I have to be careful what I wish for?”

“Don’t you mean we?” Cassie interjected.

“I believe that is so,” answered the Jinn, ignoring Cassie.

“I suppose most people ask for endless riches or eternal life, don’t they?”

“Human beings are quite predictable, yes.”

“Okay,” Tim said slowly. “I’d like us to be happy, me and Cassie.”

“Happy? Not endless riches or a really long life?” squeaked Cassie.

“Yes. I’ve got my inheritance so I don’t need loads of money and my grandfather lived the last fifty years of his life alone in this huge house, surrounded by artefacts and I know that he was lonely and unhappy. I don’t want to end up like that so I’d prefer a short, happy life rather than a long, miserable one.”

“Very well, your wish is my command,” Goliath intoned and started to fade away.

“Hang on a minute, how will I know that it’s worked?”

“On your death bed,” the Jinn replied and promptly disappeared.