Needs and Wants

ice cubes

Nicola sits at her kitchen table, with a bottle of cheap vodka and an ice cube tray fresh from the freezer. Needing to feel something, she touches the hard plastic of the tray and her soft skin adheres, ever so slightly, to the ice. She feels the coldness start to burn and holds on until discomfort becomes pain. Only then does she slowly withdraw her hand and watches in fascination as the skin peels away, the ice a jealous lover who refuses to give up its hold on her. She prods the newly released fingers with her other hand and they don’t feel like they belong to her. Now those fingers are numb, just like the rest of her.

It is 9.57 in the morning and she is waiting for the digital clock to reach 10 o’clock. Nicola has only a faint idea what a yardarm is but has recently decided that this is the new time for the sun to be over it. Occasionally she can resist taking her first drink until later but not today. 9.58. Nicola is struck by a twinge of guilt as it is a Wednesday morning and she should be at work. Nicola has a migraine, or so she told her boss at the call centre, and they’re becoming more frequent. When sober, she worries that he will comment on these increased absences and what she would do if she was confronted and lost her job. 9.59. Nicola drums her fingers impatiently on the rustic oak table, then runs her fingernail along the grain whilst fighting against the voice inside her head which yells, “POUR THE DAMN DRINK NOW!” 10.00. Nicola deftly unscrews the lid off the bottle and pours a generous measure of the clear liquid into a glass. She adds three slippery ice cubes and sips steadily, fighting the urge to gulp. By her second drink, the voice has calmed and her worries have started to fade.

Ignoring the ice cubes which are forming little puddles of meltwater in their compartments, Nicola takes the half-empty bottle to the sanctuary of her sofa and flops down. She doesn’t have to go out today as she has six bottles of vodka, with names like Cossack, Romanov and Gulag, from a variety of supermarkets. She lies with her head propped on cushions at a suitable angle for sipping. There are many worse things to be addicted to, she thinks, gambling for one, or heroin. At least her vice doesn’t harm anyone but her.

Nicola drove along the road shouting at the Today programme. Evan Davies was interviewing Michael Gove who was spouting his usual nonsense about education. There had been a lot of traffic that morning as it was raining heavily so cars had been crawling down roads she’d usually zip along. She steered the car sharply into a residential side street and congratulated herself on knowing a few sneaky shortcuts. An electronic beep interrupted her tirade about Gove being Cameron’s ventriloquist’s dummy and Nicola rummaged in her capacious handbag whilst trying to keep one eye on the road. She tapped the screen of her new Samsung Galaxy a few times and her eyes flicked between the text message and the road ahead. Bugger. Ali had cancelled on her again. How was she going to get fit if her gym buddy kept bailing? In frustration, she threw her phone back in the bag but missed and it slipped down the side of the passenger seat. Worried that it might have been damaged she felt around in the small gap, ignoring the fussy little voice in her head. She grasped the phone triumphantly and was just checking it was OK when she caught a movement out of the corner of her eye. A lad of about 8 wearing tell-tale white iPod headphones darted out between the parked cars without looking and Nicola didn’t have time to swerve, let alone stop in time. She hit him squarely and watched as he was propelled up the bonnet where his head hit the windscreen in front of her with a sickening thud, before he slid to the ground in a tangle of limbs. Nicola stalled the car and stared open-mouthed at the tracery of cracks in the glass with a smear of dark blood and matted hair at its centre.

The boy has lain in a coma for the last fourteen months, his parents and sister unable to move on with their lives. Convicted of dangerous driving, Nicola spent ten months in jail and lost her licence for a year which is irrelevant as she’ll never sit behind the wheel of a car again. She couldn’t continue working as a teacher, as no-one would employ her with a criminal record and anyway she couldn’t bear seeing all those kids day in, day out. In a bid to wipe the slate clean and start afresh, she moved to a different part of the country, away from all those who crossed the road to avoid her and huddled in whispered enclaves. She will never escape the events of that day and will carry the regret with her forever. With a blank expression, she draws a little smiley face in the condensation of her empty glass before wiping it away and pouring another drink.

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Submarine Dream

underwater

I wake not sure where or who I am then feel a sense of relief wash over me when I realise that the dream wasn’t real.

I dreamed that I had four limbs and moved around on two of them, feeling that I was going to topple over at any moment. My head consisted of two eyes, several holes and with peculiar flaps on either side. Strange gurgling sounds emanated from the largest hole which must be how I communicated. Most bizarrely, I was partially covered in some sort of fur whilst the rest of me was smooth and pink. Two of my limbs ended in long protuberances which I used to grasp, lift and carry. They waved around when I made noises which I assumed aided communication.

Most worryingly, there was a large expanse of blue above me which went on forever and was like nothing I’d ever seen before. In the dream I picked up a round object and threw it for a furry four limbed creature that made a very loud sound at sudden intervals but who ran after the sphere and brought it back to me. Only then did I realise that nothing floated, the round object hit the ground and bounced before it was caught by the fluffy thing.

I shake my head in wonder and promise myself I will never, ever eat sea urchin again before sleep as it always gives me weird dreams. Deciding that it’s time for breakfast, I unfurl my tentacles, all eight of them, and go off in search of a lobster pot to raid.

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.

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.

The War to End All Wars

copyright Concept Art

To mark 100 years since the start of World War 1, the Isle of Wight Library Service held a short story competition recently. This is the flash fiction story I submitted and hoped that no-one else would choose the same unusual subject matter. Flash fiction stories are very short and this is exactly 250 words long.

No Man’s Land

It is early morning, not long after the sun has risen. The air is crisp, the sky is cerulean blue and I’m flying over the trenches with a very important cargo.

Troops are sleeping fitfully below me and all is quiet. I’ve made journeys like this many times before and the trick is not to get complacent. Stay alert and keep your eyes peeled.

Out of the corner of my eye I see him; an enemy fighter closing in. I take evasive action by veering to the right but he’s on my tail. Although he’s faster than me, if I swerve and jink enough I can out-manoeuvre him. Even as I dodge and weave, I realise he’s gaining on me. If I fail, the mission is lost and so is my life.

Changing tactics I fly over No Man’s Land, that godforsaken sea of mud, razor wire and blasted trees, hoping to disorient him. Diving low, I’m so close to the ground that I can see puddles rimed with ice and disembodied limbs strewn about the minefield.

I still haven’t managed to shake him off so I swoop back over the trenches but this time snipers start firing on the enemy. They miss their target but I’ve almost reached headquarters so flap my wings with all my might. I reach the sanctuary of the pigeon loft just as the peregrine falcon makes his final strike. He wheels away, screaming in frustration, grasping nothing but my tail feathers in his talons.

Better the Devil You Know

Image

What’s in a name? I had fun with this one finding alternative names for you know who, some are familiar but most are not.

Is It Done?

My name is Pazal and I’m a devil. Not in a Jack-the-lad, wrong side of the tracks, euphemistic kind of way but a real life demon; one of Hell’s foot soldiers. If Old Nick is the Godfather, then I’m one of the Goodfellas.

Being a lowly fiend, my workload is quite run-of-the-mill and involves collecting souls from those humans who have signed a pact with Mephistopheles. This isn’t as easy as it sounds as the rich and famous are used to getting their own way and think they can wriggle out of the deal in their dying moments. My job is to make sure they don’t escape and to drag them to Hell, literally kicking and screaming if that’s what it takes.

The excuses have to be heard to be believed, but the lamest, most used one is mistaken identity. “You’ve got the wrong man”, they cry. “I’d never sign my soul away for fame and fortune”, wail untalented pop stars whose vocals sound like mating foxes. “I’d never risk an opportunity to get to heaven”, this from people who choose underage groupies for their sexual gratification. Then the tears start and that’s my favourite bit; unnaturally perfect faces become blotchy and smeared with snot. Why they think emotional blackmail will work on a demon, I’ll never know.

I was called into Beelzebub’s office the other day, hoping for promotion but fearing admonition as he can be a tad mercurial. I’ve been escorting bartered souls for hundreds of years and have a hankering to be elevated to incubus. On the other hand, I don’t want to be torturing souls for all eternity. Don’t get me wrong, there’s plenty of opportunity for invention but I’d miss being topside. Humans have such capacity for love but spend so much time discovering ways to make each other miserable. Their lives are over in the blink of an eye so you’d have thought they’d forget about being petty and enjoy themselves. It’s all so entertaining.

“Ah, Pazal. Come on in.” I approached the ebony desk and stood before the Lord of the Flies. “You’ve been doing sterling work capturing souls but I thought it was high time you had a chance to flex your muscles and show me what you’re really made of.” I unfurled my wings slightly and stood up straighter. Promotion here I come.

Well, that really wasn’t what I was expecting. Not at all. The Prince of Darkness has asked me to accompany him on a mission, to be his wingman you could say. He has thousands of followers, most of whom he has little time for, disdainfully calling them goat killers. The way they take themselves so seriously, performing Black Masses and invoking his name, really makes him chuckle. However, one group has piqued his interest and that’s where I come in. Lucifer has always had an eye for the ladies and in a change from the usual arrangement, someone has offered his wife in exchange for fame and fortune. Cowardly and caddish is something we like down here so a deal was struck.

Now, the wife is an innocent and unaware of this pact. She’s also very beautiful which no doubt sweetened the deal for the Fallen Angel, bearing in mind it’s not her soul he’s after, if you catch my drift.

The chosen night arrives and we sit quietly in the Son of Perdition’s office while the ceremony is performed, waiting for the moment when we’ll go above ground. Belial is a handsome man but he likes to conform to human expectations, so is sporting his Satan™ look; think Tim Curry in Legend, except his horns are bigger.

The Satanists have just sacrificed a goat so the floor is crimson and sticky with blood everywhere. That’s our cue. The Lord of the Flies materialises in front of his congregation, towering above them, glowing red with a backdrop of fire and dry ice. He is a magnificent showman and most people look terrified, a few of them faint and one even soils himself. An excellent result and I’d expect nothing less.

All eyes are on Abaddon so no-one notices as I move towards the unconscious woman. She is classically beautiful with a pink flush to her cheeks and perfect bone structure. My lord and master has chosen well for the mother of his child. As I gaze upon her perfect countenance, her eyelids flicker and open and I am looking into the most mesmerising blue eyes I’ve ever seen. “Who the hell are you?” she demands, struggling to sit upright and breaking my reverie. This wasn’t supposed to happen and I’m a little dumbstruck. I cast a glance over my shoulder and am relieved that no-one has noticed us yet.

“I’m Pazal and you are guest of honour tonight. You must sleep, don’t you feel tired?” I say, wondering why the drug her neighbours administered hasn’t worked. “Minnie gave me a drink but I don’t remember anything else until I woke up just now. What’s going on over there?” I block her view as she tries to look past me but she gives me a shove and her eyes widen in her porcelain face as she beholds El Diablo. “Is this some sort of fancy dress party? Your outfit is very good.” She reaches out to pull what she thinks is a mask and tweaks my nose instead. “First class prosthetics. I have a friend who does make-up on films and she’d be very impressed.” She hops off the bed and moves around me, nodding appreciatively at my wings and running her fingers along my tail.

“So, what’s the occasion? Why is everyone dressed up?” I notice that the rumbling sound you didn’t so much hear as feel deep in your chest has stopped and, without turning, know that everyone is looking at us.

“WHY IS SHE AWAKE?” the Father of Lies demands in his booming voice.

“Oh, is that an animatronic? It’s very convincing. Who’s doing the voice? Are they behind a curtain like the Great and Powerful Oz?” She approaches the King of Tyrus and tugs at his hoof. “Wow, someone has spent a pretty penny on this lot! Is it a really cool graduation party?”

“Rosie, don’t you understand, this is all for you,” Minnie says as she tries to pull her away from behind Samael’s robe. “But it’s not my birthday,” exclaims Rosie as a tiny frown creases her alabaster brow.

“No, you’ve been selected to be the mother of a very special child,” Minnie explains in soft tones.

“Oh, but I’m not ready to have kids yet. I’ve only been married a short while.”

“Guy has made a pact with the Devil and in return for him becoming a famous movie star, you will become the mother to the Antichrist.”

“I don’t think so,” splutters Rosie.

“But you don’t have a choice, Rosemary, the pact has been signed in blood and is now binding,” Minnie’s tone is becoming harsher.

“I should have listened to my mother, she said never trust an actor. Handsome he may be but he’s as vain as the day is long. How dare he do this to me!” Rosie turns to address the Evil One, “Now you listen to me.”

“YOU CAN’T …”

“No interruptions, Mister. This pact isn’t between you and me, it’s between you and the scumbag I married and as you haven’t made him famous yet, as far as I see it you can’t hold me to anything.”

“BUT …”

“As I have no intention of going through with this then you’ll need to discuss it with my worthless, low-life weasel of a husband.”

“WAIT …”

Rosie turns on her heel, strides across the room and out of the Castavet’s apartment.

“Is it done?” asks one of the Satanists who fainted and has just come round. His question is greeted with a resounding silence and some very bemused looks.