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What started out as the April challenge, eventually became the May-June challenge. Four very interesting tales were sent in to be reviewed.

Entrants had the following prompts to choose from: A Campfire, The rain wouldn’t stop, and finish this sentence: “I didn’t plan to be a superhero, but all of that changed when I got bitten by a __________. (And then write a story that follows it.)

Martin G. Parker

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Our member and writer Martin Parker, very kindly agreed to be the reviewer and sent in his detailed critiques of the pieces entered. Thank you Martin!

Profile: Martin was born in 1956 in Uttoxeter in the English Midlands. He has worked in factories, retail, the funeral business, driven taxis and played trombone in a British Army regimental band, but since 2000 he has worked as an Associate Professor of English Language and Linguistics at the University of Bahrain, specialising in the history of the English language and meaning in English. He has published two novels, They Also Raise Chickens, and The Conscientious Historian, and a collection of writings, Improbable Tales From Unlikely Places, all available in paperback and on Kindle from Amazon. Martin is also a musician; he sings, plays the guitar, mandolin and harmonica with the Bahrain-based Celtic-music band, The O’Dwyers. In addition. Martin runs the monthly meetings of the Bahrain Acoustic Music Group who hold their regular sessions at JJ’s. Martin lives in Bahrain with his wife and 12-year-old son.

Chickens Cover            Historian Cover copy   51YVPBsOo+L._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_

And so without further ado… here are our entries

The Rain Wouldn’t Stop

By Preeti Rana

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I didn’t plan to be a superhero

By Rifat Najam

…But all of that changed when I got bitten by a pair of toddlers. My twin toddler nephews are a great booster for me. Whenever I feel dull, I rush to visit them to boost my energy. With them I get to act all insane, thus forgetting all the temporary stresses of the day. When the super aunt and nephews go crazy with their super powers, the mother’s heart starts to beat so fast that it seems it might jump out at any moment, yet she pretends to act all normal as if she is carefree. Kids are a blessing, in their innocence they bring us back on track when our steps wander away.

I recently saw a documentary, Teen Press, by T. C. Johnstone. Although the maker tried to portray his vision of ‘you can be anything you want’, from my perspective it gave out different messages to different minds. “Everyone has a story to tell” and “they are just people”, were comments made by two teenagers that really affected me as these are two of the few things that I had recently been struggling with.

Kids are innocent beings who know no limits to the etiquettes that Life teaches. Their innocent souls value gold and sand as one. Love and laughter are the language they speak and share. Many times they clear our blurred vision when we go astray. I love taking advice from my niece when that blurred vision strikes me. The other day I was irritated for some reason when she made a comment, “happy times, happy memories, when you come then we talk happily”, which completely took my irritation away.

Recently I asked myself a question: why is it rare to see assistance being offered before it is asked for. You don’t have to possess super powers to understand when help is needed. People nowadays seem to have covered their eyes with blinkers in order to run in one particular direction. Our lives are divided into professional and personal halves; professionally, a lot of potential is waiting to be discovered and given assistance before this neglected talent fades away. And personally every being has a responsibility towards its surrounding.

Nature has taught us how we are all interconnected. Rivers flow so life can flourish and if that came to an end life will become extinct. Similarly, if the winds stopped blowing globalization would come to an end. When nature has taught us to share, then why do humans act selfishly and hold back what tomorrow doesn’t promise to be theirs.

In simple words, step up and be the change that explores the one in need and help before it gets too late!

Superhero

By Michael Rollins

I didn’t plan to be a superhero, but all of that changed when I got bitten by a bug called fatherhood: Quite a statement, I know, but I also know that I’m no different than most other fathers out there. The thing is, it’s not about us; it’s about our children: They make us superheroes.

*

My daughter, Maya, was just five when my best friend, Michael, died. She called him Mikey; no-one else did, and he liked that. Michael was her favourite visitor; she attached herself to him from being a few months old and that was that.

Michael was a friend I’d known at school and later, by chance, a work colleague, when the firm I worked for merged with his. We developed a friendship based at first on mutual respect for each other’s work and then because we just…‘clicked’: The same sense of humour and a love of reading fiction being two of the main reasons. I remember the drunken discussions we had over James Ellroy and Cormac McCarthy, which trailed like ribbons unspooling deep into the night. Eventually, Michael became my boss or, as my daughter referred to him, my ‘work teacher’.

And we worked well together. And we had some great times. And Michael knew he was dying long before my little girl was born.

*

Michael never really disclosed anything about his condition; he was not secretive but quite vague, and all anyone really knew was that there would be no recovery. Like many people in this position, he helped his family and friends through it all. For a few years there was little noticeable change in his physical appearance. Yes, he had to rest more frequently and was steadily losing a small amount of weight, but there was no sudden change. Until, in his final year, over a few weeks in the autumn, he melted away like the reds and golds of the October leaves.

*

Explaining to a five year old what death means can be like trying to separate the milk from a cup of coffee. We were prepared to talk about what people think might happen after somebody dies and had tried to ready ourselves for the questions that a five year old would probably ask. When Maya had listened to what we had to say, she looked at us for a full minute, her eyes as sad as those of Christ in a painting of the Sacred Heart.

‘Why wasn’t it me?’

We had no answer that was worthy of the question. My pathetic words ‘It was his time’ folded and crumpled in my mouth, into the dust they deserved to be.

*

In the weeks following the funeral, Maya became another girl. She was uncommunicative and guarded, where she had been confident and friendly; uninterested and a little cold, where she had really loved life and the living of it. Our baby stopped smiling, but she hadn’t cried, and that, more than anything, broke our hearts.

There were a couple of incidents at school. Nothing major, although we were called in one time after she had told two of her friends that they or one of their parents could just

disappear one day without even telling them, and never come back. The girls had both burst into tears at this and the teacher told us that Maya just shook her head at them, walking away like a parent who was out of patience.

We knew after this episode that trying to ignore the profound change in our daughter, hoping this was temporary, was not an option. To get our little girl back we had to encourage her grief.

But how?

My wife and I had always shared the opinion that everyone grieves in their own way; that there are too many judges in this world. We all deal with loss differently, as individuals, and it is fundamentally wrong to expect everybody to behave in the same way. However, we had on our hands a confused, frustrated and unhappy young girl that we loved more than anything in this world. We had to think of a way to help her out of the shadow that had been cast over her since Michael died.

*

In the end, the answer was simple, as these things often are.

Just after Maya turned four, she went through a phase. Every parent knows about ‘phases’; this word covers all those difficult periods in a child’s life that parents go through. Those times when Mum and Dad are pulling out their hair for a solution to a new pattern in their son or daughter’s behaviour that is inconvenient.

For instance, there is ‘Question Time’. For everywhere you go and everything you do, there are is an unlimited, unstoppable flood of questions; unanswerable questions that drown you in a wave of words. ‘Why is he a policeman?’, ‘What is a bird for?’, ‘Who thought of butter?’

Maya’s phase involved getting out of bed within minutes of our leaving the room. There had always been the conversation about her day, the two stories, the ’cuggle’ and the kiss goodnight: a ritual to rival any sacred rite.

I remember the first time she ventured downstairs. She must have followed her Mum out of the door within seconds and walked into the kitchen where I was pouring our ritual glass of wine; a quiet celebration that all was done for the day and that everything in Paradise was just as it should be. Except this evening, it wasn’t.

‘Maya, what are you doing?’ I asked as she opened the fridge door peering inside like she had a particular sandwich in mind.

‘I’m minding my own business.’

It was clear that Paradise had a problem…

*

At last, as we were approaching the outer realms of our sanity, my wife came up with an inspired idea. Music. Maya had always responded well to music, almost all of her favourite children’s programmes were musically based and when she was only a few months old her Mum’s singing would soothe her like nothing else. So we created a file for an i pod and each evening, after the kiss goodnight, Maya would snuggle down and drift off on a cloud of melody. Perfect.

*

Just like everyone I ever knew, Michael had a ‘guilty pleasure’:1980s love songs. He could not get enough of them, he…well, he loved them. And there was one in particular that he seemed to adopt as a kind of theme song; He was always humming or singing the damn thing. Leo Sayer: I Love You More Than I Can Say. I used to call him morbid, because of the line, Why must my life be filled with sorrow, but he would just laugh, said if I listened to it all I’d see it was uplifting. We agreed to disagree.

He sang the song wherever he was, to whoever happened to be listening. To Maya.

And that was it; that was the simple answer.

*

When I entered the half-light of the bedroom, I was sure that she had fallen asleep, but as I moved closer, I could see her blue eyes were open and glistening with tears.

‘That last song made me cry Daddy,’ she whispered, as I sat down next to her. She took my hand and I leaned forward to brush the hair from her forehead, smoothing my palm over her hair until I held her head cupped gently in my palm.

‘Why, Maya?’

‘I don’t want to talk about it. Will you hold me while I go to sleep?’

I stayed there and held her all night. And I felt like a superhero.

 

 

Thea Hartley

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A big “Thank You” to our reviewer Thea Hartley who has ploughed through six entries!

Thea lives in Bridgend, South Wales. She has been writing since a child, from the time she could hold a pen. However, apart from a few stories published in magazines over the years, and academic papers, she only became a serious, full time writer, when in the last few years she had to give up her career as a Psychology Lecturer due to a degenerative eye disease.

Her interest in Criminal Psychology arises from her profession, and she has used her knowledge, to help create the heroine, in her series of psychological crime mystery thrillers.

The ‘Resa James criminal psychologist’ series of books comprises, ‘Kith And Kill’, ‘Sticks And Bones’, ‘Kill And Cure’, ‘Tooth And Claw’, and ‘Gone And Forgotten’.

Thea has also written several other books, including a three book biography about her Grandfather, her Father and their business – Vol 1 ‘The French Letter King’; Vol 2 ‘Secrets of the French Letter King’. Vol 3 ‘Fall of The French Letter King’ will be published in 2017.

Her latest fiction book ‘Wear Bright Colours For Me’ is a story about reincarnation, Karmic destiny and ‘Soul Mates’.

2017 has also seen the publication of ‘Fractured Lives – Living With Psychosis’ a book about Bipolar Disorder as observed by Thea in over 30 years of working as a psychologist and psychology lecturer.

You can check out all Thea’s books published through Ex-L-Ence here:

January- February Challenge

The challenge was to use the lyrics of a song to write a story. Here are some, the others will be posted as soon as I get responses from the entrants who may choose to work on their stories based on the feedback they’ve received from Thea.

It Had to Be You – by Mike Rollins

It had to be you

It had to be you

I wandered around

And finally found

The somebody who

Could make me be true…

Two men stand together in the shadows of a moonlit street. It is a silent night, broken only by the hushed conversation of this rather ragged pair.

‘No. Please don’t ask me. I can’t…I won’t do it.

‘Why the hell not? Just think about it. We both have everything to gain and nothing to lose.’

‘Lose? They’ll kill you.’

‘I’m depending on it.’

‘Jesus, you’re insane.’

‘Look. It’s what I want. And it had to be you.’

‘Why me?’

‘Aw, come on, you know I can’t trust any of the others. They’re stupid: dumb sheep. You’re the one. It’s always been you. I didn’t cook this up overnight, and you know it.’

‘What about Big Pete?’

‘Oh, yeah, sure, my right hand man. As steady as a rock, and just as thick.’

‘If I turn you in, I’m a dead man.’

‘No. They’ll be too worried about saving their own necks to bother with you. Anyway, you’ve seen the reward, it’s up to thirty now: Change your name and disappear.’

‘They’re offering thirty now? What a joke. If they only knew.’

‘That’s the point. You and I are the only ones that do know. You saw through me right from the start, through every trick I pulled, and you never said a word. I trust you with my life…and my death. Turn me in. Tonight.’

‘Well…if I can’t talk you out of it, I might as well go along. It’s a lot of money.’

‘Great, that’s great. You won’t regret it.’

Silence.

And then:

‘I don’t want to see you die.’

‘Hey, don’t worry about it. Listen, it’s all set up; I’m going live for ever.’

‘And so will I. You and me. The martyr and the monster.’

Their eyes meet, and in that moment there is a kiss.

‘Where will you be, tonight?’

‘In the garden.’

‘And the others?’

‘I’ll take care of them. Now go. And Judas? Thank you, my friend.’

They leave the street in opposite directions.

It had to be you

It had to be you

I wandered around

And finally found

The somebody who

Could make me be true…

Where Do You Go? – by Rohini Sunderam

“…where do you go to my lovely

When you’re alone in your bed

Tell me the thoughts that surround you

I want to look inside your head”

8th January 2017. A small news item caught her eye. “Peter Sarstedt the singer whose intriguing song, ‘Where do you go to my lovely’, had been a number one hit back in 1969 died aged 75.”

The song had haunted her for years. Who had told Peter Sarstedt about her? She didn’t know Peter, she had never known Peter, but the details, ‘the devil is in the details’ that’s what had scratched away at her heart and soul all those years ago.

How could she ever forget the effect those words had on her when she first heard them. She was, in fact, on a dance floor. Perhaps she did dance like Zizi Jeanmaire after all she had styled even her ballroom dance movements on the famous ballet dancer. The plaintive gritty voice of the singer sliced across the floor catching her in the stomach like a chainsaw.

She almost doubled over in shock and pain. “Take me home, please.” She’d said to her companion of the evening. “I’m suddenly not feeling well.”

“You’ve gone white!” he exclaimed, “Shall I take you to the hospital? Was it something you ate?”

“Non!” she assured him in French, forgetting momentarily that they were in London. “I’m just suddenly feeling a little wobbly.” She continued in English.

When they reached her Mayfair hotel, she thanked him, assuring him yet again that the moment had passed and went up to her room.

“That song! Where did it come from?” she hadn’t heard all the words yet. She switched on the radio in the hotel room fiddling with the knobs perhaps there’d be something there and she could listen to it in the privacy of her room. Tomorrow, she promised herself, she’d return to Paris, to her home. She’d be safe there in her apartment on Boulevard Saint-Michel.

Why did she think she was in danger? She hadn’t done anything wrong to earn her place among the rich and famous of Europe. She had earned it. Yes, she’d used her beauty and her brains. Yes, she had slept with some of the influential men of the time. But she had worked and studied at the Sorbonne and earned a double degree.

Finally the popular music channel! Perhaps there’d be something here. She undressed as song after song played through, Sugar, Sugar followed by Lay Lady Lay, I’m leaving on a jet plane… ‘I certainly am’, she had thought.

There was a short commercial break, “And now,” the radio disc jockey said, “the song that is capturing young people’s imagination around the world, Peter Sarstedt’s Where do you go to, my lovely?”

“Peter Sarstedt?” she said aloud, “who on earth is that?”

As she listened to the words a tight knot began to form in her stomach.

You talk like Marlene Dietrich

And you dance like Zizi Jeanmaire

Your clothes are all made by Balmain

And there`s diamonds and pearls in your hair

You live in a fancy apartment

Of the Boulevard of St. Michel

Where you keep your Rolling Stones records

And a friend of Sacha Distel

But where do you go to my lovely

When you’re alone in your bed…”

She had rushed into the bathroom, the bile churning up bitter and acrid in her throat and the salt of her tears mingled with it on her tongue. She couldn’t remember how long she’d been in the bathroom. But she still remembered how she had rushed out and shouted at the radio, “Who are you?!” And then had flung herself on the bed weeping mindlessly.

Those years, with her brother, begging, dancing, singing to keep them fed and somewhat clothed. The stink of garbage bins as they rummaged inside looking for decent clothes. Every now and then, these images did come back to haunt her. What if someone found out?

Today, 48 years later she had no need to fear the song. She had since then listened to all the words, Peter Sarstedt had either not known the details of her life or had cleverly disguised them. She had not grown up on the streets of Naples and had never received a horse as a gift from the Aga Khan. But so much else was a little too close for comfort, skiing in St. Moritz, enjoying Napoleon Brandy, yes, begging in rags, and the scar, the scar deep inside her head.

The scar of that liaison with an old man, a rich man, the man who she’d used to climb out of the degradation they had endured.

She lit a cigarette and drew deeply, exhaling smoke and looked across at her brother, “Did you see this?” she said holding out the newspaper. “That singer Peter Sarstedt died. He never did have a number one seller after that one, did he?”

“No, Maria,” he replied, “We made sure about that, didn’t we?”

“But he was talented, non?”

“That he was. But any chance of an expose was put to rest a long time ago.”

Her mobile phone rang. It was an unknown number but she took it, perhaps even today there were some who needed her advice or connections.

“Allo? Who is that?”

There was no reply, just the closing lines of the song, “I know the thoughts that surround you, `Cause I can look inside your head

Identity Theft  – by Rifat Najam

Have you ever wondered of your true identity? Two ways to look at it, first our whole life we are labelled by outsiders with shades of different colors as they perceive us and second the choices we follow. To portray my thoughts in more clear manner if talking about me I am born a female into a very conservative surrounding that restricts my reach and limits from flying too high. This statement could have been true if I had chosen to chain up myself. Our surrounding can only influence but choice in the end is always ours to make.  

Talking about a choice which hangs on our concern of being correct or not, on what tomorrow will bring, best way to deal with a choice in such case is to do case study of history related to similar situation while refreshing your mathematical skill to be able to analyze the situation from each angle and science in case a more logical explanation and result is required . Initially it might seem hectic but gradually you will master how to make and fly a rocket. Next step for all serious readers you really need to take it light and others may continue as you are adventurous enough to jump off a cliff ; )

A day if broken down into frames then every single frame with every passing breath gets engraved with a story with the choices we make. Concept of life is simple like crystal clear water which we turn to cocktail for fun. And realization comes only after contamination stage is over. Being born with identity of innocence we rob our self with every unwanted need. To keep these frames free from contamination and our inner self at peace, simple rule is to  avoid associating self with matters that do not concern us as stupidity rises when instead of correcting our errors and doing something good to make the world a better place we get too engrossed in pulling out threads of things that do not concern us or we don’t understand at all.

We humans are born with freedom to choose but have you ever wondered why the choice was kept there in the first place? Right or wrong choice doesn’t matter as doors of unseen have been kept closed for a reason. What matters is with what effort, thought, intention the work was handled. If the decision being taken humbles your inner self then just go for it.

Lyrics of the song:

So they want I to change my identity

Musically, musically, musically

So they want I to change my identity

Musically, musically, musically

This ya music race

Commercial race

Political race

This ya music race

Commercial race

Political race

So they want I to change my identity

Musically, musically, musically

So they want I to change my identity

Musically, musically, musically

My identity, my identity

Jah work must be done

Jah work must be done

Jah work must be done

Jah work must be done

Work in the East

Work in the West

Work in the North

Work in the South

Work over there

We work over here

Work everywhere

Work over there

We work over here

Work everywhere

So they want I to change my identity

Musically, musically, musically

So they want I to change my identity

Musically, musically, musically

My identity, my identity

Who will stand up for the people

Musically, musically, musically

Who will stand up for the people

Musically, musically, musically

So they want I to change my identity

Musically, musically, musically

My identity, my identity

Musically, musically, musically

The people is for the music

The music is for the people

Musically, musically, musically

So they want I to change my identity

Musically, musically, musically

So they want I to change my identity

Musically, musically, musically

My identity, my identity

Burning Spear – Identity Lyrics | MetroLyrics

 

From February to April the Bahrain Writers’ Circle was heavily involved in its annual poetry festival – The Colours of Life, and so there were no challenges.

By the end of April we were somewhat back on track and our challenge was to create a story based on a popular English nursery rhyme.

Our Reviewer – Lynda Tavakoli

Lynda Tavakoli copy

Lynda Tavakoli is a BWC member who is at present back at her home in Ireland, she very graciously agreed to review our entries. Despite a heavy schedule and houseguests, she has given us all some very valuable feedback. Thank you Lynda!

Lynda is an author and poet who divides her time between Bahrain and her native Northern Ireland. She is a special needs teacher and facilitator of adult creative writing classes at The Island Arts Centre, Lisburn. https://www.islandartscentre.com/

Her literary successes include short story and poetry awards at Listowel, http://writersweek.ie/, the Mencap short story competition and the Mail on Sunday novel competition. Lynda’s poems have been included in a wide variety of publications including Templar Poets’ Anthology Skein, Abridged, The Incubator Journal, Panning for Poems, Circle and Square http://www.writing.ie/guest-blogs/its-all-inside-circle-square-edited-by-eileen-casey/ ,the CAP anthologies, The Honest Ulsterman and Live Encounters Poetry Journal (May/July). She was selected as The Irish Times Hennessy poet of the month for October 2015, http://www.irishtimes.com/culture/books/hennessy-niw.

Lynda’s poetry and prose have been broadcast on both BBC Radio Ulster http://www.bbc.co.uk/radioulsterand RTE Sunday Miscellany. She has written two novels Attachment and Of Broken Things, (David J Publishing, Ireland) and has been the recipient of a number of Irish bursaries.

Lynda has published a number of human interest stories in the British national press on the subjects of breast cancer and senile dementia. She has worked as a volunteer for both Action Cancer and The Alzheimer’s’ Society, UK.

Lynda has facilitated prose recitals to commemorate the anniversary of the sinking of The Titanic and edited the prose and poetry anthology ‘Linen’ for the Irish Linen Museum. http://www.lisburnmuseum.com/

We had four entries for the challenge and are awaiting approval from two of our writers to publish their stories. In the meantime you may enjoy these two:

FRUIT AND NUT

By Nilanjana Bose

The ancient pickup rattled on upward. Anupam handled the vehicle skillfully, avoiding the huge crater-like potholes where the monsoons had washed away the surface, the rains and winds gnawing the mountain road down to bare red earth, a deadly trap for the unwary. One could split an axle clean in two on these roads. He flung the steering to the left and then quickly back to the right to avoid another monster hole and inwardly fumed. A curse on women, particularly Mamon! He threw a sidelong glance to make sure that the three packets he had collected for her sat intact on the back, and heaved a sigh of relief as the road surface improved, allowing him to press hard ahead. It would be dark before he reached home

Anupam was the youngest in the household that Mamon, the matriarch, ruled over with an iron fist. The family were dispersed, two of her sons handled the marketing of the abundant fruit their orchards produced from Siliguri, a couple others had branched further afield and acquired long term leases on mango and lychee production in the plains. All of them, with the exception of Anupam, had been absorbed into the land and what it produced. Some had moved even further, going deep into the coffee territories of the South, and even into new-fangled biotechnology based, exotic foods. The bravest of them all, Nirupam, had gone to the North East and one step further. He had set up a processing plant. Orchard Fresh. Mamon thus controlled a wide web of interests sitting in her wheelchair on her mountainous perch, but she had not been able to control Anupam.

He was a changeling, a clumsy, black-fingered lad in a family of green-fingers. Anupam hated the smells of compost and overripe fruit, the mush of pulp and juice, the mess of peels and pips. He never managed to get the cuttings potted correctly even as a child, never remembered the watering or weeding schedules, never felt the least bit bereft when his straggly vines dried up, skeletally bare and barren. Once he was of age, Mamon sent him out systematically to each of their workplaces, but he only upset the customers, or gave away the fruit at ruinous discounts, or skived off during the picking to go hiking instead. He generally made a uniform nuisance of himself wherever he went and was back at the homestead in a month or two. He sat at home feeling useless and resentful, steeped in an infinitesimally slow-boiling rage that no-one noticed.

***

Mamon sat in her room going over the books that had been brought to her, with an eye on the window, and a cocked ear. Anup had not yet come back, it was getting late, the light already wore a certain final murkiness.

Though she was aged and confined to a wheelchair, she sat tautly upright and had the vitality of a much younger woman. A falling tree had struck her and caused damage to the spine, and by the time she was in her thirties, she had lost the use of her legs. By then she had a houseful of children, and she learned to cope. When her husband died early, she had taken over the running of the estate as well. Her children were as level-headed as herself. She counted herself lucky, except for the youngest everything had turned out quite perfect. Only if Anup –.

Mamon closed the books, the entries all seemed in order, and turned a powerful work-light on with a remote switch. She picked up a bag and started knitting, her gnarled fingers remarkably swift, lightly skimming over the needles and wool in a strangely graceful dance. She compensated for the lack of movement in her legs by moving her hands constantly, over books, over needles, over people. Knitting, spinning, tying, controlling.

The light outside was gone suddenly as the sun dipped under the mountain edge. She remained alert for the returning vehicle as she finished row upon row of stitches, the quiet click-clack of the needles the only sound in the room.

The wheels were on the drive when it had become pitch dark. The headlights lit up the black square of the panes momentarily before being switched off. She looked up once and waited for him to come to her. But Anupam did not come. An hour elapsed, still she knitted and waited. No Anupam. She tired finally and asked her maid to enquire. Anupam was not in his room, nor in the house, she was told. Mamon cast off the baby blanket, and went to dinner at the appointed time. She made it a point of taking meals with the family every night, had done so since her children were babies.

But Anupam did not come to dinner either. Upon enquiry the cook said Anup dadabhai* had asked for a meal about an hour ago and eaten it in the kitchen. The cook did not know where he had gone after he had finished, presumably to bed? Mamon let the subject drop with an impatient yet graceful wave of her hand, – he must have gone to sleep curled up somewhere, it was a large house after all – and wheeled herself back to her own suite. Where had Anup gone? Was he keeping bad company? Or just avoiding her?

***

Anupam turned the ignition off and felt the old pickup shudder to a stop. Something within him shuddered and came to a dead stop too, dug its heels in. He lifted the packets from the back, they were surprisingly light for their size, the finest silk-merino blend, imported from a foreign designer, the old woman’s favoured choice. He walked into the house and for one long minute he wrestled with himself, should he see Mamon and dump the packets and be done? But he could not bear the thought of going into her room, the sharp white light, the sharp white hair, the clicking of the needles, the clicking of her sharp, holier-than-thou tongue, always hassling him to find something to do, something useful and not airy fairy. He was hungry and tired and in no shape to face her.

In the end, he had gone to the kitchen, asked the cook to serve him whatever was available, and had his meal alone in peace. Afterwards, he escaped to the swing in the rarely-used back porch and sat out the rest of the evening there, thinking things through. No-one came to look for him. No-one spotted him sitting and gently rocking in the old fashioned heavy wooden swing-seat. He, on the other hand, vaguely saw the household going about its usual business through the light and shadows on the curtained windows, the muffled noises of cooking in the kitchen, Mamon’s wheelchair on the floor as she came out to eat, the murmur of talk rising and falling and then ebbing completely to silence as everyone dispersed to the bedrooms.

Forward.

Back.

Forward.

Back.

The swing was a massive pendulum marking time. Forward. The moon came up over the serrated peaks in a sliver of polished silver, fringed with tattered streamers of clouds. Back. Someone shot the bolt of the kitchen door, and he knew that the side and front entrances would be barred soon too. He snuggled back into the dusty cushions further instead of rising, the seat was wide and deep enough. Forward. Thank goodness there were no mosquitoes buzzing around! Trees were fine things if one did not have to somehow force a livelihood from them. Back. Forward. Stop. He got up from the seat, made for the far corner where a planting of wild roses, Mamon’s favourite flowers, marked the boundary. Anupam urinated copiously on the bushes, washed at the hand-pump and splashed water on his face, and returned to the swing inexplicably pleased. As he settled back, someone inside switched off the corridor light. The frosted glass on the door darkened.

***

Anupam came stiffly into the room, his face inscrutable, the packets piled in his arms. Mamon had unpicked a knitted coat this morning, and was unravelling the wool. A few yards lay already on the floor at her feet. Her hands never stop moving, Anupam stood defiantly silent, always knitting or poking them into books or counting the money she has. Madame Defarge.

Mamon did not speak either, just gestured wordlessly for him to lay the packets on the table. She dropped the coat, tore open the packs and verified the contents. Kiwi tang, magnolia whisper, feathered heather. All three would knit up beautifully. Satisfied, she placed them back.

“Where were you last night?” She beckoned him as she spoke, and pulled both his forearms out as he stepped closer, like parallel rails, “I hear your bed hasn’t been slept in?”

Anupam pressed his lips together and looked straight back at her. Mamon reeled in the unravelled wool from the floor and started winding it round his forearms in a large loop as she talked.

“I know exactly how young men spend their time when they are not in their own beds at night,” her words were icy, “and I’m telling you, there’s no space for that behavior in my house.”

Anupam stood like a statue, his arms bent into two Ls by his side, silent and resentful. Mamon’s words came as sharp as ever. The loop of wool around his arms got thicker at an incredible speed.

“Look Anup, you’re no longer a child. You must figure out what you want to do. You can work here, or in Siliguri wherever you like. Go to the coffee plantation if you prefer. I’m sure Rupam could find you something too at that factory of his. So many options. Young men are desperate for jobs. They’d give anything to be in your position. Just get serious. Start somewhere. I won’t have idlers in this family, no breaking of free bread at my table, understand?”

Anupam did not flinch. The wool was a coarse, rough red yarn that scratched persistently against his skin, looped now in a thickness equal to his own wrists. The room seemed to fill entirely with Mamon’s cavernous mouth, he could only see her tongue and her hands moving. One looping over and binding his arms, the other looping around his soul.

The monotone went on, threatening, judgmental, sarcastic. He felt a spark of – heat? light? some primeval force start up from deep within himself, at the base of his belly, growing into waves upon waves, rising to asphyxiate him, engulfing his heart and his face and exploding in his brain. In one swift movement he moved the skein of wool forward from his forearm to his fists. Before he knew anything he had thrown the loop over Mamon’s neck like a garland and twisted it into a figure of eight. He tightened the noose, increasing pressure on her throat, rendering her speechless. She gasped for air and scrabbled at her throat ineffectually.

“Correct. I’m no child. Mind what you say to me. I don’t like your tone. And I don’t care to work at fruit and nut jobs,” Anupam’s voice was equally icy. “I don’t want your bread, free or otherwise. I’m leaving.”

He loosened his grip after what felt like an aeon to Mamon. She coughed and gasped, the skein of wool still a blood red garland around her neck. Her maid came running in.

“What happened, dadabhai?”

“Look after her,” Anupam said as he moved briskly to the door. “I’ll get the doctor.”

Mamon got her breath back and asked for some water. As she set the glass down, she heard the pickup start, and the gravel spatter as its wheels skidded in a sudden burst of speed.

– End –

Note: *dadabhai – literally, a form of addressing an elder brother. Used by maids and servants to refer to people younger in age but above them in station, especially their employers’ children.

Nursery rhyme used as prompt – Baa baa black sheep, have you any wool?

A RHYME AND A REASON

By Rohini Sunderam

“It must be a serial killer,” said RCMP Superintendent Ray Jones of the Southwest Nova District in charge of Lunenburg County crime in Nova Scotia, “that’s the fourth one in as many days and all the bodies had a live fish next to them.”

“That’s the signature for sure, but how many more can we expect and who?” asked deputy Sarah Muller as the fourth victim’s body was loaded into the police van to be sent to forensics in Dartmouth.

Jones nodded, “Mahone Bay is so small, Sarah, there’s not even a thousand people here. Four killed is a shocking number. The news has hit The Herald and gone national on CBC. We’d better find the killer before this gets out of hand, eh?”

“What other clues do we have?” Sarah asked examining the small dock on which the man’s body had been found. He was fully clothed with his fisherman’s cap soaked in blood. His neck was slit from ear to ear like a gutted fish. His body was cold and blue as the Atlantic.

“There’s three at the forensics hospital over in Dartmouth already,” Jones grunted, not happy with the situation. “And now this.”

“I’ll call and ask, I know Dr. Boudreau. She was with me at Park View in Bridgewater.”

“Ah yes! You privileged Bacca-whatever lot!”

“Baccalaureate,” Sarah interjected looking up at the burly commissioner as she crouched on the jetty searching for clues. At forty-seven years old he was still a handsome man, fit and muscular, big in the chest. A one-time hockey-hopeful, he had played with the likes of Glen Murray.

She wasn’t sure if he was teasing her or had a tinge of envy against her and others who had been fortunate enough to attend Park View Education Centre, one of the more elite high schools in the province. With it was a sense of unease. A dark curtain clouded an older memory, one that had been erased after the therapy she’d undergone, which had then unlocked her ‘brilliance’.

“Yeah, call her. We need any clues we can get. A fish, a live fish, it doesn’t make sense.”

“The mafia used to do that, but it was always a dead fish sent as a warning before the killing, not after,” Sarah stood up and rapidly keyed in the Dartmouth Forensic Hospital number, while her eyes still scoured the edge of the dock where it merged with gravel, grass and little wild violets.

“Can you put me through to Dr. Amy Boudreau, please,” she said as soon as the operator came on. “It’s urgent.” A few seconds later her old friend and mentor answered and Sarah switched to speakerphone.

“Amy, you have the bodies from the Mahone Bay murders? Any clues, other than that their necks were slit from ear to ear.”

“Yes, a strange one,” Amy replied, “All three bodies have human teeth marks on the little finger of the right hand.”

“Teeth marks!” Sarah exclaimed, feeling sick. “You mean as if the killer had bitten their fingers? Can you tell if it was before or after the time of death?”

Amy continued, “Most likely after, there’s no sign of a struggle. A live human being would have certainly pulled his or her hand away. The first victim was a woman, older than the other two. A retired teacher from the old Lunenburg Academy, I understand.”

“There’s a fourth body on the way, Amy. I think there’s a bite on the right little finger too. It makes no sense. Thanks, I may call again,” Sarah hung up and looked at the Superintendent.

“And the other two young men went to that school too,” he replied, “If this victim attended the school we have a connection.”

As they entered the car, Ray Jones called the station, “We need to know if this last victim attended Lunenburg Academy and fast,” he snarled into the phone.

Sarah gunned the car into action as they sped back leaving the picturesque seaside town, shooting past the Mahone Bay Museum, Mug & Anchor bar and on to headquarters at Lunenburg. They sat in silence wondering what grotesque mind could have spawned this sudden and violent attack on the innocent folk of this tiny town.

Ray switched on the radio and tuned it to CBC in Halifax.

Sarah winced, “Do we have to hear this?”

“We need to know if the news of our fourth victim has got out.”

The radio crackled as the car sped along and the newsreader intoned dispassionately, “The latest news on the horror at Mahone Bay, a small fishing village in Nova Scotia, has authorities baffled. A fourth victim has been found killed in the same way. Suggestions are that a serial killer is on the loose. The RCMP could not be reached for a statement, we have…”

Ray reached out and killed the radio, “How th’ feck do they know so soon!”

Sarah pulled into the station and both officers rushed in to see if anything more had been learned.

“Nothing new,” said Garry Mills, “except, yes, the fourth victim also attended Lunenburg Academy. He was a couple of classes junior to me. They all were. And all in the same class, except the woman. She was a teacher.”

“An old classmate with a grudge?” Sarah asked.

Ray followed, “What class did she teach? Garry, you’re probably our best lead.”

“The young ones, Grade two or three, maybe. The kids loved her, as I remember.”

“What would spark this so suddenly and now?” Ray asked.

“Has anyone been away from your school and returned lately?” Sarah added.

“It’s tourist season so it would be hard to narrow things down.” Garry replied.

“Why four people and all with a fish next to them?” Sarah voiced the others’ thoughts.

“Let’s see what we can uncover at the Bluenose Academy,” Ray said to Sarah, “the old school closed down, remember? You stay here Garry, and if you remember anything of importance about these guys call us!”

****

 “We need to speak to the oldest teachers,” Superintendent Jones explained to Ms White the headmistress. “This is not to worry present-day students but anyone who knew Mrs. Haines would be helpful.”

“I knew her,” Headmistress White replied. “She retired a few months ago in April. I can’t think of anyone who would want to harm her.”

“Anything at all that you can recall,” Sarah added.

“There was a minor incident but good heavens, that was maybe twenty years ago.” Ms White’s forehead formed a series of tiny ridges and her eyes narrowed as she concentrated. “Something to do with a little boy with a lisp. He ran away from school because some kids teased him about it. I don’t believe he came back to the school.”

“His name?” Ray prompted.

“Or the names of the other children?” Sarah added. “We could prevent another horrendous killing if we knew.”

“You’ll have to check the archives, dear. Didn’t you attend the Academy?”

“No,” Sarah replied, “I don’t really remember my early school years. I was in therapy for a while.”

The two were directed to the digitised archives and given a password.

Back in the office they headed to their desks, “Dig. That’s what we’re going to have to do,” Ray Jones looked at Sarah as they settled down in front of their computers. “Twenty years ago from today. You take 1993 and I’ll look at 1994.”

“Would the incident have been recorded?” Sarah asked, “I mean some of the schools used to cover these things up.”

“Just search for Mrs Haines. If nothing shows up you go to 1992 and I’ll move up to 1995.”

“What are the young men’s names? Maybe that could help?” Sarah’s heart was thumping like a landed fish. For no clear reason she sensed the need for urgency. Four down, how many more to go?

Garry came forward, “the names,” he said handing Sarah and Ray a sheet each.

As they scanned the list, all three said in unison, “It’s alphabetical!”

“That’s it,” Ray said, “there’s Albert, Bernie and Chad.”

“But Mrs Haines is an ‘H’ so how does that work?” Sarah asked.

“She’s a teacher, maybe that doesn’t count. Keep looking.” Ray said.

“I fear there’s going to be a fifth one, and it’s going to be today!” Sarah was shaking.

“Calm down, Sarah,” Ray looked over to her, “Calm down, I fear that too.”

“Me too,” Garry added, “I mean one, two, three, four…no one ever stops counting at four!”

“It’s that nursery rhyme!” Sarah shouted, “One, two, three, four, five. Once I caught a fish alive. That’s sort of how psychopaths think, isn’t it?” She felt sick in her stomach as she recalled the rhyme.

“Garry, think about it,” Ray said to his second assistant, “Was there ever anything to do with a nursery rhyme?”

A few seconds of pacing around the office and Garry said, “Yes, I think so. A bunch of boys used to tease this kid with a lisp. I think they used to make him recite it and laugh.”

“The headmistress said something about a kid with a lisp who ran away.” Sarah stood up and joined Garry, pacing alongside him and matching his stride.

“Garry, names, we need names,” Ray looked at the two on the floor, “Sarah you look to see if there’s a kid with a name beginning with D or E next on the list. Garry cast your mind back or call someone.”

Sarah was back at her computer, “D has Diana, Deena, these are girls, you sure they were only boys, Garry?”

Garry nodded, “Yes, I think so. Deena is fine, she runs the bakery in Mahone Bay. Took it over from her parents. She may remember.” He keyed in Deena Baskin’s number, the cell phone buzzed. He held the phone to his ear for a full thirty seconds, no one answered. Then with a hoarse whisper he said, “Oh my God! No. They weren’t all boys. Deena was part of the gang that terrorised this kid.”

Ray stood up, “Sarah,” he said calmly, “You stay here, Garry and I will go make sure Deena is okay.”

****

Sarah locked the front door and sat waiting. A slow dread crept up her spine as that curtain that hid the old memories flicked apart.

She wasn’t Sarah, she was Erin and she recalled the young boy as nine of them danced around him, “Say it again,” they mocked.

Poor little Donny whimpered as he said,

“One, two, free, four, five.

Onth I caught a fith alive.

Thix, Theven, eight, nine, ten.

Then I let it go again.

Why did you let it go?

Because it bit my finger tho.

Which finger did it bite?

This little finger on my righth.”

She had been the worst of them. Poking him, laughing into his face. She had liked him, but didn’t want the others to know and so she had teased him the worst of all. Then he’d run away and the guilt of it had sent her into a fever and she had passed out. When she recovered, she didn’t go back to Lunenburg Academy. Her parents put her into therapy and made her middle name her first name.

“Oh, my God! What did we do?” Sarah moaned as she rocked in her chair, hugging her stomach. “I was the monster.”

A loud thumping on the door shook her out of her daze.

“Erin!” A deep smooth voice called, “I recognised you the other day, sitting in the cop car, an RCMP officer and all. Then, it came back to me. The therapy and a new school. Me too, Erin, me too. I don’t have a lisp any more. Open up Erin, I just want to say hello!”

– End –

CLOCK DOWN

By Vijay Boloor 

It was a bright moony night and all was peaceful in Mouseville. One night not long ago, Mariam Mouse the head teacher of Mickey High school settled herself at her desk.

A cup of piping hot tea, at her side, she settled down to mark the workbook of class four mice students. Their syllabus was learning to differentiate cheese, breads and cakes.

She was nodding her head with disapproval as she went through the books, red pen in hand.

“I don’t know what will happen to this young generation, no interest in academics.” Mariam muttered to herself.

She glanced at her tiny clock on the wall, it was just past one am. She was a little worried. Misha, her young son, was not home yet it was way past lunch time and he was never so late.

His favorite pumpkin soup and slice of cheese lay on the table. Misha was always home around this time. He was a good mouse kid and had just finished high school. He was ready to go to college to study survival skills. He was keen to study defense and attack tactics, how to dodge cats and dogs.

Soon after one o’clock a sudden flurry of activity jolted her out of her books. She came running out to see what the ruckus was, and who was thumping at her door.

“Miss, open up quick!” The door banging increased in volume and frequency.

   Mariam sensed the urgency and rushed to open the door and as soon as the door opened half a dozen neighborhood mice barged in.

 Three young mice were carrying her son Misha, who looked unconscious and limp. They cleared the couch tossing aside small stuff on the floor. They even flung her half knitted sweater out, and the leader amongst them and signaled the boys to lay him there.

Misha was all knocked out and there was no bleeding nor any injury visible.

Mariam Mouse was in a panic, her mouth and eyes wide open, dumbfounded and speechless. Her school teacher mentality kicked in. “Call the doctor, call the doctor! “she squeaked.“My poor little Misha,” Mariam wailed. She was almost upon him cuddling her unconscious son lying on the sofa. How many times have I told him not to go out with you naughty boys. What happened to him and where did you all take him?

The eldest of three young mouse kids Seymon with a quivering voice replied,“There was a big party in the neighborhood at Lord Colton’s house and we were hunting for cheese and some cake.”

“But what happened to Misha?” Mariam interrupted.

“He got hit by the golden ball,” Seymon blurted out.

“You foolish boys how many times have the elders warned you never to go play with that wretched machine, and especially with the golden ball, how many times?” Mariam was furious.

The three young mice put their heads down, their tails curled inwards.

Seymon said “Aunty it was Misha who insisted we go there and play.”

“And you guys agreed. You are the elder, could you have not stopped him.”

II

On the streets of Mouseville hardly an incident occurred that went unnoticed by Rocky and his crew. Rocky Rodent was a mouse of action, mostly violent ones.

Rocky rodent, the Mouseville strongman, judge, jury and executioner of this pack of homely rats.

He excelled in the techniques of terror, expert in untangling traps, fighting snakes and frogs. His extensive knowledge of poisons and baits, he knew how to avoid them and neutralize them.

It pleased his sense of pride and ego that all of Mouseville called him protector of Mousekind… the MIGHTYMOUSE. Swearing and shaking his fists Rocky barged in Mariam’s house. “How’s the kid?” he snapped.

Mariam raised her head and looked at him, disciplinarian that she was, she intensely disliked Rocky.

She admired his ferocity. She didn’t like his hygiene. She liked his bravery but not his vagabond lifestyle, but today was different. He was her only saviour. She looked at him in jeans and white shirt with a blue waist coat, smelling of stale cigarette.

Rocky had come to help, with Speedy on his heels, Speedy Gonzales was his fellow conspirator, a tough brown mouse fast and a ruthless assassin.

Speedy, who also killed frogs and snakes, never backed down in a quarrel. It was rumored in and around Mouseville even young cats were afraid to cross his path.

Speedy always awed Rocky mentally and physically. He too detested his personal hygiene and scruffy looks but nothing could hide the alert intelligence of Rocky’s eyes.

The young mice filled in the details of the accident to Rocky.

“When did this happen” queried Speedy.

“When the clock struck one,” was the chorus reply.

“What are we doing about this damned machine?” Mariam asked with a dejected look

A quick committee meeting was formed. Tito the old mouse chaired the group.

“Yup, it has injured many in our community, you remember Zack? Mickeys brother in law I mean Minnie’s younger brother, he had died from the impact.”

Yeah everybody remembered Mickey’s brother in law Zack.

Mickey was the most famous mouse personality of all time, everyone knew him, and people forgot Zack but remembered Mickey.

 “Boss the damned machine, let us destroy it.” Speedy said looking right into Rocky’s eyes. “Yeah it’s a good idea to destroy it but it’s pretty dangerous. Lord Colton has two big cats,” Wailed Tito the old mouse.

There was silence. Everyone looked around and half of them were looking at Rocky. He was the community’s choice if it had to be done.

“We can’t stand and watch all the time, it injuring our youth. That giant machine must come down. Boys will be boys and mice will be mice. It’s bound to happen again. It’s time it came down,” said Mariam.

Rocky and Speedy had a quick huddle meeting and both nodding came back to the room.

“We will do it!!!” said Rocky with determination.

Rocky, without wasting any time, quickly got into action. He and Speedy went to their garage where they lived and got his crew together.

Rocky loved a challenge, as chief of expedition, guerrilla warfare to bring the machine down.

“Get the gear and let’s go before it’s daylight and don’t forget to pack the Cat trap.”

 “We will need it, I can feel it,” added Speedy.

They marched into Lord Colton’s mansion, and found their way into his living room followed by his dirty dozen mice.

Rocky surveyed the imposing giant grandfather clock standing tall as the Empire State Building.

“Tonight you are coming down baby,” Rocky yelled to his team.

They were fully equipped with all the rigs and gears of a construction crew but Rocky had deconstruction on his mind.

“Down! Down!” Chorused the mice gang.

“Jigs you take three from the gang and saw away 4 inches from the front left foot of the clock,” ordered Rocky.

Sal said I will take the front right leg and moved swiftly with his team to tackle his mission.

Rocky explained to Tiny who was his team’s gymnast how to harness the pendulum, the golden ball.

“Tiny you tie the gong and harness it around the pillar.”

“When the bloody clock falls the gong will be yanked right out of the clock mama mia” Rocky smirked in delight.

“Right boss” squeaked Tiny…

“Meow” the chilling sound echoed across the hall all the mice froze and took cover! The cat was on the prowl.

   Speedy gave a quick glance and signaled Tiny to take position on the dining table and pass him one end of the twine.

Speedy and his crew had studied cat behavioral psychology, they knew that the cats get attracted to circles, they feel safe in them.

   They worked fast and laid out a ring of thick rope laced with fish oil and fragments of fish, two sets of twine passed through the circle with a team of 4 mice holding on to each end.

   They waited. The mice are not known for their patience, but in this case they waited.This was not the first time they were trapping a cat, the cat just stood at the entrance head cocked, looking in the dark trying to smell something.

 The mice gang were quiet there was absolute silence in the room. After almost an eternity the cat moved. It hovered around the strange unfamiliar circle, but the familiar smell of fish lured it right in the trap.

Split seconds later the mice reared into action. Pulling their twines in unison coordinating and looping it twice, the cats two rear feet were entangled and tied in the loop.

She yelped and meowed, the rats grunted, and pulled harder and tied the cat’s feet firmly and fastened them to the leg of the heavy dining table.

Speedy acted fast and put a brown paper bag on her face, to keep her confused and quiet.

“Team let’s get back to our main mission.”  It was half past two and at the strike of three they needed to finish. Also there was the threat of the other cat coming.

The teams got down to sawing the left leg of the giant grandfather clock with frenzy, the speed of rats was incredible and in no time it was done.

“Boss the saw broke. What shall we do? We are almost done,” Jigs said meekly.

Speedy and Rocky surveyed the leg and noticed it was practically done.  A few more strokes would do the job. To go back and get new saws would be unwise. A quick conference decided they would hammer away the last part of the almost sawed of leg. A team got in position pulling the twine tied to the leg.

It was time just before three. All the mice were in safe areas pulling the rope. Speedy volunteered to do the last hammering as he was the fastest to run before the clock crashed.

At three o’clock sharp the clock couldn’t gong as the pendulum was fastened. A final signal was given, the last bang of the hammer, a hard pull from the mice team and the giant clock came down crashing on the floor.

Before the Colton house hold could wake up and come to see what had happened the mice were out and away in a victorious mood.

This event surely called for a major celebration. The news of the downing of the clock spread like wild fire in Mouseville. Every mouse came out bringing their choicest food and there was singing and dancing, there was squeaking and prancing.

Meanwhile in Mariam’s house, Misha was slowly coming round opening his eyes. “Hi Mom,” he smiled and Mariam was relieved.

She too had heard the news of the downing of the great clock. She also heard the noise of celebration and singing of the mice gathering in front of Rocky’s garage.

She took Misha, who seemed fine and had miraculously recovered, to the street party to celebrate, and to show her appreciation and respect to Rocky and his team.

There was a great deal of celebration, Rocky’s garage was decorated in colorful paper flags. The happy mice danced and distributed cheese and cake crumbs.

Hickory Dickory Dock

The mouse ran up the clock

The clock struck one

And the mouse came down

 Hickory dickory dock.

From that day onwards this rhyme was deleted from the mouse nursery books.

And

Mariam introduced a new poem in Mickey high and now the mice kids learn this nursery rhyme.

Hickory Dickory Dock

The Rocky ran up the clock

The Mice struck one

And the Clock crashed down

 Hickory Dickory dock.

– End –

9D7A2263Esther Newton

Has been working as a freelance writer for fifteen years, regularly writing articles and short stories for magazines and newspapers such as Freelance Market News, Writers’ Forum, The New Writer, The Guardian, Best of British, The Cat, Woman’s Weekly, The People’s Friend and My Weekly to name a few, she has also won a number of short story competitions. These have been published in a collection, The Siege and Other Award Winning Stories, available from Amazon and all other on-line stores, in paperback and e-book format. A publisher has recently taken on Esther’s children’s book series; the first book will be coming out later this year.

Esther loves writing and enjoys helping other writers, which she achieves in her role as tutor for The Writers Bureau. In addition to tutoring, Esther has also started a blog, designed to provide writers with support, market information and advice. You can check out Esther Newton’s latest books here:

https://esthernewtonblog.wordpress.com/my-latest-book/

and her blog here

https://esthernewtonblog.wordpress.com

You can get a hint of Esther’s upcoming children’s book The Secret Dragon here.

Thank you Esther for agreeing to review our monthly challenge and for providing such encouraging insights into our stories!

The January Challenge

The new year kicked off with a slightly different approach to our challenges. We gave our members a choice of three prompts from which they could pick one, or more, challenges and weave a story around it in under 2000 words.

Here are the prompts:

The Room
One day as you were cleaning you noticed air being sucked towards the base of the wall near the cupboard. Perplexed you went closer to investigate. The air was going in, slightly yet in. You hold your breath and gingerly peel away at the wallpaper until a huge wrought iron door stands before you. Where…

Harold the Armchair
Write a story from the perspective of Harold the Armchair. What does he think about all day? Does he like being sat on? Do his parents approve of him being an armchair?

Abandoned hospital
Two people meet in an abandoned hospital, unaware that the other has been visiting too. Both have lost someone important in one of these rooms, and neither has been able to move on.

And here are the stories in no particular order.

The Room

By Glen Stansfield

How strange, I’ve never noticed that before. What on earth would cause that?

As a shaft of sunlight illuminates the tiny dust particles tripping off the end of my brush, each minute speck, a flickering star shining in its own tiny universe, is being drawn inexorably towards a metaphorical black hole at the base of the wall, a slow drift at first before accelerating to be devoured by the insatiable darkness. Perhaps not metaphorical, who knows how black holes work?

Professor Stephen Hawking does of course, maybe he could help out, but who am I trying to kid? Even his simplest of terms are often beyond me. The world and the universe happen, I don’t need any more of an explanation. In any case, I don’t move in those circles, not yet.

The chances of you catching me cleaning and having the sun shine on the same day are quite remote. This part of Scotland isn’t known for bright blue skies; combined with a total lack of interest in the more domestic chores and winning the lottery becomes a more likely prospect. That reminds me, it’s a rollover tomorrow: I better get a ticket.

The house has been mine for just over two years, yet it seems like only yesterday since Tanya and I separated. We could have worked harder at the relationship; I know that now, but I don’t think either of us did then, not until too late. So I moved away to concentrate on being a full time author and to hide my pain. I’m a romantic cliché in one of my own novels. God, I miss her.

Every author must dream of finding a remote cottage somewhere, sipping cups of exotic coffee, staring dreamily out of the window and waiting for a flash of inspiration to pop into your head, then bang away at the keys of an old typewriter until the latest best seller is ready to be snapped up by a publisher.

The reality is trying to peer through the rain before tapping away on a word processor in the hope something will make sense. Intersperse this with weekly visits to the nearest supermarket, fifteen miles away, to buy yet another jar of Nescafe instant, and you understand the real life of an author. Still, dreams cost nothing, and who knows, it might happen one day.

At least I’d managed to get the cottage part right, and I was published. Not properly published some would say. Self-publishing doesn’t count apparently. I’m selling books, what more do I need? And I retain full control. Master of my own destiny. ‘Aye, that’ll be right,’ as they would say around here.

One of the strips of wallpaper is curling up in the corner, right where the dust disappears. To be honest, most of the strips of wallpaper in this cottage are peeling in the corners. Perhaps something to do with the humidity, Glen Shiel Forest, only a stone’s throw away, sports the dubious title of being the wettest place in the United Kingdom. They should rename this the Wet Coast of Scotland; it doesn’t need a compass direction, everyone would still be able to find their way here – head for the dark clouds, you can’t go wrong. I wouldn’t swap though, not now, not even for all the fancy coffee in Harrods. The stunning view along Loch Duich is to die for, when you can see through the rain. Hard to believe palm trees grow in Plockton, only twelve miles away as the crow flies. Mind you, not being a crow, that would be more like twenty in my Land Rover.

I might be a little unfair when I say it always rains here, there are some gorgeous days. I think we had one last June. The locals say there are only two seasons, this winter and the last one.

They’re always pulling my leg, me being a Sassenach and all. I always thought it meant an English person, but they tell me it means anyone from the south, even Scottish lowlanders. It’s all in good fun, and they are so helpful and hospitable. Lovely people, a much overused phrase, but really quite appropriate in the circumstances. Of course, they think I’m as mad as a box of frogs; a writer no less. The world is my oyster and I choose this spot. I don’t think they truly appreciate what a pearl of a place they live in.

Apart from the amazing views there’s a strange smell in the atmosphere I find mildly intoxicating, something I never noticed down south, I think they call it freshness. No way I could go back to London now, not after living here.

Oh dear, I’m digressing again. No wonder it takes me a year to bang out one novel. Thank goodness I make enough to keep me fed and clothed. Keeping a roof over my head isn’t a problem. The proceeds from the sale of my tiny flat in London could buy me an entire estate up here, so paying cash for the cottage was a no brainer. And there is plenty to fall back on if my sales dry up, which at the moment they are showing no signs of doing, thank goodness.

I suppose I could always go back to teaching creative writing again, though I’m not sure how ‘failed author’ would look on my CV.

Right, brain, pay attention and stop wandering off into the wilderness. I wonder what’s underneath here. Maybe it hides a secret passage; the air is going somewhere. How fantastic would that be, my very own secret chamber? The cottage dates back to the early eighteenth century and Glen Shiel did see a battle between the Jacobites and the British Government forces. The whole area was in upheaval at some time or other. Perhaps this is the Scottish equivalent of a Priest Hole, but I’m not going to know unless I do something, am I?

Oh, the paper’s peeling away quite easily. It can’t be stuck down very well. This is too big to be a Priest Hole. They were tiny cramped places, well hidden. This is a whacking great iron door. Hard to hide one of them, without wallpaper anyway, and I’m not sure they papered the walls in those days, or did they? I must look it up sometime. You never know when a snippet like that could come in handy for a story, or a pub quiz.

I can’t see where it could go. There’s nothing behind there, only the bedroom, and I don’t remember seeing anything that might be a door in there. Damn, it’s locked. I’ll have a look for it on the other side.

No, the wall is solid in here. That can’t be right, why would anyone put a door in a wall and not have a hole on the other side? Now just a minute, why did I not notice that before? The bedroom feels to be shorter than it should. Could there be another room, maybe a storage cupboard? But why a wrought-iron door, and why cover it? Storage is severely lacking in this place. I can’t imagine anyone wanting to hide a cupboard.

We can settle that once and for all. Where did I put the tape measure? Man drawer: bound to be one in there.

Okay, ten feet, six inches, and the living room is fifteen feet, three inches. That’s twenty five feet, nine. It doesn’t add up. The passageway is twenty nine feet; I’m missing just over three feet. It has to be a cupboard. If only I had the key.

Oooh, now there’s a thought. I saw a bunch of rusty old keys hanging from the rafters in the outbuildings, when I moved the woodworking equipment in, maybe it’s one of those. I’ll bring the WD40 while I’m at it. A bit of lubing never goes amiss.

Why is it always the last key? Never, ever, do I get it right the first time. Another shot of WD and I reckon that will open. Ah, perhaps I should have sprayed the hinges too. That’s better.

Oh God, I can see another door, and it’s opening.

“Tanya? What the…?”

“What…I mean…how…I don’t know what I mean. What are you doing in there?”

“I live here, and I might ask you the same question.”

“You live in my wardrobe? How did you get in my apartment? Are you stalking me?”

“Tanya, please trust me. I’m as confused as you are but just come through here.”

Now the two of us are standing in my cottage, each looking as bewildered as the other. I don’t think even Stephen Hawking can explain this.

“John…I…”

“Me too.”

With our arms wrapped around each other, the day seems to have brightened considerably.

The universe must have known, even if we hadn’t at the time, and who am I to argue?

– End –

Harold Remembers

By Rohini Sunderam

I really should be dubbed Sir Harold, despite the moans from Father and Mother. They weren’t Armchairs. They came from “Superior Furniture” of a French persuasion. Mother could date her ancestry to Louis XIII all oak, walnut and austere perfection. Father had the more elegant and flamboyant Regency pedigree. I must have inherited my languor from him. Even so, he was more cabinets and escritoires and no one less than Charles Cressent is said to have designed a cabinet on his father’s side.

Then there’s me. An armchair. An upholstered armchair! The knots in their woodwork turned into horrified eyes overnight. If they’d had arms like me they’d have thrown theirs up in despair. What’s worse, I am now a La-Z-Boy. The ‘Z’ is pronounced Zee. So you can understand their despair. One more confession, I crossed the pond and came to Virginia in the Americas in 1935.

My parents and I have been incommunicado ever since.

I have had adventures, and a life far more exciting than theirs. They’re probably still locked away in Lord Stodge’s country manor in Boringhamshire. They’re happy I suppose if disappointed in their once promising offspring. I mean I have enough oak in me for the connection to them but, honey (I love American expressions), beyond that I’m as different from them as a pallet from a chest.

I came to Virginia with Arabella, a rich American heiress who married Lord Stodge’s cousin James, once removed on his mother’s side. Arabella’s family were tobacco planters and James was expected to and surprisingly did, work! The fresh Virginia air and the robust diet fired him up and he was up early and out on horseback for most of the day.

Arabella was left to her own devices. In her day she was the sauciest most piquant young woman in Virginia. She changed me from a stuffed armchair into a recliner in 1936. My parents probably heard of the conversion when she wrote to the Stodges. She was in my arms when she wrote the missive in her long flowing copperplate hand. Her writing tablet was balanced on her perfect knees, she had removed her stockings and her bare feet stroked the upper part of my lap most sensuously. Arabella and I have had some good laughs.

The furniture-makers said I didn’t have enough oak so my inner clever mechanisms are a combination of springs and inferior more pliable woods. I don’t care. Heritage is of no great importance. It’s what you do with your life that matters. When I was done, she sat down and rang for Cook.

“Do bring some cakes and tea, Cookie, I want to celebrate my new armchair!”

“Now you be watchin’ what you eat, Miz Arabella, can’t have y’all gettin’ fat.”

“Oh, Cookie, I’m not a little girl anymore! Besides, I’m married now.” She stretched out my footrest, eased my back down and wriggled with pleasure.

I’ve held some interesting people and had some extremely titillating experiences. In my arms Arabella became a contortionist, especially when entertaining certain gentlemen. The first time was when James went for a week to Richmond. Arabella entertained the neighbours with a luncheon. Along came a handsome young man from the Carolinas, Mr. Andrew Kirkland. He was tall, dark haired, had a waist almost as narrow as Arabella’s and sinuous, powerful hands. He was an artist of some kind.

That afternoon, after the guests and servants left and as the afternoon sun slanted over the horizon, he reclined, tilted up my footrest, and in no time, with that gritty voice of his, invited her to sit across his lap, her legs on either side of his narrow waist as his artist’s hands painted imaginary patterns on her thighs. Oh the sighs and the cries! After that first foray into this delicious affair Arabella couldn’t wait to try other excitements in my lap.

On James’ return, still flush from the thrill of Andrew Kirkland’s artistry, she persuaded her husband to experiment on me. But it didn’t quite work out. In his heightened state of ardour he pulled the lever and my footrest collapsed. I was flung off balance and lurched forward on my rockers. The resultant momentum forced the two of them off the seat. James heaved forward, throwing Arabella onto the floor as he fell across her, his arms and legs splayed in an ungainly heap. Arabella burst into a fit of giggles. James, mortified, jumped up, pulled up his trousers and ran up to the bedroom in a huff, his wife screaming in hysterical laughter behind him.

“Oh, Harry,” she murmured; she gave me the nickname that I bear to this day, “James is in essence a Stodge.” I was her confidant in all matters, especially those of the heart. “I must have Andrew Kirkland again, here!” she declared, after the misadventure with James.

So, whenever James went away for a few days, she contrived to call Mr Kirkland and always managed to make him stay for tea in the lounge. Cook would serve it with dainty cakes and retire to her quarters.

That’s when we discovered my lady’s flexibility. Andrew Kirkland could get her to sit on his lap, my footrest up, my back at just such an angle and Arabella’s long, lissom legs up around his neck, down by his waist, or swung all the way around my back, her ankles locked while Kirkland’s artistic and athletic abilities were tested to their limit. Oh the thrills! But, my rockers were sorely tried.

One morning in February 1937, about a year after my conversion, Arabella came down rather late for her morning tea. “Oh dear, oh dear, Harry,” she moaned. “I’m going to have a baby and I am so, so sick.” She kept a bucket next to her and frequently emptied the contents of her meal into it. Poor dear. There was nothing I could do other than allow my upholstered seat to accept her growing weight. She was sick the entire time.

It was the middle of September when James, preening like a peacock, called his friends and associates into the lounge. And there, sitting on me, Harold, his wife’s armchair, he distributed cigars to those present as he announced the birth of his son. His son! My footrest nearly kicked up of its own accord. But I kept it in control.

When the baby came, she brought him to me. “I wish I could call him Harry,” she said! I wished she could. He was after all, in a way, our baby. “I hope he ends up looking at least a little like James,” she whispered as she kissed and nursed him comfortably ensconced in my ample lap.

Baby James was the loveliest little infant you ever saw, and he dropped off to sleep in minutes, when Arabella rocked him in my arms. However, by the time he turned four it was difficult to get him to behave. He’d jump on my seat. Rock back and forth till my springs groaned. There was nothing for it. I decided he had to learn to rock gently. Yes, I admit, I leaned forward and tossed him onto the floor. He did rather bang his little head and yowl loud enough to bring Arabella and three maids rushing into the room.

“Oh! Jamie, poor darling baby!” they cried in one voice. No one thought about my poor rockers or me and my groaning springs. But the imp never rocked me that hard again.

Then there was that day in 1942, when my poor dear mistress sat weeping silently in my arms as she read the letter sent by Andrew; he was off to fight with the British in the war. “What is an artist going to do in the war?” she cried. “Dare I tell him that James is his?” One dainty handkerchief after another was wept into, blown into and the next we heard was that Arabella was sick in her room and delirious. A few days later they transported me from my place in the lounge to her bedroom.

What a delightful room! Pinewood and local oak made the room comfortable and elegant at once. The servants placed me near Arabella’s bed almost nudging a dainty oak bedside table. She belonged rather distantly to my father’s family. Dorothea pursed her table-top lip when she saw what they’d done to me. “An armchair! Harry, how dreadful. With all kinds of people sitting on you. I hope your parents don’t know.”

“I love being an armchair; I’m more use, more comfort and more service than you’ll ever be.” I didn’t say a word about Arabella and our shenanigans. I didn’t have to. Later that year, James declared that he was off to fight in the war.

“How will I manage without you?” Arabella wept. Quite genuine tears they were too.

“Oh, darling! Don’t worry, I’ve asked that nice gentleman in Blackberry Hill to look in every week.”

Mr. Skinner was our next fling. Arabella showed him what to do while delicately seated in my lap. He was nervous at first and when he protested, she pursed her lips, “James said you were to take care of my every need.” She kissed him gently on his forehead.

Dorothea was aghast. “Next they’ll be on the bed!” They were.

All went well until an official letter arrived announcing that James was a hero in the war and decorated… posthumously. For weeks Arabella lay in my arms weeping and wouldn’t go down. “What are we going to do? How will we manage?”

Cook came up one day. “Miz Arabella,” she said, quite firm. “Life must go on. Mister James is dead, but you ain’t.”

A few more tears and Arabella dried her eyes, went down and had me reinstated in the lounge. She returned to my arms with an armload of books. Ten days straight she read one book after another.

Cook brought all her meals there. “Now, Miz Arabella, don’t you go givin’ you’self no headache.”

I shall run the plantation!” she declared, “that Mr Skinner has been getting a lot more than I’d planned.”

When he came in the next day, Arabella invited him into the lounge. “Sit,” she smiled heaving her bosom and closing the door.

“Here?” he looked nervous and excited all at once. She pushed him into my lap, leaned forward and grabbed his necktie, “Skinny, dear, I’ve been looking at the books. And,” she tightened it so he couldn’t breathe, “you’ve been skimming quite a bit. From tomorrow, we don’t need you.”

“You couldn’t manage without me, you strumpet!” he squawked.

She dragged him to the door. “I can! And you’ll not do anything to cross me. I have your signatures on the books and I shall take you to the courts. Now leave.”

She changed overnight. Up early. On the horses, inspecting the plantation. She sold off a small portion on which they’d started the cotton. Every night she’d retire into my arms with a mint julep and her books. The plantation prospered.

James junior turned eighteen and had begun to help his mother when in December 1955, Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a bus. A week later a small group of local blacks went on a rampage.

Arabella was doing her books when she heard shouting and looked out. “Cookie!” she screamed.

Cook, the maids, and several of our men, rushed in.

“They’s lost their heads, Miz,” Cook said. “Jus’ changin’ times. Madness.”

“Put Harold under the doorknob and switch off the lights.”

The rioters threw stones, pushed at the door. I held tight and strong.

A gunshot rang out from an upper window. James shouted, “Get back or I will shoot!”

One more push on the door.

My back cracked, but I held on.

James fired again. The rioters turned back.

Arabella keeps me in her bedroom now.

She has a new recliner in the lounge.

– End –

Harold meets a stranger

By Nilanjana Bose

Hey! What are you doing that for? Who are you anyways? Hey, hey hey, gently, gently, these legs are not to be manhandled. Not so rough, buddy. My name’s Harold, by the way. What’s yours? Yeah, I know I don’t look my age. But it’s true – I was made when wood-plastic-carbon-fibre composites were still at the cutting edge of material engineering. My parents were gutted at the supposed dilution of the pedigree of our hard woodline; the wood part of my make-up comes from high-end forest-grown mahogany you see, but that’s just old fashioned resistance. My generation had no time for all the fear and hesitation, we embraced the changes. If people kept up with using purebred mahogany the way they did in the 20th, 21st centuries, then there would have been no woodline left at all by now.

But what years they were! Several new exoplanets had been discovered. The Third World War was finally over, the Terrorist of all terrorists had been sentenced to exile on Xysenion. The Peace Pact had come into force. The Third Intergalactic Super-Spaceway was under construction. Such exciting times! I know you guys take these things as commonplace, this to-ing and fro-ing between planets and galaxies, with your particulars packed into a device no larger than a toothbrush head. And now they are thinking of an Andromedian Galactic Bypass I hear, because of the traffic snarls on the First Intergalactic, ha!

However, back then, there were only a few daily spaceflights. And certainly no Podular personal transportation to the outer galaxies, all humans and cargo packed into space vehicles like sardines in a tin with simulated graduated gravity controls. Have you ever seen sardines packed into a tin? Hmm, I thought not. But I digress, what I meant to say is – things were fresh and new still at the beginning of the fourth millennium. There was a sense of wonder, of stepping into new, absolutely unknown worlds, exploration and excitement. None of this blasé been-there-done-that about those times.

And I was fresh and new, too. Yeah, yeah, you can snigger all you like. I might look like an antique to you, and it’s true that the prototype design goes right back to the 19th century. A simple, elegant armchair that could be folded up and carried from place to place, the Director’s Chair it was called. But by the time I was created, a whole raft of new features had been cunningly incorporated into the basic design. A marvel of modern engineering, that’s what I am. The Rexysper Recliner the design team called me, but the guy who used me just called me Harold. We both prefer simpler names.

Yes, of course my basic function remains the same – to seat people. But I can do so much more. To understand all that, you must know why I was made in the first place. You see, Rexysper had been discovered, predicted to be a rather Earth-like planet, part of the Alpha Centauri star system, and the Second Intergalactic made it possible to send a delegation up there. Apparently, the spectral analysis showed that plain wood would not last too long in the Rexysperic atmosphere. So the team created this special composite – mahogany, carbon fibre, and biodegradable engineering plastic. Then they tucked in these little oxygen cylinders – feel them here? Those, with a retractable mask. And they added a reclinable back and convertible, climate-controlled hood and padded, extendable seating, so what have you got? A complete Campule. You could land on Rexysper, sit for some time admiring the view or whatever, and then convert the seat into your own independent bed-cum-tent, with its very own heating and oxygen supply. Nifty, or what? And you thought I was just an ordinary armchair.

Let me tell you, there was nothing ordinary about that first flight out to Rexysper, or the man who used me there, or the things I saw.

First off, the flight out was a disaster. No really, it was. The astronavigator went wrong, or maybe it was the human navigator, who knows? Spaceway-rage was not a recognised phenomenon then, traffic density of course was nowhere near the same, but still. We were stuck behind a slow craft making its way to Xysenion from Merlivon for a long time, and who can say what that did to the astropilot? The end of it was that he took the wrong exit off the Second Intergalactic and ended up in Konstrantion instead of Rexysper.

The scientists spent a megaweek arguing amongst themselves, because of course none of the particulars matched, the atmospheric soup, soil compositions, the climate, the topography, nothing. They kept beaming back stuff to the Control-and-Command on Earth, and the C-n-C would send back terse messages like “values off by 50%, stop. Are you crazy, stop. Recheck instruments, recalibrate and resend data, over and out.”

They did all that, and still the readings refused to budge, and everyone spent an unconscionable amount of time bickering about things like Selenium content, and Vanadium values, and the Psi-index of the atmosphere. This went on till some radio guy in the C-n-C spotted the transmissions coming from the wrong co-ordinates, from the opposite end of the Alpha Centauri and pointed that out. So everyone decamped pretty sharpish with red faces.   Fortunately, the Konstrantion atmosphere is quite rich in oxygen, and all the breathing apparatus could be topped up before we took off again.  And though they had some minor issues with finding the right refuelling station back on the Second Intergalactic, it was only a blip and we got to Rexysper finally, only a megaweek late.

My guy, by whom I mean the one who used me, was the coolest head of them all. Not one word in argument the whole megaweek, not one instance of raised voice, or head-scratching in dismay. That was because he was not a scientist and did not care a jot for the readings whichever way the errors went, plus or minus. He was called Benjamin Otembo, and his official designation was Chief Divinopathist. His main job was to examine the cultural potential of the exoplanets, their favourability index for settlement, and their propensity for inspiring art, architecture, design, poetry, pottery or even business models.

He sat out a large part of the megaweek taking photographs of the changing Konstrantion sky and making copious notes on his tablet.

“Ah, an apple green sunrise. Rather, Centaurise. How lovely! I wonder if it’s Picasso I am thinking about? Or was it Van Gogh?”

At other times, he would go off marching and come back with bits and bobs that looked like rocks and dried mud, fossils of strange looking lifeforms, incredibly delicate and geometric. Held up to the chiffony pink light, which is the daylight in Konstrantion, they would gleam like blown-up snowflakes, translucent and beautiful.

“There are more things in heaven and earth, Harold, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” He slapped my armrest with a satisfied thump and a cackle of laughter. “This is one unendingly interesting planet, full of cultural possibilities, really intriguing.”

He found some matted reed like stuff too, and came back all excited and sat quivering for a long time before he made the entries into his log. “Water body visited, turbid, milky-reddish, but can be purified to be potable. Papyrus type plant on edges, possibilities in paper making, building materials. Medicinal applications to be explored. ”

“Can you imagine, Harold?” he whispered in a hushed voice, “You could have a community settled here in a jiffy. Locally sourced building materials, potable water, agriculture, and of course where art is concerned, the sky’s the limit.”

And then of course the ghastly error in coordinates came to light and he packed up his samples and his logs, folded me up with my legs tucked under, and re-boarded the spacecraft for Rexysper, not in the least bit put out. “The more the merrier, Harold, the more the merrier.”

I tell you, I just liked Benjamin Otembo’s attitude.

But as life often turns out, Rexysper was not really merrier. As soon as we landed, (after triple-checking the coordinates) it was clear the stay was going to be well, in one word, fraught. The soil on Rexysper, which was like grits of aquamarine, was plastic-repellent. Something no-one at the C-n-C had predicted. Earth-like, my front left foot! And since every item on board, from forks to the landing module had some plastic composite or other, this meant things kept jigging up and down, grinding deeper, or falling over sideways, sometimes all three together, all of the time. Getting soil samples was out of the question, the little blue grains shuddered away from each scoop, each instrument. Further frenzied bickering broke out among the astroscientists.

Benjamin Otembo was coolly unperturbed, however. “Ah, blue sand,” he muttered as he set up camp, “a bit pretty-pretty, maybe? Cultural minefield potential. Soil should be earthy, all this jewel-toned stuff is best kept out of the surface. Plastic repellent? Hmm hmm…”

He whipped out four large red silk handkerchiefs and wrapped them deftly round my feet and then opened my legs and set me down. The aquamarine sand stayed unmoving under the silk.

He sat down with a thump and whipped out his tablet. “Thought so! You see, Harold, plastic-free is the way forward. On Rexysper at least. Vast potential for natural fibres, paper, cotton, silk, even pure metals perhaps. And aquamarine sands will send the poets into transports of joy, possibly. Not bad, not bad at all, Harold!” and he slapped my armrest in the exact same triumphant way he had done on Konstrantion. “We’ll have this twerking sorted out in no time!”

He then proceeded to wrap everything with cotton, silk and leather wherever he could find an extra shirt or shoe, even using up almost the entire supply of loo paper to wrap the instruments and the feet of the landing module. “No shit, folks.”

They got their soil samples. Thankfully, it did not need a megaweek on Rexysper to figure the settlement potential index, so there was enough toilet paper still left. The problem was: there was no surface water to be seen. The chaps at the C-in-C refused to accept this, though; it contradicted some fancy new hydrosensor that could apparently detect a drop of water across gazillions of light years. “Recheck, resend,” they kept messaging in that terse way they had. More bickering among the scientists – why had no one packed a copy of that new hydrosensor?

Benjamin Otembo just dismantled the long telescopic legs of the landing module, joined two of them to form a long probe, and went poking the blue sand here and there. The sands of course shivered away from the legs, and so he managed to drill quite a long way below the surface. On the third attempt, he sent a second probe down after the first, with a cloth cap tied to its end. The cap, when he withdrew it, was full of a steaming liquid, silvery pale in the midday light.

“Easy-peasy drilling boreholes here,” he called out to the team, “here’s your water, underground I’m afraid, and superheated, free of cost.”

As he packed me up and untied the handkerchiefs, he said, “No question this is high on the settlement indices. But the other had those fossils. That apple green sky. Way more fascinating. The accidental stops turn out much better than the planned destinations in my experience.”

Well, that’s years ago now. You know how that ended – Konstrantion has been settled for decades. I’ve been on other intergalactic expeditions, but nothing like those first ones. Pardon me? Benjamin Otembo is leading a trip to another new exoplanet soon? And he wants his old Harold? Ah, that’ll be good seeing him again. That will indeed be grand.

– End –

The Habit

By Noor AlNoaimi

 

The premise was bleak, she thought as she stepped into the once cheerful reception area. The Town Hospital had a once modern aesthetic; the nurses wore yellow as opposed to the typical white uniforms of the main hospitals in the area. She had once believed in yellow, everyone believed it was the best for poor old grandmother. The expensive services, the Ivy League educated doctors…yeah, they all thought she’d live forever here.

Sadly, Gran pulled the break on life a bit too soon.

“God, I miss you,” she whispered as she sat across the now dusty bed; the same bed where a granddaughter used to come to visit, 4pm sharp, wearing her comfiest sweater to warm the chair next to the old woman that had sired her father.

“Papa does too,” she went on, speaking to the empty space as if it was alive. The decaying walls did not answer; the bed stayed the same, while the corridors remained empty. No more nurses telling her it was all right, natural causes, and other such nonsense. Humans have an expiry date, they were not gods upon the earth, nor were they as her old Jaipur born nanny phrased “Little gods”. She had never contemplated death before she had seen her grandmother’s small, frail body breathe its last breath…no words uttered, no goodbyes.

She simply left, taken away from her. “Nadia…”It was a whisper, an unmistakable voice. His voice. Nobody ever called her Nadia anymore; she was named after the very same person she mourned; yet her mother had quickly edited it with the excuse of it being ’outdated’. Naya, turned around and in the blur- had she been crying? – saw his hand holding a snowy handkerchief.

“I don’t want your damned pity,” she whispered. Dr Faulkner called her by that name often; she guessed it was because Gran used to talk to him about her. Her amazing granddaughter, off to save the world with a mere backpack, Naya thought sarcastically. Education! Education! She had been so passionate about that once; now she stayed at home, keeping to herself with static TV as a companion. Faulkner had books from here on to the roof and he still couldn’t recount saving a woman from old age. Nothing saved people from old age, cancer, or fatal car accidents. Human life was malleable, and everything seemed worthless when thinking about that eventual end.

“You shouldn’t keep coming here,” he said to her turned back. He obviously knew of her odd habit. “The building is to be demolished soon.”

“Then why are you here?” she asked, her hand in a fist. As if he was the god that chose to take away her sun and joy.

“I am here to say goodbye,” he replied, coming to sit across from her by the bed. He took off his spectacles for a moment, something was caught in his eye, but his old withered face remained impassive as he continued. “I have lost a few patients here, some chose to live their last days in our care and some did not. I, however grieve for those that did not have the required awareness to make that decision in their final hours…like our dear Nadia.”

“Mother didn’t want her home. She said old people clashed with her wallpaper,” she commented, unmistakable abhorrence in her voice.

“It is common for many to feel disheartened. I fear for our world, Nadia…That many of us quickly dislodge from a person as soon as they pass, or as soon as we know they are unrecoverable. To your dear grandmother, that was never the case…you were beside her. While I passed lonely patients in their final hours, you were there…praying for her while her eyes closed on our world. You believed…you still believe,“ he said, taking her closed fist in his withered hands.

She had never looked into his eyes before; his faded blue orbs were wet under his white brows, as if he too had a story to tell. “She is gone…I believe that,” she replied, her voice caught in her throat.

“Yet you come here, “ he said shaking his head, as if he thought she was wasting her time. “Your grandmother was more than these walls…this bed.” He said nodding to the empty space next to them. “She was more than doctor visits, and medication…you must understand,” he said while she shook to her fingertips.

“I know, “ she whispered, not trusting her voice to make a bolder statement.

She felt lost, adrift without her compass. Her hand soon relaxed in his grasp, and she let him hold her until he left her to reconstruct her thoughts. As he walked towards the faded doors, with the dim ‘Exit’ sign right above it, she called him back. He stopped and turned to. Naya had never seen him looking so fragile before. It was then she recalled his words:

Many of us quickly dislodge from a person as soon as they pass, or as soon as we know they are unrecoverable. To your dear grandmother, that was never the case…you were beside her. While I passed lonely patients in their final hours, you were there…praying for her while her eyes closed to our world. You believed…you still believe.

 We have family dinners on Tuesdays, I would like it if you joined us then.”

He seemed a bit surprised by her invitation, for he suddenly smiled, his hand on his heart. “I shall do my utmost to make it, “ he replied.

Naya lingered by the bed; it was dark when she finally patted the dusty bedspread. “Granny, you heartbreaker.” She chuckled, making her own deductions about the man that had just left and her dearly departed.

Perhaps there was a story there, indeed.

  • – END-

3585354

Robert Cubitt

…is our reviewer for the October-November 2015 Challenge, the last challenge of the year.

Bob retired from the Royal Air Force after 23 years of service, travelling the world and visiting places like Oman (a small island by the name of Masirah), Cyprus, Malta, Holland, Germany and various parts of the UK. After he retired from the RAF, Bob worked for the Royal Mail as part of their logistics team and stayed with them until 2009.

With time to spare Bob returned to writing with a passion and produced two works of fiction in rapid succession. These had been “works in progress” while he had still been in full time employment and just needed finishing off. Since publishing these books on Amazon he has focused on new projects and now has a total of four fiction and three non-fiction works published, with more in the pipeline.

You may read about Robert Cubitt’s books here:

We had two entries for the challenge and while one is being worked on for publication, the other one is here for your reading pleasure. Well done both Nilanjana Bose and Gerard Bracken! And thank you for participating.

THE CHALLENGE

For the first time we had a visual challenge. Our entrants had to develop a story in 2000 words or less, based on this pictureroxanacrivat2

Thrown Off-track 

by Nilanjana Bose

From Payradanga the tracks run a gentle South-West towards Naihati and then onto Sealdah, straightening at some point almost due South. If Shankar boarded early enough he got a window seat. He climbed into the car now, swinging himself with practised ease over the gap between the platform and the footboard, and went straight to the back end. The seat was empty and he settled down, his sense of mini-triumph failing to spark today.

The train snaked through paddies already alive with the field workers at their sowing. A woman at a communal manmade lake slapped a twisted saree on a flat stone to get the dirt out, a dozen sarees washed already, flapped on a line like giant flags. The line was tied to four slim long branches held together in two unequal Xs, itself holding them together and being held in place by them in turn. Much of his life felt like that unequal X sometimes, tied together with the presence of various strings, each anchoring the other, all at the mercy of the winds. Anything could come undone anytime.

The tracks connect more than the suburbs to the throbbing heart of the metropolis, they crisscross between paddies and orchards and factories and brick kilns, cutting up the land into neat little portions, urban, suburban, semirural, rural, backward. They cut through and classify things in myriad insidious ways, tie and unravel many unequal Xs many times over.

The train drew into Naihati junction, there was much hubbub as passengers got on and off. A gaggle of vendors boarded, there was some on-going altercation at the entrance between one of them and a commuter, but before it could be satisfactorily resolved, the EMU local blared its horn and pulled out in long drawn, smooth bursts of acceleration, like a telescope unfolding. Shankar leaned back and closed his eyes, aloof from it all. The events of yesterday still clouded his morning.

***

When the tracks were laid more than a century ago, the banyan sapling must have been a good distance away from the sleepers.   But now it had unfurled a monumental canopy overhead, its aerial roots touched the ground, formed woody twined trunks and the whole grove almost bordered the raised embankment. Shankar’s hideaway inside it had been devised in teenage, he and a few close friends had claimed it. A few miles from the station, well out of sight and earshot of home. In time they finished school and Manu, Ratan, and Tipu had moved away to the city and beyond. No-one came to the banyan except Shankar now.

He was the only one who stayed back, doggedly commuting every day to a job in the city. There was an ailing grandmother, a younger sister, a widowed mother knitting up cardigans for her small clientele on a second-hand knitting-machine. Moving out was not an option. He still came to the old haunt for some lazy trainspotting in the weekends sometimes; on an early evening after work for some downtime. Over the years he had got to know this home stretch of the track well, the silence and the heat haze on them in a summer afternoon, the sound of them when they hummed with the approach of a train. He could pinpoint the times the locals passed without having to look at his watch.

The other three visited on the major holidays in autumn, they met in the public marquees for the Goddesses – Durga, and Lakshmi and later Kali; the evenings raucous with the new music releases on the loudspeakers, lit with fairy lights. Their lives in the cities seemed characterised by an acute shortage of time, all was change at a fast clip – people moved, jobs changed, buildings came up, every year they had a new set of neighbours. By contrast, the only people that had moved into Payradanga in all this time was the new postmaster, the older one had retired just a month ago.

When Shankar pointed this out to the group on the day of Kalipuja, it turned out that Ratan – who no longer called the festival by its local name, instead said Diwali like any northerner now – knew the family. But apart from them there were no new faces, most families had been around for years, settled into their respective grooves, only the young people steadily crumbled away from the homesteads in search of livelihoods.

***

Shankar spotted the girl on a day off, just weeks before Holi. He had come to the banyan with a rug, a few snacks, and a new book. He looked up between two pages, and she was running between the tracks, her movement fluid, her toes touching down unerringly on the wooden sleepers each time without breaking stride, quite unaware of her surroundings. The train was due, he knew that vaguely from where the sun was in the sky, in fact he could hear a train at the platform, a long honk a few miles away, sounds carried far in still mornings over the fields. He sat motionless, paralysed with unease and indecision for a split second, and then he was out of the grove and running towards her with all the speed he could muster, shouting at the top of his lungs.

“Move out, move out, train’s coming.”

She did not stop and kept running, the same measured pace, touching down light footed. Shankar could hear the lines humming now, the girl was still out ahead of him, unaware or maybe uncaring. He stopped shouting, channelled every bit of energy into drawing alongside her, the gap between them narrowed now, but so also the distance between them and the roaring monster behind. His heart felt as if it would explode inside him if he had to take one more stride, the train honked angrily again, too close now for comfort, the noise too loud in his ears, the sound of the wheels harsh, the rushing column of wind that signalled its arrival, all felt like inches away. With one last extraordinary effort he leaped and drew abreast, unceremoniously yanked her off the tracks. They both tumbled onto the embankment in a heap of flailing limbs and kept rolling over endlessly while the Ranaghat Up passed with a deafening burst of noise above them.

Shankar found his feet unsteadily, shaking with the reaction, “Are you crazy, girl?”

He had seen her around the place, strangers stuck out for miles here, though their paths were unlikely to cross. She was the daughter of the new postmaster. He noticed that her jamun-dark eyes were fixed somewhere near his chin. Involuntarily he rubbed his nose, ran a hand over his jaw, “Can’t you hear or what?”

For an answer, she dealt him a resounding slap and walked off across the fields. Shankar was too non-plussed to protest. He stood gaping, rooted to the spot. When he came back, the book refused to settle him, his nerves jangled and would not be soothed. He rolled up the rug and with a sense of great anti-climax started off home. The whole day had somehow been completely ruined.

***

Shankar strolled into the banyan grove after work, the moon was a few slivers away from being full, enough light to see clearly by. There was a white patch on the ground beneath a pile of darker things. It was a face-towel, topped by a scrap of paper, weighed down by a pack of coconut laddus carefully sat into a terracotta dish, nested into another of water to keep ants away. Shankar opened the pack, sniffed – they were quite fresh, the ghee had soaked into the paper liner in a large smear; he ate one and looked at the note by the light of a match.

“Sorry! And thank you – Joba” was scrawled on it in great looping letters, generous and forceful. Shankar smiled and struck a match again. He wrote a reply on the other side, and arranged it back again exactly the same, weighted with the dish of water. He waited as long as he could, but no-one turned up. The cigarette burnt to a stub, there was no further pretext to linger. He left, taking the laddus with him.

He got through his evening distractedly poking around. Maybe she was not expecting a reply, maybe he was reading too much into a simple gesture, it was perhaps only an apology not an overture. Maybe some animal would move the dish, spill the water and smudge the words, why had he not thought of emptying it out? Maybe the winds would blow away the scrap before she came back, had he chosen the words right? It would be Holi in a few days, maybe he would see her out with the colours, take a chance on splashing some on her too. Ratan should be home for the festival surely, Shankar would cadge an introduction somehow.

But Ratan did not come. Shankar heard that work would keep him away till the end of spring. He could not quite bring himself to ask about Joba over the phone, it just felt too weird. As with the note, he did not have words the right size. Meanwhile, he checked on the banyan every day. The dish soon dried, then overturned and cracked, and the scrap of paper blotched with dirt before it was blown away. Shankar never knew if his rejoinder found the recipient.

The post office remained closed on the day of Holi; Shankar saw no-one from the postmasters’ family. He went out with Tipu and Manu like he did every year. The whole street was a mass of colours, the abeer and rainbow jets of water staining the tarmac and whitewash and white clothes in merry splashes, the powder thrown up in clouds colouring the very air they breathed. Shankar kept an eye out, but did not chance upon her anywhere.

Manu and Tipu left in a couple of days, and Shankar could not find the right conversational slot to mention Joba to them. And what was there to talk about anyway? A sudden accident averted, a slap for his pains, a pack of sweets and a cryptic apology – how could one explain them and their sudden impact on him without sounding cheesy? It niggled at Shankar – why had she run like that towards certain death? why the slap and the note? and why should the whole thing shift his priorities one infinitesimal bit even?

He saw her a few days later, across the carriage in the train returning from Sealdah. She stood alone near the door, a stray lock of hair fluttering across her face. He smiled tentatively, she returned his greeting. He walked alongside her as they left the platform.

“Can we walk to the banyan?”

Her eyes were still fixed at chin level, she would not lift them up to make eye contact with him. Her answer was indistinct, delivered in a flat monotone, “I take a rickshaw home.”

The rickshaw stand was not more than a minute’s walk, so he would have to make it quick. He said everything in one long rushed breath, keeping his face lowered, his gaze fixed on the paving. They reached in no time, she interrupted him with a non-committal smile, got into a rickshaw which pulled away smoothly.

Shankar finally brought it up with Ratan, worked Joba’s name into the conversation one morning over phone, clumsy and circuitous. Immediately Ratan’s voice cackled in his ears, “Why, dude? Are you thinking of sending a proposal or what?”

“Oh, come on, Rottu! Can’t a guy –”

Ratan broke in without paying the least attention, “Well, she is a lovely girl, unattached from what little I know. Pretty brilliant at sports and all that. You’ll have to learn sign language though. She’s deaf, lost her hearing when she was a child. Meningitis or something. But she lip-reads so well you’d never make out.”

~~~~

Glossary

Payradanga, Naihati, Ranaghat – towns/villages in the Greater Kolkata area

Sealdah – a railway station in Central Kolkata

Laddus – a type of Indian sweet

Abeer – powdered colour used for Holi

Holi – a spring festival where colours, dry and liquid, are splashed on friends and neighbours

Durga, Kali – goddesses signifying Shakti, the female form of Divine energy. The worship of Durga during autumn is the major festival in Kolkata and its surroundings

The Iron Road

by Gerard Bracken

Annie could feel the tightness grasp her lungs as she willed her legs to keep moving at a pace to match the railway ballast gaps between the shining frosted rail sleepers while she compensated for the unevenness of the stone surface. All around her was shrouded in the drapes of the early morning icy mist.

The lone rail marker post ahead indicated one mile and uphill gradient to Mary field railway station, she ran past familiar landmarks, all was quiet along the rail track this cold winter morning with most of the town’s people congregated at the station.

Barry was in single line with all the young army recruits, there was an air of youthful eagerness and enthusiasm about the adventure that lay before them. As the column halted in front of the station house, he could see his father and mother in the crowd among a sea of red waving flags and hands.

He picked out his father’s face, a mix of pride and dread, pride that his sons volunteered and dread at what lay ahead in the old country, Europe. He wished he was young enough to be there to share their fears, to climb up that trench ladder into the fiery abyss, to console them when they lost their comrades and lay with them in their last moments should it come to pass.

His mother eyes were red and glazed with tears, for years she had seen off her husband and sons to the mine at the start of each shift and feared that its dark dank interior would steal them away forever, entomb them in a sarcophagus of coal, now the talons of war had reached their small town and would sweep up its men into a maelstrom of death and destruction. She had brought them into the world in the sharp physical pain and soothing love of birth, she did not want to bear the pain of their loss.

For all of Annie’s best efforts to run along the ladder like track, the rail marker posts were not coming up fast enough and she calculated she would not make it to the station in time. She was coming up on the footpath to Breeches junction, she decided to take a short cut and make for the old disused timber water tower by the over grown mine rail siding.

The Iron Road with its four-foot-eight-and-a half-inch Stephenson standard gauge track followed the meandering river path along the valley floor; the twin tracks meant many things to many people over the years. Everyone who was born, lived and died in the town was connected to those two long steel lines that ran through generation after generation as it did along each bend and curve of its snake like path. Annie and Barry were two young people whose lives were divided by and joined by the track.

The main employer in the town of Tocher was the coal mine, which ran deep into the sides of the valley with tilting seams of coal excavated by men and for a time young boys on their backs in 10-hour shifts. This was the town’s main source of employment and income. In the great tradition of coal mining towns, the Iron Road divided the town physically, economically and socially.

On one side of the divide was a mining family called the Dixons, originally from a North England coal town, they could proudly trace back their descendants 5 generations to coal miners. They lived in the shadow of the mine on the Broadlands estate which was originally built by the mining company.

Barry Dixon was the next in line to join the mine, his father and two brothers all worked there, they were miners through and through: brave, hardworking and hard living men. Barry was different, he was quiet, gentle and an avid book worm who spent all his spare hours at the back wall looking at the trains and waving to drivers and passengers alike. He was in the top five at the local school. Railways and trains was his passion and he wanted to be a rail Engineer. His father, Big John, had shovel sized hands and was built like a bear, he wanted Barry to follow in his footsteps and be a miner, his mother, Julia knew better, this son was destined for a different path to his father and brothers.

On the other side of the Iron Road and 2 miles away, in the better area of Saint Chalfont, was a spacious three story, detached Victorian house with lush ornate gardens also backed on to the track. Here lived the Clarendon’s who were of middle class stock from Scotland, whose lineage was that of doctors and solicitors. Arnold Clarendon, head of the family ran a busy medical practise in Bury Street for select patients, he had great plans for his two daughters. Annie Clarendon was the oldest, a keen academic, athletic and was destined to study medicine and eventually take over family practise. She was set for her departure at the end of summer to medical school.

Barry started to hang out at the railway station and stock yards in his early teens and after time got to know the rail hands. The yard chief turned a blind eye to company rules and regulations and encouraged him to ride on the foot plate and assist the drivers. Barry’s enthusiasm would spill over at family meal times and slowly his father could see that this son was not destined for the mines.

Barry’s family couldn’t fund a university education for Barry, the fees and lodgings were not within their reach. The yard chief had gone to the same school as Barry’s father and they frequented the same public house at the weekends. The topic of Barry’s love of trains came up in conversation and the yard chief mentioned the annual rail company scholarship.

Big John was a family man and wanted his sons close by in the mines but mining was hard, physical and dangerous work which, over the years, was etched into their bodies, he knew his wife constantly worried about them and he could see the relief in her face on their return after each shift. The ominous clouds of closure hung periodically over the mine and so, after much soul searching and discussion with Julia, they encouraged Barry to sit the scholarship exam and interview.

Barry scored high in the exam and won over the interview board with his working knowledge of the rail yard and was awarded the scholarship, he would leave for university in September.

Annie Clarendon’s family were of the Humanist tradition and were conscience of their privileged status in life. It was therefore important that they return this good fortune to the less fortunate.

The hospital set up by the mine company was in poor condition, under resourced and under staffed. Every Saturday, Annie’s father held a free clinic at the hospital for anyone who needed medical attention, at an early age; Annie would assist her father at these clinics each summer.

Barry got some paid work at the rail yard, while assisting the yard men shunting coal trucks, Barry’s hand got caught in the track switch handle, resulting in a cut and badly bruised hand, the yard chief sent Barry to the hospital.

When Barry’s name was called, he was seen by Arnold Clarendon, who after much pocking and prodding, deduced that no bones had been broken and once cleaned, the hand needed to be bandaged. The cleaning and bandaging was gently and expertly carried out by Annie, Barry sat there his heartbeat pounding in his ears as his mind waded through a river of words trying to string a meaning introduction sentence. In the end, he was afraid to say anything in case he sounded stupid. Annie, on the other hand blended medical speak, with comforting words and small talk as she went about her task.

After an awkward thanks and good-bye he headed home. They met each other at the clinic for the next four Saturdays to check the healing of his hand and apply fresh bandages. Barry savoured every moment in her company. Annie broke the silence, by picking a book she had read and recited its plot to Barry. Barry then followed suit. They agreed to read a different book each week and compare their understanding of its story line and characters. After the four weeks, knowing it was now or never, he bucked up the courage to ask her to meet him for walks along the tracks.

It was 1914, the Victorian era of separation of the sexes and class still lingered and two young teenagers from different upbringings meeting alone for walks would not have been tolerated in a small town with so many prying eyes.

During their trackside walks, they built a bridge of trust and understanding with stories of childhood, family, friends, books and interests, although they were breaking with the strictly tiered class hierarchy, they were conscience of their respective families’ positions within the towns separated communities, and not wanting to cause any more hurt should they be caught, kept their meetings as close friends and nothing else.

Barry would talk lyrically about the history of the track, the names given to the track sections and the bends, the train engines, their operating pressures, their individual mechanical quirks and dislikes and how the drivers could coax the best out of engine and truck wagons.

Annie described her privileged upbringing with nannies, a maid, a butler, holidays and her distant mother, who mixed with the town’s circle of socialites. She explained some of the basic medical procedures her father would let her assist him with and the odd behaviour of the more eccentric patients at her father’s Bury Street clinic.

Their plans were cut short by the news of war in Europe, Britain’s entry into the war was followed by Canada’s automatic entry, and there was unanimity across the country, in every city, town and village and across the class spectrum. The Canadian Prime Minister called for a national supreme effort offering assistance to Britain. Canada’s army and navy was woefully under prepared for the task ahead, yet in weeks, 32,000 men had signed up for the Canadian Expeditionary force, among them Barry and his brothers. Annie also signed up to the Canadian Army Medical Corps nicknamed ‘Bluebirds’ after the blue uniforms and white veils.

Barry received his departure orders like all the other town volunteers to board a special charted train for Valcartier Camp near Quebec City. With heavy hearts, Barry and Annie met for what could be their last walk along the same tracks that should have taken them to university and not to the battlefields of Europe.

They talked about their futures after what the newspapers headlined this short and glorious war, they spoke of love, careers and marriage, they had a plan. It was fitting that they should carve out their future by the tracks. The tracks had always been a metaphor for hope and uncertain future for so many people over the years as they stretched into horizon.

Barry settled into a window seat, his suitcase stored overhead, his brothers sat opposite grinning at him, he thought he should feel sadness and fear, but he did not, he had his bothers to protect him and he to protect them and a reason to live.

In his heart he knew that Annie would be by the track, as the train pulled away to a fanfare of cheers and band music, he could see all the yard men waving as the engines blasted their whistles. As the train picked up speed heading to Breeches junction, he looked for the old water tower and saw Annie for a split second and smiled.

Wherever the Iron Road took him; he had the love of family and Annie.

hpim3640Our reviewer for the September-October challenge, was once again Susan Toy – the generous writer and passionate supporter of writers and writing.

Susan took time out from her busy schedule, while travelling, to review five entries of approximately 800 words each. She has provided detailed feedback and  encouragement to all entrants. In her response to the Bahrain Writers’ Circle’s Creative Workshop, she said, “…thank you for asking me to critique for your group a second time. You do have many excellent writers among you and I commend everyone for continuing to write and submit to these challenges.”

Susan is a bookseller, an award-winning publishing sales representative, a literacy teacher and a promoter of fellow authors and their books through her company, Alberta Books Canada. Susan is also an author and publisher, her imprints are IslandCatEditions and IslandShorts. Through Alberta Books Canada, Susan represented authors directly, helping them find promotion for themselves and their books, seeking out new readers, and assisting them in making wise career decisions.

Susan continues to promote authors and good books in general, throughout the world and online, on her blog, Reading Recommendations. She created the writing contest, Coffee Shop Author, has sat on the Board of Directors of the Fernie Writers’ Conference, served as a member of the Calgary Distinguished Writers Program steering committee, and was a member of the board of directors for the Writers’ Guild of Alberta. She is now concentrating on her own writing and publishing and divides her time between Canada and her home in the Caribbean.

You can read more about Susan here: https://islandeditions.wordpress.com/about-susan-m-toy/

You can read about Susan’s books here: https://islandeditions.wordpress.com/island-in-the-clouds-a-bequia-novel/

And her other thoughts here: https://theviewfrommytrailerandverandah.wordpress.com

Thank you once again, Susan!

The September-October challenge was to:

Write a monologue of around 500 -800 words about a person/your character who is breaking up, could be: with a lover/ girl-boyfriend/ husband/wife/ resigning a long-term post at a company or institution.

The entrants were encouraged to be creative in their responses and all of these entries were highly imaginative. Well done everyone and thank you for participating.

The entries are published in the order they were received.

A HARD TIME LEAVING

by Gordon Simmonds

On that moonless night in Tabriz, the street lights were off and not even a glimmer escaped from behind the blackout curtains of the buildings on either side of the street. The only sound was the echo of my footsteps as I picked my way down the middle of the road; it was too dark to negotiate the uneven pavements. There was no traffic.

Iraqi bombers hadn’t made any night raids so far, but the curfew and blackout had been in force since eight o’clock; two hours before. Alert for any sound that wasn’t my own, I left the relative safety of the Armenian quarter and turned into Shahnaz Avenue, sensing rather than seeing, the trees along the kerb edge and the smart shops lining the empty street. Here, the pavement was wide and even, so I walked quickly and quietly, aware that the Revolutionary Guards would be patrolling.

Not far to go now. The bus – if it came – would stop on the corner with Pahlavi Avenue, no more than two or three hundred meters away. But then…., I could hear voices. Far away at first, but gradually getting closer as I walked on. Not knowing what would happen if I took these people by surprise, I deliberately stamped my feet with each step, which sounded loud in the silence of the night. Sure enough, as they came to within thirty or forty meters of me, the talking suddenly stopped followed a second later by the unmistakable ‘tchuk tchuk’ of an AK47 being cocked.

They couldn’t see me and I couldn’t see them, but there was no doubting the urgency of the challenge in Persian. I guess they said “Who goes there,” or some such thing, and I replied “Englistani.” I put down my bag, stood stock still and let them come to me. I was suddenly blinded from the light of a small torch as they approached, and said “Mihan Tour,” which was the name of the well-known company whose bus I was to meet. There were two of them in military battle fatigues, so in broken Farsi I explained that I was catching the bus to Istanbul from the stop on Pahlavi. Suspiciously they asked for, and inspected my passport, and then to my absolute surprise, the guy with the rifle slung it over his shoulder (with a live round still in the chamber), and the guy with the torch picked up my bag and said “Come!” They escorted me to the bus stop .

With the war in full swing, no one could be certain that the bus would still be operating, but some time later, its headlights became the only light in the city as it arrived pretty much on schedule. It was a whistle stop, and I was the only passenger to get on. The two soldiers loaded my bag, bid me a friendly goodbye and went on their way – still with a loaded weapon. I sat next to an Iranian guy, who eased the journey with his conversation in excellent English. It was April 1982 and I remember the date clearly, because my fellow traveler translated the news broadcast from the bus radio. Some of the passengers were gloating over the fact that Argentina had just invaded the Falklands.

Two days and eighteen hundred kilometers later, I arrived in Istanbul; then on to England. I never went back.

Revolution, war, and circumstances beyond my control had destroyed the order of my life and family. And with that last emotional night in mind , among other things, I wrote these words :-

When I am gone, I will walk into the light

But my soul must bear the scars of an impure life.

I must reflect upon the guilt of countless sins

Developed and accumulated in a lifetime littered with flawed judgement.

The guilt for all the things I should have done, and didn’t do.

For all the words I should have said, but didn’t say.

For mistakes I made in selfishness, or ignorance, or crass stupidity.

I’ve made beds which were too hard to rest my faulted body

Or ‘pon which the fates decreed I should not lie.

I know this now, but careless in the foolish flush of youth, I never thought

That consequence succeeds both action and inaction.

I no longer dream. All that remains is a perpetual haunting image which will stay with me until I die. I see the bedroom; Vanik asleep, Vartan awake and standing in his cot. The tense farewells have been said, and as I kiss my son he looks up and says ‘Baeets menk menag enk’ which in Armenian means “But we shall be alone!”

He was right – I didn’t see my son again for thirty years.

RESKINNING

by Michelle Schultz

I suppose on the morning of our last day together, a goodbye is in order.

I lean forward and brace both hands on the sink so I can see better to take a catalog of my body’s faults. Without my glasses, my features almost blur into beauty. Almost, but not quite.

My teeth are crooked. Despite my begging for braces, Mom insisted that tuition was more important than my vanity. My nose is too big for my face, and no amount of makeup makes it look any less ridiculous. The magazines were wrong about that. The lazy eye that persists even after eye patches and other intrusive measures sits stubbornly to one side, staring at something or someone else.

I hate my face. I can’t wait to be rid of it. Just think of it: after today, no one will glance at me and away while I’m talking, wondering if I’m speaking to them or someone behind them.

The body is no better. I have no discernible shape, whether hips or waist or bust. My fashion blogs say that I should love my less-than-svelte body, but I must dress to make myself look taller. Long pants and tall shoes are in order because they give a slimming effect. I think these are mixed messages, but I bought the pants and shoes anyway.

I won’t have to buy them after today.

Those government agencies or whatever have finally passed legislation allowing minors to re-skin with parental approval. Although my mother does not approve, my father’s girlfriend was all too happy to put the paperwork in with Dad’s name. She reskinned when she was only twenty and Dad was nothing but pleased, so she thinks that I should have that opportunity too.

She’s gorgeous. The elasto-skin of her face is poreless, without blemish. I won’t ever have a zit again, nothing to embarrass me during these last few years of high school. I won’t even have to worry about frizzy hair during my prom. The synthetic hair they implant in my synthetic skin will do exactly what I want so long as I don’t change my mind for a few years. By then, I’ll be an adult and can get reskinned whenever I want. My teeth will all be ceramic, and I can chose to get whatever eye color I want.

Gina, the girlfriend, says that she doesn’t have the visual acuisy, acuitry, acuziwhatzit that she used to have, whatever that means, but I don’t care. I have a lazy eye. I would give anything not to have that in school pictures anymore. If I have to wait a few years for cybernetics to catch up with meat bodies, then I’ll wait. I can always get these eyes taken out in a few years and replaced .

The only weird part is paying for it. I have to donate my eggs once I turn eighteen or go to jail for breaking a contract. I don’t know what I would do with the eggs as I don’t even have a boyfriend much less a desire for a bunch of screaming brats. Might as well put them to good use, right?

Once they plane all the awkward angles off my skull and suck all the fat out of me, there’s no way Jeremy won’t look at me. He said I had horse teeth in elementary school, but reskinning wasn’t possible then. I’ll be better now. I’ll be all fixed.

In two years, our senior pictures will make it into the school paper. Best Dressed, I imagine. Maybe we’ll be Prom King and Queen. It would be nice to get asked to a dance. I’ll have something to do with my weekends other than study.

So goodbye, ugly body. This is the beginning of the rest of my life, and I won’t be taking your stupid eye and flat chest with me. Hello, reskinning.

I can’t wait to meet the real me.

Quitting Addiction

by Mounira Fakhro

Never had I thought breaking up on this addiction could be this agonising.

Due to recent allergic reaction towards this delicacy of sweets I decided to quit it once and for all. Though for a chocoholic girl in her early twenties, quitting all kinds of chocolate products appeared to be so much harder to do than I earlier predicted when making such a decision. On the first day, it was quite painful to distract my thoughts of craving for it, especially since there were still dozens of chocolate thrown around in my bedroom, I hid the chocolate somewhere far of my sight and gave the rest away to my cousins and offering it to anyone I came across that day. And for the rest of the evening I held myself from having any sweets, thinking it was good to lose a few kilos by skipping the after-lunch sweets. By that, worst day came to an end.

However, little had I known that the worst is yet to come. Second day came, and so was that time of the month when cravings are almost impossible to control. I would always satisfy it by eating a whole jar of Nutella chocolate but now I need to find something else…now that I think about it, all my favourite sweets has an amount of chocolate no matter how many come up in my mind. Therefore, I spent the most painful day of the month without my serotonin dose I usually get from chocolate and settled for a plain vanilla ice-cream. Surely its cool calmed me and its sweetness filled my craving for sweets and put the chocolate craving on hold, wonder if it’ll last.

By the third day, the rash that spread all over my arms and legs has begun to subside from the last time I had chocolate, and the itch was almost gone, which was absolutely relieving, thinking to myself how my efforts in resisting chocolate is finally bearing its fruit. It was a nice day compared to the heat waves you’d usually get in summer and thought of doing some writing at this new café that’s opened up nearby and try their drinks while at it. So here I was, in front of the table, finished setting up my laptop and heading to the counter to make my order. What I do order when trying out coffee shops’ drinks has always been a medium-sized cup of hot chocolate, and this not being an option anymore made my day hella frustrating. I ended up ordering green tea keeping in mind its ability to supress the appetite though I highly doubt it’ll supress my urge for having chocolate in any way. I had never realized not eating it would affect my habits and routines this greatly.

Forth day wasn’t much easier, for I had gone to a birthday party of a relative of mine with chocolate being the main ingredient in the birthday cake. ‘’It’s a divine test of will strength.’’ I thought to myself, and was able to stall enough time for the little kids to finish off the cake before being offered a piece. I can’t remember which methods I had used; the lack of chocolate has been affecting my concentration and my memory a bit and barely keeping a record of it all.

Fortunately, since the fifth day and so forth, chocolate has been more absent from my mind than before and days would go by without even realizing any feelings of struggling with my urges and craving. Also spending the day without any mention of it has become more and more manageable. The rash has been healing up pretty nicely and barely leaving any traces of scars, and I even lost a couple of kilos a week after! I guess good things really do occur after bad events, I’ve also grown appreciative of green tea and grew fond of vanilla ice-creams, I do hope I don’t develop any allergic reactions to it or else I’ll go through another divine test of will.

The Farewell

By Mohamad Faouaz

I look at her one more time. The doubts resurface again. Should I be doing this? Perhaps we can try again for a few more weeks, but the specialists that examined her said there was nothing they can do. I took her to see the experts but to no avail. It was too late. It was pointless to carry on and it had to end today, a clean break and final farewell.

As I look at her from the covered porch, she stands there before me in her once glorious red dress. The rain falling on her once bright and glistening skin, now faded and dulled by time. Her eyes look at me soulfully, beckoning me to reconsider. I recall those eyes that winked at me so long ago, as they shone in the dark and twinkled in the sunlight. Those eyes are now greyed and sad, the rain tracing around their edges and dropping like tears to the ground.

I feel as though I am betraying her. We had been through so much together. She had supported me throughout the last 10 years. She had been the single constant in my life. Never letting me down. She was always there at the end of the day to take me home after a hard days work. She made sure I was safe and warm. She entertained me on those long journeys, singing and talking all the way worrying that I would fall asleep at the wheel.

When my first son was born, she was the one to carry him home from the hospital. She cradled him in her soft warm arms keeping him safe as if he were her own.

She carried him to his first day at school and back, she was there when he had a fever and I had to rush to see a doctor.

She was there when I moved jobs and house. She was always there to help and was ever loyal. Never asking for anything, apart from a drink down the Local once a week. I feel a sadness that it had to end now.

I shall miss those drives down to the coast, she was my companion on all my trips and was witness to many changes in my life. As I have witnessed the effects of time and the elements taking their toll on her beautiful body. She continued to be there unrelenting and always bidding my commands.

My friends told me I should find another, more attractive and younger. Yes, there were a few that were more beautiful than her, some with sleeker figures and better structure, but she had that something that seemed to call out to you.

The experts had said there was nothing to be done. Her once smoothly harmonious voice that sang to me in the morning was replaced with a gargling cough. It was too late. It has to be done.

As I am turning towards the door, I cannot resist one more look at her. A thought comes into my mind as the clouds pass and blue sky breaks through the gray monotony, perhaps parts of her will make others happy. I feel better at that thought, and walk back into the warm dry house into the arms of my wife.

It had been a week since my red Toyota Corolla failed its MOT test and many mechanics had come and gone but they could not do anything for the car.

It was time for a new younger and faster model that will be my companion for the coming years, to keep me warm and sing and talk to me on life’s many journeys.

 

Susan M Toy

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Our reviewer for the single entry received for our July-August Challenge was Susan Toy – a bookseller, an award-winning publishing sales representative, a literacy teacher, and a promoter of fellow authors and their books through her company, Alberta Books Canada. Susan is also an author and publisher, her imprints are IslandCatEditions and IslandShorts. Through Alberta Books Canada, Susan represented authors directly, helping them find promotion for themselves and their books, seeking out new readers, and assisting them in making wise career decisions.

Susan continues to promote authors and good books in general, throughout the world and online, on her blog, Reading Recommendations. She created the writing contest, Coffee Shop Author, has sat on the Board of Directors of the Fernie Writers’ Conference, served as a member of the Calgary Distinguished Writers Program steering committee, and was a member of the board of directors for the Writers’ Guild of Alberta. She is now concentrating on her own writing and publishing and divides her time between Canada and her home in the Caribbean.

You can read more about Susan here:  https://islandeditions.wordpress.com/about-susan-m-toy/

You can read about Susan’s books here: https://islandeditions.wordpress.com/island-in-the-clouds-a-bequia-novel/

And her other thoughts here: https://theviewfrommytrailerandverandah.wordpress.com

Thank you Susan! 

And now for our July-August entry… The challenge was:

“Your story should have 2 characters, an object, a location, a dilemma, a trait. Mix them all together and you have a plot – your word limit is 2,000 words.”

The Reluctant Boatman

Extract from the Memoirs of an Industrial Mercenary by Gordon Simmonds

In the summer of 1975, I was working for a small instrument company in Waringstown, Co. Down, assigned to sort out a problem at a water treatment plant in bandit country. Bandit country was anywhere in South Armagh where the IRA had a strong and active presence. This plant was situated in an idyllic setting high up in the Mountains of Mourn and not far from Newry.

The highlight of this particular job was spending lunch hours fly-fishing in the lough not far from the plant. The weather was fine and sunny, the trout were rising in their thousands all over the lake, but none seemed hungry, at least, not for my fly. So I caught nothing, but then, fishing isn’t necessarily about catching fish–or so I tell myself.

The lowlight occurred during a trip to Newry. I had decided to replace a motor in the plant and drove to a supplier in the town. The motor wasn’t very big, but it was fairly heavy, so I sort of bundled myself backwards out of the shop door carrying this heavy motor in my arms, almost colliding with a passing soldier. Now this was not any old soldier. He was in full patrol mode, rifle unslung – locked and loaded no doubt (as the Americans would say), and more significantly, he wore a red beret with a Pegasus badge. Oops! Bumping into a member of the Parachute Regiment is not a good idea at any time, but in the middle of bandit country . . . not good.

He wasn’t a dwarf, so he wasn’t Happy. In fact he was rather tall, dark, and carried the sort of features that wouldn’t shrink from jumping out of a planeat ten thousand feet with just a scrap of silk between him and oblivion. He glared at me with obvious disdain, and despite my English accent, he either took me for a bandit, a collaborator, or both, because he proceeded to give me the third degree:“Who are you?What are you doing?Where are you going?”He growled.

Only a few short years before, I would have outranked him both in terms of seniority and rank. But now I had long hair and a beard . . . and he had a gun. Besides, I don’t think he would have taken too kindly if I had come out with the old ‘name, rank and number’ routine, so I didn’t try. It did make me think however, that if they treat every innocent person like this, its little wonder that so many in the area supported the IRA and despised the Para’s. On the other hand, every patrol around this area meant he never knew whether this would be the one when he’d be shot at and killed or wounded, as had been the case with so many of his comrades.

Commuting to and from the plant meant travelling through Lurgan. Along the main street I had noticed a boat laid upright against a wall with a for sale sign. £45 it said, complete with an outboard motor. It was about ten feet long and quite wide in the beam, with buoyancy tanks down either side. The hull was painted a bright British racing green and white on the inside. Over the course of a few nights, I considered the idea, and eventually thought it would be good for a bit of off-shore fishing. So, of course I bought it.

I didn’t own a trailer and since I was young and already stupid, I reckoned I would lash it to the roof rack. Bearing in mind I was driving one of the old Czech Skodas, the boat was probably bigger than the car. But, as I said – young and stupid. The boat was a great hit, though, and once Dad acquired a trailer, he and the boat spent many pleasurable hours fishing off Port Muck on the Islandmagee. I was away from home much of the time so I look back with regret that I missed most of those fishing trips.

Before I get to the main story, two other boating incidents come to mind. On a nice sunny day I decided to go for a sail on my own. I hitched up the trailer, drove down to Whitehead and launched the boat from the ramp there. The engine came off the Ark, but was still very reliable and invariably started on the first pull of the rope – and so it did this day – which was a shame, because I’d forgotten to loop the ballast bag over the bow. (The boat was so buoyant that without putting ten kilos of lead in the front, the bow would rise up under power. This lead was kept in a haversack, and we looped the strap over the bow post).

Still young and still stupid, I thought I could easily fix the bag without shutting the engine down. Well . . . The engine was ticking over at minimum revs when I let go of the tiller. I managed to reach as far as the middle of the boat before the engine flopped over on full lock to the left, which meant the propeller was pushing the boat anti-clockwise. It began to spin in a tight circle. In fact, within a split second, the boat was spinning on its own axis so that I almost fell overboard. Instead, I ended up sprawled in the bottom. It was like being in a washing machine; the boat was spinning so fast that I had to struggle to stand, but in the end, I did manage to claw my way back to the engine. After two or three spectacular pirouettes, I had things back under control and half expected a round of applause from the audience around the little harbor. I cut the engine, fixed the ballast and nonchalantly went on my way, as though nothing had happened.

The second incident came on another fine day. Dad and I set out from Port Muck and puttered the boat about half a mile from the harbor where we cut the engine and dropped the anchor (a pick-axe head on the end of a rope – nothing but the best for us!). We set up our rods and I was the first to drop my baited line into the water. Straight away I got a huge bite. The rod bent double and I fought to reel in this great fish it had to be size of a cod or haddock.

Every now and then the line would go slack and I had to reel like mad to keep it taught before once again the fish turned and tried to escape. The fish was pulling so hard I had to set the drag on my reel, allowing the line to feed out slowly under extreme pressure to prevent breakage. For perhaps five minutes, Dad and I were both totally absorbed in fighting this fish. Every time I reeled it in a little, the fish would run and I would be forced to feed the line out again.

Maybe it was the sound of breaking waves, or a sixth sense, I don’t know, but in the midst of all this action, I turned round – and there, not fifty metres behind us, were the soaring cliffs and jagged rocks of a little island just outside the harbor. I dropped the rod and made a lightning dash for the engine which started first time, once again, so we were able to motor away to safety. Another few seconds and we would have been served on the rocks without a drink. We had dropped anchor in what proved to be a rip tide. The fish I’d hooked was actually the hook itself catching and releasing on the bottom as the fast current rushed us toward the rocks.

Looking out the front room window of our house in Ballycarry, you could see down the hill to the causeway across to Islandmagee and beyond those green fields to the Irish Sea; way off into the distance are the shores of Scotland. It was a popular joke in the village that if you could see Scotland, it was going to rain. If you couldn’t see Scotland, it was already raining.

On a clear day you could just make out the cottages on the Scottish coast, like little white dots against a green field background, and I often wound the kids up by telling them I could see a little old man sitting in front of his cottage, smoking a pipe. They would then spend ages staring through binoculars trying to find him. Of course, a tiny dot, even at times-ten magnification, is still only a slightly less tiny dot, so if any of the kids are reading this now . . . I was lying!

Since I am definitely a fair weather fisherman, this particular day must have started out fine, because Dad agreed that a day’s fishing was a good idea. But instead of going to our usual fishing ground off Port Muck, we decided to try the sea in Browns Bay for a change. Now, Browns Bay is a mile or so round the coast from Port Muck, so it made sense to use the ramp at Ballylumford, which was closer.

In due course the boat was launched and we puttered our way round the headlands into Browns Bay. We spent perhaps an hour fishing, but nothing was biting so we packed up and moved past the next headland into Port Muck Bay. By the time we arrived there, the weather was changing. The sky had darkened as clouds rolled in, and the wind was stiffening. The sea, which had been calm and benign, was gradually becoming choppier and choppier. Without dropping a line we decided to call it a day and pointed the boat back to Ballylumford.

The wind and waves were coming in from the north, but we had to sail northwest, directly across the incoming storm. As the sea got higher, we realized we couldn’t maintain this direction without being swamped or capsizing, so I steered directly into the wind and hoped we could turn and use it to still get past the headland.

Here I had a dilemma, I could persist in trying to round the headland, or I could turn downwind and motor into Port Muck harbor, walking to Ballylumford to retrieve the car and trailer. But there were no roads in the direction of Ballylumford – which meant trekking across fields and hedgerows for a mile or more. Since I was wearing thigh-high sea boots, it was not a prospect I was looking forward to,

So I stubbornly maintained this direction for maybe an hour with the seas getting higher and higher. Eventually I realized we weren’t going get around the headland, but by then, the situation was at a point where the seas were so high, I couldn’t turn safely even though I wanted to, and all that was happening was we were being pushed out further and further from shore. The crew of a passing yacht shouted over and asked if we needed a tow, but since they were sailing at right angles to the wind, it would not have helped.

Finally the boat stopped riding the waves and began ploughing through them. I clearly remember being oblivious to the danger and shouting “Yee-haa!” as the first of a succession of waves broke over the bow soaking us both in a spume of cold Irish Sea water. It was scary, but at the same time, exhilarating. All this time, Dad sat stoically in the middle of the boat watching everything but saying nothing – even now, I wonder what was going through his mind, but I chose the title of this story because I’m sure he must have been saying to himself “I’d rather not be here.” I can remember the day so clearly, with Dad gripping the gunwales with either hand, looking like a drowned rat, while the sea tossed us about like a cork. Neither during nor after did he ever criticize my decision. I know he’d seen a lot worse during the Arctic convoys but if it had been me, I’d have said something like “For crying out loud Gordon. Turn the bloody boat!!”

Eventually a small patch of calm water appeared as though out of nowhere, but by the time I realized I could turn, it was too late and it had disappeared. Maybe five minutes later, I was ready when another, larger patch came up, and swung the tiller over. That plucky little boat turned on a sixpence and we were away. Despite taking an hour to travel half the distance into the wind, it took no more than five minutes to motor downwind and into Port Muck harbour.

I left Dad minding the boat and spent the next half-hour or so ‘yomping’ across hill and dale, through hedges, and over fences with a couple of kilos of sea boot on each leg. I retrieved the car and trailer, picked up Dad and the boat from Port Muck, and headed home for tea. Oh happy days!!

The title of this story was the first that came to mind when I decided to write these memoirs. Not long afterwards, Dad bought a bigger boat with a bigger engine and most importantly . . . some life jackets!

Liam Saville

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Liam Saville was our appraiser and critic for the month’s challenge. Many thanks to Liam for perhaps the most detailed feedback our writers have ever received!

Liam lives in Sydney Australia with his wife, two children, and their German Shepherd.

He is a former member of the Australian Army and has studied at the Royal Military College Duntroon. Liam also served for several years as a police officer in his home state of New South Wales, and currently works full time in a regulatory and enforcement role with a public sector agency in Sydney.

Liam is the author of two novellas, Predator Strike and, Resolute Action, both of which feature Australian Defence Force Investigator, Captain Sam Ryan.

Liam Saville

Author of:

Predator Strike

Resolute Action

Find me on Facebook Follow me on Twitter

Visit my Website: https://liamsaville.wordpress.com/books2/predator-strike/

The Challenge was based on a news item in the GDN on Sunday 15th February in which they reported that a 15-year-old girl committed suicide by jumping out of a three storey building. Their challenge was “to write a story about her and her death plunge, you may, if you wish change the ending and have her live, if you prefer. The object is, however, to try and get inside her mind.” The word count limit is 2000 words.

And here are our stories. They were all very different and took extremely different approaches! Well done all of you.

NOTE: As some of you may know, we are no longer rating our stories. And so all entries are treated equally. The stories featured below are in no particular order, they do not represent a 1st/2nd/3rd rating.

FLIGHT

By Michelle Schultz

Jesse looked up from her homework when the apartment door opened. Over the sound of her next door neighbor’s classical music, she listened for the sound of a purse hitting the floor that would signal her mother’s arrival. Instead, she heard The Boyfriend’s voice as he finished a phone call.

The television blared to life a minute later, and she let out a sigh, tucking back the long hair that the breeze from the open window was blowing in her face. Maybe he didn’t think she was home. She wasn’t in the mood to earn any more expensive gifts from him.

She checked her new smartphone, wishing that Chris would text the details of their date tonight. He had said he was free, hadn’t he? No texting him–that was one of the rules of his game. The silly rules were worth it to get out of this hellhole more often.

To kill time, she worked on her algebra until her phone trilled on its lowest setting with a call from her older sister. Knowing that The Boyfriend, or Morgan, couldn’t hear her over the television, she answered.

“Marianne?” she asked. She should have known her sister would not be content to text this conversation.

“Are you at home?” Marianne said, a bit breathless.

“Yeah, why?”

“I’m outside,” Marianne said.

Jesse leaned out one of the giant double-glazed windows. No screens, another perk of this older-style building that Morgan rented. She sat on the sill and swung one leg out easily, the very picture of sangfroid.

“Is he home?” Marianne asked into the phone, looking worried at Jesse’s third-story perch. Her messy red hair was tied back, and her yoga pants and baggy university sweatshirt made her look like she had just climbed out of bed.

Jesse nodded in reply. Marianne wouldn’t even come in the building if Morgan was there.

“I’ll come down,” she said, hanging up the phone. She mimed sliding off the sill just to hear Marianne gasp. There were some wildly overgrown hedges down below, but they were hardly a decent cushion for such a drop. Jesse would have to brave the hallway.

She grabbed her purse and the soft leather jacket that she had earned a few weeks ago. With the weather warming up, she wouldn’t be able to wear it much longer. Maybe Chris would give her a time so she could go straight to him rather than coming back inside.

She avoided the creaky spots in the hall out of long practice. When she reached the gap that opened into the living room, she ducked and crawled on her hands and knees. When he was seated, he couldn’t see over the sofa between them.

Ahead, the kitchen and its well-oiled locks beckoned, and she was outside and down the stairs without another sound.

“Jesse!” Marianne said, grabbing her as soon as she got outside. “Don’t text me stuff like that!” She squeezed Jesse tight, and Jesse just sighed and patted Marianne’s back. Marianne might be seven years older at twenty-two, but sometimes Jesse felt like the calm, rocksteady one.

“It’s not a big deal,” she started, but Marianne pulled away, her eyes wild.

“Not a big deal?! Are you not sure?”

“Three tests, all positive.” Jesse shrugged.

“Is it…,” Marianne’s face went even pale. “It’s Chris’s, right? Your boyfriend’s?”

Jesse swore and threw up her hands, knocking Marianne’s away.

“Of course it’s his!” She hissed. “Who the fuck else’s would it be?”

She thrust her hands in her pockets and stalked down the sidewalk toward the corner store a few blocks away.

“Jess, listen!” Marianne jogged to catch up with her. “You said some odd things a few months ago.”

“Yeah, well, it was nothing.”

Marianne stopped her with a hand on her arm.

“You know you can tell me anything, right? Even if Mom isn’t there…” she trailed off, expectant.

“I am telling you. Mom doesn’t know.” Jesse raked a hand through her hair. “Can I stay with you?”

Marianne snorted. “You’re joking, right?”

At Jesse’s look, she frowned.

“That’s impossible. I only have a bedroom. My roommates and I share the common areas.”

“I’ll sleep on the floor,” Jesse said quietly.

“Not in your condition.”

“Then I’ll rent another bedroom.”

“With whose money?”

“Chris’s. I’m going to tell him this weekend. He has a job.”

Marianne mimed tearing out her hair. “Talk to him. Then call me.”

 

After some more strained conversation, Marianne returned to campus. Jesse waited for Chris’s message in the diner nearby, trying to learn to like decaf coffee. She smoothed the front of her jacket, wondering how much longer it would fit her. It was a nice gift, really.

Her equally nice phone vibrated and she grabbed at it, her heart fluttering at Chris’s name.

8:15. Meet me at the turnaround one street over.

It was always a time and a location within walking distance of her apartment. Chris did love his games. He was sensitive about the age difference between them, but Jesse didn’t care. Some highschooler borrowing his parents’ sedan couldn’t compare to him.

She left the diner and made the trek to his car. When she got close enough, the passenger door lock clicked open so she could climb in. His car was quite roomy, which was nice when he didn’t bother to get a hotel. She let him kiss her before he drove them out into the city.

Living in the suburbs, she didn’t always get to go into the city itself, so she craned her head to see as much of the lights and skyscrapers as possible.

“Where are we going this weekend?” she asked with a smile, her eyes drinking in the beautifully-dressed people.

“About that…” Chris said, his eyes forward. “I’m going to have to reschedule.”

“But I was looking forward to it,” she said, knowing she sounded whiny. Now she was going to have to come up with new plans to stay out of the house. Her mother didn’t notice when she was gone all weekend given her terrible working hours, and Morgan didn’t care. That’s what Chris was for, her white knight rescuing her from home, boredom, and Morgan.

“Plans change. I have to pick up some extra shifts.”

Jesse glanced behind Chris’s seat where his ever-present gym bag sat. His uniform hat with the badge on the brim rested atop the bag. Cops were so busy all the time, but that meant a steady source of income.

“Here we are,” he said as he pulled into a parking lot.

She looked up and up. It was palatial, this hotel. Lights ran all the way from the ground to the top floor so far away. The glass reflected all the lights of the city back at her, and rooms glowed golden and inviting across the hotel’s face.

Once they had checked in and he tossed his things on the nightstand did she take a breath.

“I have something to tell you,” she said.

He only hummed in response as he set up his things. He passed her a scrap of black lace with the tag still hanging off it. This was a gift too. She forced the thought away as she clenched it between her fingers. She was an adult now. She could do this.

“I’m pregnant,” she blurted out, then clapped a hand to her mouth. She had meant to wait until they were done so he would be tired and happy.

“You’re what?”

“Carrying your child,” she said softly, trying out the words for the first time. The different words made it sound special, not like a condition. This was theirs, their child. Even if he couldn’t marry her now, he could support her until she was old enough.

His expression was frigid.

“Are you seeing someone else?” he asked, his voice too calm.

“What?! No!” she said quickly. She dropped the lingerie and walked up to him. “You know I love you.”

“We used protection so this wouldn’t happen.” He stood up suddenly, looking flushed and uneasy. “I’ll take you home.” He thrust the lingerie and his shower supplies back in his bag.

“There’s a clinic downtown. You can get some help there.”

“Some help?” she asked, stupefied.

“Just call me if they want money for it,” he said.

He wouldn’t listen to her protests. He didn’t care that it was their child and she wanted to keep it. They left the beautiful hotel behind, and she cried all the way home.

He left her standing at the sidewalk leading to her building. Her eyes were so swollen and scratchy that she couldn’t read her phone to find Marianne’s number.

“Hey, kiddo,” she heard a voice call from an upstairs window. It was Morgan, leaning out to have a smoke.

She ignored the voice and walked up to the entryway. When she reached the apartment, Morgan had the door open for her.

“What’s wrong?” he started, but she walked right past him toward her room. “I’m talking to you, Jesse.”

“Fuck off,” she said, slamming her door when she reached her room.

Before she could turn and lock it, Morgan had it open again. Among his many masks, he wore the picture of concerned fatherhood well, but right now he turned her stomach. All men were the same.

“You don’t talk to me that way,” he said, his voice low.

“Honey?” Jesse’s mom called from her office. Jesse hadn’t realized she was even home.

“I’ll handle it,” Morgan called, then he closed the door behind him.

Jesse clutched her purse tightly, her heart flipping over in her chest. She edged back toward the open window now that he was blocking the door.

“What did you say to me?”

“I said go to hell,” she said. She had never once yelled at him, never once objected to his so-called parenting, never said anything about the gifts…

His eyes widened in surprise. Then his hand shot out and snagged her arm. She jerked her arm away but he held tight.

“You watch your mouth. Your mom doesn’t need this kind of stress.”

“You aren’t my father!” She shouted. “Don’t touch me!”

She slapped him hard across the face. Stunned, he dropped her arm.

She turned to the window before she could overthink it. Like so many times before, she hoisted herself onto the windowsill.

This time she didn’t stop. She grabbed the frame and rolled out. Her fingers caught on the rough cement ledge. They bled while she hung, her feet dangling above empty space. She heard screams from somewhere, but the blood roaring in her ears drowned it out.

She let go.

 

Marianne got to the hospital while the police were still collecting statements from all the witnesses. She stayed in the waiting room all night until the nurse finally led her in the next morning.

Jesse had broken both legs falling into the hedgerow, but she lived.

Marianne sat nearby while Jesse gave her report to the policeman beside the bed. She named her boyfriend, which made the cop’s eyebrows shoot up, and she had plenty to say about Morgan that only confirmed Marianne’s fears. Jesse didn’t want them to dismiss her actions as a suicide attempt.

When the cop finally left, Jesse squeezed Marianne’s fingers.

“There’s a shelter and a school they can send me to,” she whispered. Reading the question in Marianne’s eyes, she smiled self-deprecatingly.

“It’s alive. We’ll talk about adoption later.”

Marianne rubbed her thumb over Jesse’s fingers.

“Go to sleep, Jess. I’ll keep an eye on you.”

“Thanks.” Jesse smiled, her eyes fighting to stay open. “I don’t have to go home. I’m free.”

“You’re safe now,” Marianne confirmed.

Jesse closed her eyes and fell asleep.

 

INVESTIGATING THE DEATH PLUNGE

By Muneera Fakhro

“I didn’t do it! I didn’t kill her or even help her commit suicide or any of the sorts!”

That seemed to be the only words I have said for the past two weeks since I was arrested for being an accomplice to a suicide case of a young girl. It’s quite a scandal for a police officer like me to be accused of such bullshit. I’ve never been involved with a minor, and there’s no way they’ll find any evidence that I did!

After a while of eating nothing but plain prison food and sleeping in rugged smelly beds I was taken to see my defence lawyer for the first time and go through my charges in detail. I took my first steps into the office, and the silence was overwhelming since all that’s around me were books, papers, certificates framed and put on the wall and all I could see is black and white spread around the place from furniture to electronics. The rattling of handcuffs had been ringing non-stop in my ears the whole time though it seemed to be easing this awful silence in this place.

“The lawyer will be here in a few minutes. Don’t try doing any funny business now, you hear?!” The officer behind me had been pushing me around since this morning, he was a colleague of mine and we were good friends until this whole thing began and his perception of me had completely changed, as if he never knew me. I’m just a filthy criminal now.

“Do I look like I can DO anything like this?” I said mockingly lifting my arms and wriggling one of my legs. “I’m chained head to toe, there’s not m-“ I got punched and pushed to the ground so quickly I barely caught on to what had happened just now.

“Know your place, you piece of scum!” Before I knew it, he pulled me up, getting me to stand; he had seen the lawyer coming back. Whatever happened to human rights I wonder, nobody gives a fuck about it here.

“Hello officer.”

“Good afternoon, Ms Huda. Here’s your 3 o’clock client, and all of his case files should be with you.”

“Yes I’ve looked through them this morning, thank you.”

My lawyer’s a woman? Surely this office doesn’t have the least of a feminine touch around. This will be boring to the end, I just hope she’s good enough to get me out of jail. Urrgh this guy can really pack a punch; I can feel any last meal reaching up my throat.

“…Is he alright? He seems to be squirming in pain.” She asked with concern in her voice, but the officer didn’t pay no mind and pushed me to the seat in front of her office desk.

“No worries, he’s alright; he’s just heavy with guilt for what he had done. I’ll be waiting outside.” And with that, he left.

She sat in her chair, put on her glasses and started flipping some papers. She doesn’t look that young but not that old either, around mid-thirties perhaps. She has the kind of curly hair which would move with her whole head if she turns around. Her skin is a bit tanned and doesn’t appear to be the cheerful kind of person. She clears her throat, getting my attention before she spoke.

“Mr….Officer Khalid A., age 22, Bahraini nationality. You are accused of assisting a young girl to commit suicide in Manama. Also-“

“I’m innocent of those charges, you have to-“

“Calm down, Mr Khalid! I’m only going through the court files for your case and I’ll be discussing further details with you today. It’s my job to prove your innocence. As you know, the court will be pressuring you with all sorts of questions and accusations, and in order for this case to end with a non-guilty verdict you need to keep it together,” I nodded as I took a deep breath to calm myself and collect my thoughts. “Alright, after what I had previously stated, which is probably all you know, we’ve found a few more leads about her identity and your connection with her; and I’m afraid these facts won’t be much to your benefit. The girl’s name is Narjis R., age 15, and appears to be pregnant in her forth month…”

My mind went blank and couldn’t hear what the lawyer was saying after that… Narjis? She can’t POSSIBLY be the same Narjis, this is insane! I felt sick and couldn’t hold it any longer and got up, frantically looking for a trash can and throwing up whatever’s inside my guts out, possibly my guts as well.

After coming to I realised I have been out of it for the past 20 minutes and the lawyer had called out to her secretary and got me whatever she could manage from her desk; water, a couple of towels and some pills to calm my upset stomach.

“That woman is NOT 15 and I’ve already cut all ties with her long ago.”

“It’s easy to get fake IDs these days and lie about your age. I couldn’t believe it myself when I saw the body; she’s fully grown for her age but she’s definitely 15 and bore a child for that matter, based on the autopsy report. What make it worse are the messages we found on Facebook between the two of you.”

“But you’ll see that the messages are from a few years ago! There’s no proof that I had recent connections with her.”

“And that’s what I’m aiming at, not having sufficient evidence could be our only ticket to get you out of prison; DNA tests would be of great aid if we don’t get a match.”

“Don’t worry, it won’t.”

“I’ll need you to tell me the nature of the relationship you had with her; don’t miss out any vital detail. I’ll be recording this for future reference as well.” She got out a digital recorder -a yet another colourless object- from the desk drawer and turned it on. She started by stating the case number and a brief explanation of its details, and then placed it on the desk.

+++++

I was on patrol near a shopping mall in Manama that day when I saw a young lady rushing from the parking lot and passing the road recklessly, her behaviour seemed a bit suspicious. Just as I decided to get off the car and follow her, four boys, in their high school uniforms, ran after her. I rushed over to stop whatever those kids are scheming, and luckily, I caught on and they scattered as soon as they recognised my uniform. The woman was shivering on the ground; her feet were too weak to support her.

“Are you alright, miss?” As I knelt down to reach her, she jumped on me and grabbed onto me for dear life. She broke down in tears and all I could think about at the moment was how her chest was pressed against mine and how awkward for me to have such thoughts at such a time.

“They…have been following me for over a week… I was t-terrified …”

“Shhh… it’s alright, you can come with me and file a report at-“

“No! Don’t! Please, they’ve threatened me not to say a word about them to a soul. I can’t!” She began to panic and throwing a few weak punches at me, so I had to grab her from her wrists and say something to calm her down.

“Alright! Ok, I won’t report anything! I’ll get you back home safely. How’s that sound?” She sniffled, nodded hesitantly and tried to lift herself up while still clinging to me.

“My flat is close by; we can reach it by foot.” I helped her walk and reached a building five minutes later, her place was on the third floor, to the far right of the stairs. “Please, come on in, I’d really like to repay you for saving me with a drink or a meal.”

“No, I can’t; I’m still on patrol but I appreciate the thought.”

“Please,” Her voice turned hoarse, tears are obviously on the corner of her eyes and I could guess what she’s going to say next. “I live alone here, and I could really use some company right now.”

I sighed. “Guess I got no choice, but only for a little while.”

“Even little is enough for me.”

I sat nervously on the living room’s couch; I’m alone with a girl in her apartment in our first meeting. Isn’t this progressing too fast? Not that I hoped for anything to happen; she just got attacked and she’s probably crushed and too stressed out to do anything.

“Hey, I made some milk tea and some toasts with omelette eggs.”

…Or not. She placed the tray on the table and sat right across, pouring the tea. “I didn’t catch your name, I’m Khalid by the way.”

“Oh, my name is Narjis, and again, thank you for going out of your way for me.” She doesn’t look 100% Bahraini but her overall features shows she’s Arabian for sure; pale skinned, long wavy brown hair, and a nice curvy body.

“That’s a pretty name, as a flower and as a person.” She chuckled.

“Some used to make fun of it and often calling me ‘Narcissistic Narjis’.”

“Well I’m not educated enough to know other meanings to your name.”

“You know you just insulted yourself, right?” She chuckled again. It seemed that she’s more relaxed and cheerful. That’s a good sign. WE talked and talked, and one thing led to another, and been involved with her since. We’d go out often, have some ‘Fun’ in her apartment, and stayed connected through phone calls and Facebook.

A few months later, I found out that she had other relationships with other men and been getting money out of them, drugs at some times. Then things went horribly wrong in my head, unable to make a good judgement out of all this, when I found her journals and read what was written on the day we met. I can still remember it word by word:

15-August-2013:

Ever since I broke up with that man and I’ve been followed by those strange boys every time I go out, and been getting threatening texts by him. He’s always been a control freak consumed by jealousy and I’d rather kill myself than go back to him, guess I’ll find myself a police officer to date; he’d provide some security at least for a while.

16-August-2013:

I was so lucky yesterday, I actually found a police officer who drove those kids away. That officer was so naïve he believed every lie I made, he’s nice though and would make a good boyfriend for the time being, and in case they came back.

+++++

“So you won’t deny having a sexual relationship with her?”

“No…”

“…I hope we can convince the court that,” She let out a heavy sigh which confirms my worries that it will not end in good. I can probably clear your name on the current charge. However, I can’t guarantee that this won’t appear again in court under a different charge.”

“At this point, it doesn’t matter anymore.”

As time passes, I began to lose my strength and will to fight for my freedom. Being stared at with judgmental glares each time I take the stand had drained what was left of my energy. I was able to prove my innocence and just as Ms Huda predicted, the case had reappeared on a different charge.

By now, I have gotten used to life in captivity, not that I’m not confident about getting out but somehow I know, I won’t be taken lightly for the mistake I’ve made with that girl, even if I wasn’t on the wrong. I made that mistake and I’m willing to take full responsibility for my actions. It’s the right thing to do.

GIRLS LIKE HER

By Anita Menon

11th August, 2013

Dear Diary,

It is my birthday tomorrow. I don’t feel excited at all. Growing up is no fun. As usual Mamma has made arrangements to have the local caterers serve dinner. My family will come for dinner and it will be chaotic at home. How I wish, I could celebrate it with my friends from school. We could go to city center and try the new milk shake place. But Mamma will never allow me. I will be 16 this year and since last year, I have hardly stepped out of the house without family. Meeting friends has been restricted to school and visiting each other’s’ homes. Doniya, told me that once we get married, it is easier to do what we want. With our husbands, ofcourse. But we have to pray that we have easy –going husbands like hers. It is late now and I better go to sleep else Mamma will think I am texting someone.

Good night.

 12th August, 2013

Dear Diary,

Happy birthday to me. J

I’m relieved to be back in my bedroom. The dinner was such an exhausting affair; the same food, the same people and the same conversations. Aunty Noor won’t stop talking. She was talking about my friend Eman and how she has so many boyfriends. She said,” Girls like her; they have no place in this society. They are bound to bring shame to the family. If I was her mother, I would lock her in a room and never let her out. Alhamdulillah, our Reem is not like her.”

I think Eman is leading the life we all want to live secretly. She goes out to the mall and shops when she wants. Her parents are divorced and she lives with her mum. I wonder, if my parents will ever get divorced? I would definitely want to live with Baba because Mamma is always cross with me. Baba wants me to be an architect but Mamma says a girl should be married off before she ‘sprouts’ a mind of her own. Eman and I are not best friends but we go to the same school. Mamma would be livid if she found out that I hang around with her during break-time. I can hear her speak in my head right now, “Reem, a girl’s reputation is everything. Once ruined, there is no way back home” How will Mamma react if she ever knew I had a secret crush in my life. J

It is late now, I should sleep. But before that, let me check my messages on the phone.

 Eman: Hey, Happy birthday habibti. I missed school today because I was sick. I’ll see if I can meet you tomorrow. I have a gift for you. Xx

 16th August, 2013

Dear Diary,

What a boring day it has been! School just dragged and there is pile of home work to do. I don’t feel like doing any of it. I told Eman about my ‘secret crush’ today on whatsapp but she hasn’t replied. It has been 4 days that she has missed school. I hope she is not too sick. Mamma won’t allow me to see her. She would say, “Reem, one rotten apple can spoil the whole barrel.” Let me try messaging her now. Maybe she will answer.

You: Hope you are well Eman. Rasha was asking about u n complaining that u don’t pick your phone when she calls. If u are 2 sick, I can come and see u. I’m also excited to see my birthday gift. Xoxo

 17th August, 2013

Dear Diary,

No news from Eman. I am getting worried. I am also worried that I am putting on weight. Rasha said, I looked fat with my hair pulled away from my face and my braces make my face look broader. I hate her. It makes me think whether that is the reason why my ‘secret crush’’ doesn’’t look at me! He passes by my house in his Patrol car but looks straight ahead. He looks so handsome in his uniform and he has so many friends or maybe they are his colleagues. But he looks so dashing in his ray bans. Uff…

Rasha told me that Eman has a boyfriend and she has seen them kissing outside of school. I think Rasha is jealous because Eman is so smart and beautiful. I wonder how Eman manages her grades so well and still does whatever she wants. I really wish Eman answers my whatsapp messages. I better ask her again.

You: Eman it has been so many days but you haven’t answered my messages.I wish you just answered. Worried much. xoxo

Eman: I am okay. Xx

20th August, 2013,

Dear Diary,

I met my ‘secret crush’ today. Yoohoooooooooo. Outside my school. My heart stopped. He gave me his phone number. J J J

 1st September, 2013,

Dear Diary,

I feel like I am not the same Reem anymore. I am so happy. I can’t focus on what people are talking about and my heart stops at the slightest thought of him. Is this love? I think I love him. I want to tell Eman because I feel she will be the only one to understand. Let me message her right now.

You: Eman, my darling, are u awake?

Eman: Yes. J

You: can u keep a secret?

Eman: Yes J

You: I went out with ‘Secret Crush’ today. He is so tall n has dimples. I have a picture on my phone. Wait, let me send you.

Eman: hmm…

You: What? Say something…

Eman: Going to sleep. Good night.xx

4th September, 2013,

Dear Diary,

Eman is not talking to me. I wonder what went sour between us. She refuses to sit next to me. The other day, she passed by without smiling at me, in the school corridor. But I am not sad. If she doesn’t want to talk to me, it is her problem. I have so much going on in my life that I have no time to fix anybody’’s imaginary problems.

He said, I look beautiful in white. I am going wear white every day. He even said, I had the most beautiful fingers he has ever seen. I should have told him, I am an architect in the making. J

I wish Eman stopped being Ms. Grumpy soon. I am so sleepy. I can’t keep my eyes open anymore. Good night.

Dear Parent,

We would like to inform you that your daughter, Ms. Reem is short of attendance. Last month her attendance was only 3% and her grades are falling. The teachers have tried to counsel her but it is not working. Please make an appointment with Ms. Reem’s class teacher as soon as you can.

Yours faithfully,

Mona A

Principal

 1st October, 2013

Dear Diary,

I am in such trouble. I never thought the Principal would write a note, home. Mamma was like the fiend fyre from Harry Potter that grew monstrous with every passing minute. She demanded to know where and with whom I was spending my school hours with. I told her, I was too bored to sit in class, so I went for a stroll every day and then back to the school library. She knew I was lying but no way, am I going to confess. No way.

I have to be more careful now. Even if I get into trouble, I cannot have his name tarnished. I love him too much to see him bothered. Only if Eman would talk to me…

 22nd December, 2013,

I love him so much Diary.

I Know I don’t write too often. But he listens to me and I feel, I say it all to him and then there is nothing to write.

Later, Diary. Be happy for me.

1st January, 2014

Happy New Year.:-)

14th March, 2014

Dear Diary,

Things are not going well between us. Me and him. He is so disturbed all the time and gets angry too. He wants to do stuff to me and I keep saying no. But I think I can’’t keep saying no, else he will leave me. I’ll die if he does. Eman keeps looking at me in class as if she wants to talk.

Eman: Reem, you awake?

You: Yes.

Eman: need to tell you something.

You: Tell me.

Eman: Don’t go around with him. He’s not a good guy.

You:What are you talking about?

Eman: Nothing. Just take care.

You: hmm…

 31st July, 2014

Dear Diary,

I am feeling so sick these days. I can’t even get up from my bed in the morning. I have to rush to the bathroom to throw up. The whole day at school is a torture because either I am nauseous or dizzy. It must be a bug that is going around. I should go to the doctor. Eman watched me in the washroom when I was throwing up. But she didn’t come up to ask if I was okay.

Later towards the end of school she did and I ignored her. She wanted to tell me something but I walked past her like I didn’t see her.

Good night. Hope this bug goes away.

Eman: Hey, talk to me. Don’t ignore me. I know you are sick.

You: Yup. I can manage.

Eman: I think you are pregnant. Better get a pregnancy test. If you want one, I have one. Feel free to use it.

You:No, no, no it can’t be. Eman is only scaring me. How can I be….?

 2nd August, 2014

Dear Diary,

This can’t be. I can’t be….. Now what do I do? Eman helped me do the test and it’s positive. I don’t know what to do now! I can’t think. Eman says, there is a way to manage this without anyone knowing. She has done this before last year and I remember how sick she was. Aunty Noor had come home and she made such a fuss about me putting on a little weight. If she ever got to know about this, she will go about telling everyone she meets in the town. Mamma will kill herself and Baba won’t be able to step out with his head held high. Let me ask my love, if he knows what I should do. Yes, he will know…

 3rd August, 2014

Dear Diary,

I am the most unlucky girl on this planet. He doesn’t want to do anything with me now. He says, he is with the police and news like this will destroy his career and since I am a minor, he will be arrested. He asked me to do whatever I should do to get rid of it. I ran to Eman and cried till I didn’t have energy. It was as if the day couldn’t be worse. She confessed that last year it was he who had got her pregnant. She had tried to warn me that I wouldn’t listen. Now what am I to do? Each day, I will look bigger as my stomach swells from what is inside it. How will I hide it? I am too scared to do what Eman is suggesting? Turns out I am a girl just like her and Aunty Noor will have a field day gossiping about me.

I know what I have to do. Yes. No one will be ashamed because of me. Not him and not my family. I wouldn’t want to be called the rotten apple.

Diary, I’m going to take you with me. This is it, then.

Screen Shot 2015-04-29 at 2.24.34 PM

We have a few changes to ‘The Monthly Challenge’. One – we’re not going to rank the stories. Two – all entries sent will be judged – feedback sent privately to each entrant. Three – all stories entered will be featured.

Do please invite your friends to read and comment on the stories. That way you’ll get public feedback too.

The January challenge: “There is a bloody brave little animal in Africa called the Honey Badger. It may be the meanest animal in the world. It kills for malice and for sport, and it does not go for the jugular – it goes straight for the groin. It has a lot in common with the modern American woman.”

This was to be taken as a preamble or premise without necessarily using the words in the story.

 

profileOur judge for the January challenge was our very own member and mentor Seumas Gallacher.

SEUMAS GALLACHER escaped from the world of finance five years ago, after a career spanning three continents and five decades.

As the self-professed ‘oldest computer Jurassic on the planet’ his headlong immersion into the dizzy world of eBook publishing opened his eyes, mind, and pleasure to the joys of self-publishing. As a former businessman, he rapidly understood the concept of a writer’s need to ‘build the platform’, and from a standing start began to develop a social networking outreach, which now tops 18,000 direct contacts.

His ‘Jack Calder’ crime-thrillers series, THE VIOLIN MAN’S LEGACY, VENGEANCE WEARS BLACK and SAVAGE PAYBACK blew his mind with more than 80,000 e-link downloads to date.

He started a humorous, informative, self-publishers blog three years ago, never having heard of a ‘blog’ prior to that, was voted ‘Blogger of the Year 2013’ and now has a loyal blog following on his networks. He says the novels contain his ‘Author’s Voice’, while the blog carries his ‘Author’s Brand’. And he’s LUVVIN IT.

To get Seumas’ books follow these links:

Vengeance Wears Black

Amazon links: UK http://amzn.to/1ACk5eq, US http://amzn.to/1DPx2WN, Can http://amzn.to/1vYv0nb, Aus http://bit.ly/1zV9aNR

Links for Savage Payback

Amazon: UK amzn.to/1CHhw01, US amzn.to/15zUsD9, Canada amzn.to/1yXWRli, Australia bit.ly/1yGJ5ok

Smashwords : https://www.smashwords.com/books/view/514352

And here are our stories. Thank you Michelle and Glen!

THE HONEY BADGER

MICHELLE SCHULTZ

I did not know what to expect when I met my first American Woman. If you are reading this, then please know that the capital letters are intentional. Up till now I had only heard stories from my German uncles who did business and occasionally ran into them. Old traditionalists, they are. They were master craftsmen within their guild, working in Garmisch-Partenkirchen and, having already acquired enough wealth through honest labor to set themselves up well, took occasional commissions from the immorally wealthy Americans. Mostly it was men trying to get something built before they left the Vaterland to return to their real homes. Sometimes though, it was women. They came along trying to haggle and doing it poorly. German women did not act as they. We knew enough to expect that a job was worth what it was worth and if you wanted it cheaper you did not insult the craftsman – you went elsewhere. These American Women, my uncles told me, would attempt to play the coquette, batting their heavily mascara’d eyes, maybe attempting to play (unsubtly) upon their poorly developed feminine wiles. Perhaps, Onkel Hermann said, they might have succeeded if they weren’t young officers’ wives who knew about as much about keeping a man happy as a Frankreicher knew about keeping vows of fidelity. Once the young women knew they weren’t getting anywhere, the women would give up in a huff and either pay the recommended price, or would stomp out of the store.

All this, I learned secondhand. My Onkels were reliable men and they would only play the occasional joke; I did not think they were lying to me about these stories.

All this I was sure of and then it was time to move to America for school. Oh certainly I could have taken the tests and secured myself a position within Germany but my family did not believe I would do well enough to succeed in a trade and they were not confident in my ability to survive a Universitaet. I wanted to stay where I was comfortable but Vati would not hear of it. Even at my age, his word was Law. I was moving to California to attend UCLA and that was Final.

I flew out of Munchen and stopped first in Atlanta, Georgia. I know how to pronounce it, thank you very much. The customs man was more polite than I was expecting but he smiled less.   He had eyes that suggested I was already guilty. The look he gave me upon seeing my passport suggested that maybe if I hadn’t done something already I was going to very soon. I did not like it, or him, but I did not have to. I had always heard that Americans are a suspicious group. They are afraid of so much – not least of which that they will not always be at the top of the world; that the world will not always need them. Pride in my country was fine, but we have been good and we have been bad. Sometimes a country doesn’t have to be for anything. It just has to be.

My first American Woman was on my transcontinental flight. The attendants were just bodies in uniforms – not real people. No, the woman who sat next to me was young. She insisted that we talk. I was not in the best of moods for conversation. She swore that we would soon be fast friends and asked all manner of questions. Wasn’t I young? Where was I going? What would I do there? School? Oh my! Is someone going to meet you there? What school? Did I know Joseph Tolliver there? (of course I didn’t. I hadn’t even been there yet!) What about Eric Jarmand? (still no, I’m afraid). What about the professors? Had I already picked my classes? Did I want to hang out when we got to California? Wait…what? Now it was my turn for questions. Where in California was she going? (My school, she was a sophomore at UCLA). Why was she bothering with me? Naturally curious. And she liked meeting new people. I was interesting. A hundred different throw-away reasons. Confused, I agreed and she squealed happily. Such a strange noise.

We touched down at LAX and she hailed a cab while I grabbed our luggage. Such a trusting woman. She even told me which luggage was hers and naturally assumed I would bring it along. I grabbed my trunk, and her otherwise unremarkable beige hard case save for a glinting fake jewel on a ribbon suspended from the handle. Dragging them along behind me, I trudged towards the exit doors.

She was waiting with what looked like a pair of black-haired friends, pale of skin. They had clearly brought her a coat – Black with a furry white hood. She smiled when she saw me. She didn’t make a move to retrieve her bag, though.

“These are my friends Leah and Skyler. They brought their car. You wanna ride with us?”

She must have seen my hesitation because she added “It’s gotta be cheaper than a cab.”

That sold me. Vati’s first payment of my stipend was conditional upon actually arriving at the school.

I didn’t actually have much money beyond the cab fare and hoped to be able to confirm another rumor about the terrible quality of American Biers. That was what college students did, right?

We all bundled into a small hatchback, with Skyler and I in the back, Leah in the driver’s seat, and my nameless friend in the front passenger seat. We were on the road for maybe 20 minutes when they pulled off the freeway and into a small side street. There was an old neon sign out front that spelled out COFF E. I felt Skyler stroking my arms, which was strange. I started to ask why we were stopping when Skyler’s stroking of my arm turn into a sharp pinch. My head jerked to my left arm, where Leah had bitten me. BITTEN ME. WHAT THE HELL!?   I felt almost immediately sleepy. I tried to shake myself awake, at which point Leah reached back and held my legs down, her face changing under the skin, her eyes shrinking to small beads, her face elongating, never taking that creepy smile off her face. Her clothing sloughed off her as she slithered around my legs in a figure 8, holding them fast, constricting but not crushing.

My nameless friend was watching all of this, suddenly not so distinct from her hood, her snout…wait snout? It was sticking out from under the hood that was no longer a hood. There was no smile here, only a sharp pain between my legs.

Was that… blood?

Oh well. I guess it didn’t matter.

HELL HATH NO FURY LIKE A HONEY BADGER SCORNED

Glen R Stansfield

Dr Laura Ellison’s husband was a very lucky man.

Laura was not only a very talented surgeon but gorgeous with it too. Her long black hair, dark brown eyes, high cheek bones, olive skin and model-like figure turned heads wherever she went. Martin had no idea what she saw in him. She was an eminent surgeon; he was your average blue collar construction site worker. The pay he brought home each month wouldn’t cover the mortgage on the dog kennel of their Portland Heights home.

They met by accident – literally. She ran into the back of his car at a stop sign. He had never seen anyone so beautiful, and with the testosterone fuelled optimism of youth he asked her out. To his surprise she agreed, and the rest, as they say, is history.

In the early days of their relationship he started to call her the honey badger. Once, she asked him why.

He replied, ‘Because as soon as we get behind closed doors you go straight for my groin, just like a honey badger.’

The name stuck and twenty years later so had the passion. Their sex life never waned. The honey badger lived on.

Eventually Laura rose to the dizzy heights of having her own private practice as a plastic surgeon, and he rose to the dizzy heights of the top of the nearest building under construction. Her practice was no ordinary one, she specialised in the rich and famous; those who refused to accept ageing is an inevitable process and should be embraced with grace.

They were the most unlikely pair you would ever meet. Martin never had any aspirations other than his current job. He loved the outdoors, and he loved the camaraderie on the building site. He was never fully comfortable in Laura’s social circles but he kept it well hidden. Martin loved his wife dearly, and he knew she reciprocated.

Life was as sweet as it could be for both of them, apart from a lack of children. Heaven knows they tried, but despite the best fertility treatments available, children were not forthcoming. They discussed the possibility of adoption but agreed it wasn’t quite the same as having your own. Finally they accepted it wasn’t in their destiny to have children and got on with their lives. Like many childless couples they transferred their parenting instincts to the animal kingdom. Two gorgeous blue eyed Huskies performed the duties of surrogate children with all the enthusiastic energy that only a well-loved canine can show.

Then came the financial crisis of 2007-2008 and the dream started to come apart. Martin suddenly became unemployed. At first he enjoyed the time off, getting meals ready for Laura when she came home, pottering around the garage, tinkering with his ’64 corvette and of course, the endless walks with the never tiring dogs. The walks proved to be his downfall.

One glorious day he was trotting along with the Huskies in Marquam Nature Park when an attractive young lady stopped and asked if she could pet the dogs. She reminded him of his wife all those years ago, when they first met. They chatted for a few minutes about the animals, and the weather then went their separate ways and he thought nothing more of it.

Two weeks later whilst walking the dogs near the Marina, he saw her again. After several minutes of chat he invited her for a coffee at one of the several establishments bordering the waterfront.

He had been so surprised when soon after sitting down she said she must leave. He was even more surprised to find an hour had already passed without him realising it. Before she went she wrote her cell number on his hand.

‘Give me a call if you want another coffee,’ she said over her shoulder as she left, and in a swirl of black hair she was gone.

Martin liked her company. He was sure there could be no harm in meeting for a coffee now and then. He had always admired beautiful women, from afar. He never wanted to do any more than just look. Why would he when he already had the most amazing woman in the world? So a coffee now and again would not be a problem.

Several months passed and their meetings became an almost weekly event, always at the same coffee house. He realised on the weeks they didn’t meet, there was a sadness inside him. He wanted to see her again, talk about world events and her life as a student. He even found himself reading some of the plays being performed at the local theatre where she worked in the evenings, so he would know what she was talking about when she mentioned them. He had no other motives than to have some pleasant company to distract him from his boredom. Sure, he liked her company but it was no more than that.

One day she asked him what he did for a living that allowed him time to come to the Marina any time she was free. He didn’t know why he felt the need but he lied to her. He told her he sold his construction business, and he didn’t need to work.

She never questioned it, and she never questioned why he didn’t invite her to his house.

He was content to leave things as they stood, sometimes seeing her and sometimes not. That is until the time his wife went away for a week to a conference in Nevada.

It wasn’t planned but it happened anyway, and the way it happened was something of a cliché. They met in the evening for the first time. She had no work at the theatre that evening, so Martin asked her out to dinner. A couple of bottles of wine later they found themselves in a hotel room; the passion consuming them both.

The next morning both the hangover and the guilt kicked in. He knew he had made a big mistake. What had he been thinking? He risked his marriage and for no good reason. The only thing he could do was stop it right now. He told her they couldn’t do this or even meet for coffee again. It had been wrong. She was much younger than him and he shouldn’t have let himself get carried away. He was too scared to tell her he was married. In any case she must already know, he reasoned. Although he never revealed it, he was sure it must be obvious.

Imagine his surprise when she readily agreed. No hysterics, no anger, just a casual acknowledgment of the mistake and they should not see each other again. Perhaps she had been using him.

After that night he didn’t call her again. He found a new place to walk the dogs and never went near the Marina. He never set foot inside Marquam Park again either. He washed the whole episode from his mind and concentrated on finding another job.

Eventually the construction industry started its slow recovery and once again Martin was on top of the world. Well, on top of a new office building anyway. Everything returned to normal and Martin was content with his life once more.

He couldn’t understand why he couldn’t move. His arms and legs seemed to be restrained, and he was sore in places he didn’t know he existed. What’s more he couldn’t see and his brain refused to function; everything was dreamlike, the voice speaking to him ethereal and distant.

‘Hello Mr Ellison. Are you are back with us yet?’

The voice sounded familiar, but in his semi-comatose state it was too much of an effort to place it. He tried to speak but nothing came out apart from random grunts.

‘You’ve been in a bad accident Mr Ellison. You’ve had us all worried. We didn’t think you would make it.’

He drifted away again. Later he was aware of the voice explaining he had some damage to his eyes. Nothing to worry about, but for the time being they would stay covered to allow them to heal.

How long he had been there he couldn’t tell. He didn’t remember anything about an accident. Was it a car accident, or a fall at work? He could only remember coming home as usual one evening, and then after that – only darkness.

He had strange dreams. In them he took a lot of medication, tablets for this and injections for that. In his more lucid moments he thought maybe these were not dreams at all. Maybe the painkillers, or whatever was making him so tired and woolly headed made him imagine everything; he struggled to focus on anything. Reality and dreams all intermingled.

And then there was the voice, saying ‘I know,’ over and over again. Could it be real? He didn’t know because he couldn’t see.

What did it know, and why was it telling him? Sometimes he thought he could hear his wife. Those must have been the times she visited. He longed for her to be there when he was more awake.

This time when he woke he was blinded by the light. The bandages had gone. He could only see shapes as his eyes were not used to the light after being covered for so long. He could move his arms and legs. How long had he been able to do that he wondered. He was aware of lying on the bed in his dressing gown. Still woozy, he decided to try to get to his feet. He rolled on his side then shuffled to the edge of the bed. Slowly he sat himself up and tried to look around the room. It felt strange. There seemed to be no windows, almost as if it was a basement room. Perhaps there were some windows in the next room. He could just make out a doorway in the far wall. His eyes slowly became accustomed to the light, but the drugs still affected his vision. Everything moved around as though someone was smudging the images in his mind, stirring them around; making mental mosaics.

He concentrated hard in an effort to get to his feet and was rewarded with a very unsteady upright position. One foot stayed still and the other made little steps around it until he was almost balanced. He felt drunk. Maybe that was it. Maybe he was drunk and this was only a dream.

Unsteadily he made his way over to the door, his dressing gown falling open as he did so. He didn’t look down but he knew from the sensation he was naked underneath. As he reached the opening he was startled to see a semi naked woman approaching from the other side. He pulled his dressing gown closed, she did the same. They screamed simultaneously. What he assumed to be an open doorway was a full length mirror on the back of the door. He was looking at himself.

Taped to the glass he could make out the hotel room receipt, the girl’s phone number and a slightly blurred photograph of her leaving the University.

Dr Laura Ellison’s husband was a very lucky woman – she was still alive.

As we were a bit pressed for time, we combined the May challenge with June, and in July we took a break from challenges.

The challenge presented to our entrants was:

On this occasion, the customer was most definitely not right…” 

OUR JUDGE – KATIE ADLER

katie pic

Katie Adler is a  voice over artist in Tokyo: http://www.katieadler-vo.com She is passionate about communication. Her website: http://englishwithkatie.com is for guiding Japanese English speakers to become great conversationalists. Becoming a great conversationalist is her heart’s intention for everyone!

Katie has been in front of a mic professionally for over 10years and can be heard daily on NHK. She has trained in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago, New York City and London, England. She continues to train so that she can bring the perfect touch to her clients’ projects.

It is through her knowledge of English and teaching that Katy has learnt about story telling – one of the oldest forms of ‘voice’ communication. And she brings her experience of a wide variety of stories to judge our May-June challenge at the Bahrain Writers’ Workshop.

FIRST PLACE – PETE AND HER LADYSHIP

(An excerpt from the Memoirs of an Industrial Mercenary)

by Gordon Simmonds

This is a story from the time when I owned a small emporium near Sunbury in Middlesex, less than a mile from the upper reaches of the River Thames. It was what I called a mini Woolworths which sold everything from boot polish to paint, fishing tackle to birthday cards. I opened all hours but barely made enough money to earn a living.

Pete and his family lived just across the road in a council house. He was just an ordinary looking guy; mid twenties, dark hair, medium build and always cheerful. Whenever I needed cheering up, I could always rely on Pete to drag me down the pub.

I’ve pondered long and hard about how to describe him, because there are few words in the English language that quite describe him. He was part gentleman; kind, helpful and generous to a fault, but without charm or charisma. He was part hippy, a free spirit that enjoyed the open road, but who never smoked or did drugs. He was a scavenger and could take other peoples cast-offs and turn them into something useful. He was an artist who had an eye for exquisite detail and could create a work of art out of everyday objects. He was part gypsy, law abiding but with a marked disdain for authority and conventional thinking. In short, he was one of life’s ‘characters’.

He could paint or sculpt in any medium and could have made a good living at it but for the fact that he just couldn’t be bothered. For example; he came into my shop one day and asked for a tin of Plastic Padding (car body filler).

He was one of only a handful of people who I trusted with credit. “Pay you at the end of the week?” he said. Later that week he paid up as he always did and two or three weeks later brought in a sculpture. Three intertwined badgers; daddy badger, mummy badger and little baby badger, as life-like as the real thing.

When I left the area, he gave me a parting gift of a flat stone about four inches long by three inches high on which he had painted a beautiful miniature painting of a gypsy caravan. Even though that stone has long been lost, I imagine him driving a plodding pony hitched to that caravan through the highways and byways of England. Living off the land, a bit of poaching here and there, liberating a cabbage or potatoes for the pot, doing odd jobs to pay for little luxuries the land couldn’t supply, giving a hand to people in need. No money, no tax, no clocking in. Pete was the nicest guy anyone could ever hope to meet.

We became good friends and would often go fishing together. We spent many memorable evenings on the River Colne at Stanwell, fishing for trout. In what appeared to be idyllic countryside, we could hear the roar of traffic on the nearby motorway and the scream of jets taking off and landing at Heathrow. We never caught anything of course, because we knew very well that there were no trout in that river. But out of season, fly fishing was the only the only sport allowed. Besides, we always thought that there a chance that we would ‘accidentally’ hook one of the big chub we could see rising and rolling in the shallow stream.

On one occasion Pete came into the shop and asked if I had any catapult elastic.

“What do you want that for?” I asked.

“I’m going out to get something for dinner” he said.

At which point, he pulled out of his pocket a stubby Y shapes catapult handle, no more than four of five inches long. I didn’t even ask what he was going to do with it.

A couple of hours later he came back wearing some sort of trench coat. He said “Do you fancy some duck?” I must have given him a queer look because by way of explanation, he opened the coat like a flasher. Hanging from each side of the coat were two dead ducks.

He grinned and explained that he had gone to the river and fed the ducks – when they gathered to feed and got to within point blank range; he just zapped them with the catapult.

I turned down the offer, but I guess his family dined well for a few days.

Anyway: Walton on Thames is just a few miles from Sunbury and part of the stockbroker belt – lots of well-heeled people with nice cars and very expensive properties. Since he never moved in those sort of circles, so I don’t know how he managed it, but he got a job landscaping a garden in those plush suburbs. When he arrived, the house was a mansion in the modern style and the garden was the size of a football pitch. He was met by the lady of the house, whose first words to him were, “You do know who I am, don’t you?” I’m sure he must have looked at her with a blank expression because I doubt whether he knew many lords or ladies. “I’m Lady ……….”, in a tone of voice that said she was just a few blood cells short of the Queen, (and maybe she was), but Pete never divulged her identity.

She showed him round and told him what she wanted doing and they agreed that she would pay him £10.00 a day, which was a reasonable rate for the job, but cheap compared to a professional, tax paying gardener.

Sometimes I drove him there, but usually he made his way there at his own expense because he had no car. He worked diligently from early morning till late at night on that garden, and at the end of the first week he asked for some money. She told him she would only pay when the job was finished. So for the next two or three weeks he worked solidly on the project and put all his artistic flair into the job. I have no doubt that the end result would have been spectacular. However, when he went for his money, her Ladyship told him that she didn’t have any cash – come back next week. The next week she still didn’t have any cash, but would he take a cheque? But Pete didn’t do bank accounts.

I drove him back there one evening the following week; again the same story. Finally she asked him “You’re on benefits aren’t you?” Since one of his character flaws was that he couldn’t tell a lie, he admitted that he was.

Her rich, elegant and sophisticated bloody Ladyship was in reality, just a miserly penny-pinching bitch, and she just handed him a twenty pound note and told him to be on his way before she reported him to the authorities. What could he do? I suggested that we went back when she was out and trash the garden, but he declined this offer.

On a philosophical note; this incident made a profound effect on my outlook on life in general. It awoke me to the fact that much of the wealth in our world is achieved not by hard work, intelligence or entrepreneurship, but by lying, cheating, conniving and under-hand dealing which other sections of society find morally reprehensible and are probably illegal – we read about it every day.

There are a significant number of people who believe that they have a God given right to be dominant, either in the military, commerce or politics. The common man or woman is an inconvenience that has to be tolerated in order have their menial tasks carried out, leaving the elite free to be – well…… rich.

Which reminds me of another incident that happened around the same time: A man came into the shop, immaculately dressed in a pin stripe suit and upper class accent, and asked if I had any dishwasher powder. He might even have been Lord…….. for all I knew. Now dishwashers at that time were a luxury that only the rich could afford, so this guy wasn’t short of a bob or two. I explained to him that I didn’t have any in stock but would make a point of getting some for him.

A couple of weeks later he returned. “I’ve got your dishwasher powder – in fact I’ve got two, just in case you need some for next time.” I told him, and set a box on the counter. “Oh. I didn’t want one that big” he said, and left without buying anything. I never saw him again. But every day for the next two years I saw those boxes gathering dust on the shelf, which for me, working 16 hour days and struggling to make a living, they were just dead stock which I could ill afford.

The moral of this story is that when you are the purveyor of goods or labour, the customer is not always right.

SECOND PLACE – MONSIEUR FRANCOIS

By L.P.

A light breeze gently flew over the town of Monak, making its way past the long pine trees, in between the narrow alleyways, and over the red brick house that was home to our very own Monsieur Francois du Chazaud. Surrounded by beautiful, violet Bougainvillea flowers that officially marked the arrival of spring, the house stood out from afar as it displayed a wide array of colorful plants. Taking a closer look, one would notice how impeccable and picturesque the garden was. Uniquely placed cobblestones around the bushes connected the small white wooden gazebo to the French styled entrance of the house. The elegant demeanor of the garden was anything but accidental, for Monsieur Francois dedicated at least three hours a day to perfecting this masterpiece. He was a diligent 35-year-old who was a perfectionist at everything he did. After all, his carefully constructed garden was a manifestation of his meticulous personality.

Every morning at 6:30 am, Monsieur Francois would get on his bike and make his way to the diamond boutique store, Le Marchèlle, where he worked. Every morning, he would be the first to open the store, unlock the safety boxes, and display the most expensive jewelry sets in their designated places. Every morning, he would take a moment to admire the plaque on the wall that had his name on it along with Salesman of the Year and a brief sentence on his integrity and dedication. He took much pride in the quality of his work and was deeply grateful of the appreciation and notice he continuously received from his manager, William. Having worked there for 12 years and displayed the utmost level of honesty and professionalism, he was entrusted with the diamonds as if they were his own. Over the years, William dealt with many conniving workers and had since vowed to trust no one but Monsieur Francois.

This Tuesday morning appeared to be no different than any other, but Monsieur Francois felt otherwise as he stood behind the counter with his white gloves and gazed out into the distant park. He couldn’t quite put his finger on it, but something simply did not feel right. Being in charge of the store while William attended to his visiting grandchildren, Monsieur Francois prayed that he merely misunderstood the feeling and that everything would be all right. He shook his head as if to brush off his negative thoughts and welcomed his co-workers to the store. It was nearing 8:00 am and the store was ready to be opened.

Le Marchèlle welcomed many customers in its early hours. Middle-aged women, young newly-weds, stay-at-home moms. While he usually focused on his own customers, Monsieur Francois couldn’t help but stare at an old woman elegantly dressed in a fur coat, carrying a black Chanel bag in one hand and her poodle in the other. There was something so mesmerizing about her that compelled him to walk across the room and speak with her.

“Bonjour Madame.” he uttered as he approached her cautiously, trying to put a name to her face.

“Yes? Hello.” She responded as she slowly turned around to face him.

“May I help you?”

“Thank you but this young gentleman is doing a fine job himself.” She pointed at the young salesman standing behind the counter.

“Oui, of course Madame… Please excuse me, but you look so familiar!”

“Oh? Is that so?” She replied with an intrigued look on her face.

“Yes. I’ve been trying to remember where I’ve seen you…” He placed his hand on his chin as if to awaken his memory. “Why but of course! How did I miss it? Madame, you look like the famous Roberta Luiz!”

“Oh that’s very kind of you!” She giggled, her face beginning to blush. “I used to get that a lot in my youth. I hardly think I look like her now. You can call me Martha, by the way.” She reached her hand to fix her hair.

“But you do, Ms. Martha. You’re glowing!”

“Oh, stop it! You’re only saying that to convince me to buy something.”

Monsieur Francois quickly glanced at the exquisite piece of jewellery she was looking at.

“You seem to already have your heart set on our Izadora; a stunning piece that would look remarkable around your neck.” He reached for the necklace and held it close to her neck. “May I?”

“Oh well why not,” she answered excitedly.

“Mon Dieu. You look Magnifique!” He held up the mirror to showcase the beauty that stood before him.

“My goodness. That really is stunning. It is absolutely exquisite.” She moved her head slightly upwards and to the side to emphasize the sparkling beauty that was accentuating her long neck. “Oh, I must buy this. My late husband would have loved it… Mmm yes. Beautiful. Simply beautiful.”

She stood there admiring her own beauty for a couple of minutes before Monsieur Francois interrupted her gaze.

“Pardon, Madame.”

“Yes?”

“Will you please come this way so I may sort out your purchase?” He motioned to the corner table on the other side of the store.

This was the part of his job he loved most: concluding a sale with a happy and satisfied customer. He found pleasure in ensuring his customers got more than they asked for. After all, he religiously followed the advice given to him by his late grandfather on how the customer is always right. When he first joined Le Marchèlle, his grandfather gave him a book that emphasized just how important the customer is, which has since been kept at the store as a solid reminder.

The day proceeded with a number of other successful sales and delighted customers. The inventory log list needed to be consolidated and reorganized before William returned to work, so Monsieur Francois took it upon him to spend the last three hours of the day going through all the paperwork, leaving his co-workers to manage the store. Halfway through his work, he heard a lot of arguing coming from the entrance of the store. It was quite uncommon for a dispute to break out between his coworkers and customers. He listened carefully to try and deduce what was going on.

“But it’s impossible!”

“Excuse me Sir, please let us through. This is hardly a simple matter!”

“But I know him, and what you’re saying is impossible!”

Confused and perplexed, Monsieur Francois could not fathom what William was doing back at the store, or why he was so passionately arguing with the police! Unsure if his mind was playing games on him, he got up, walked out of the inventory room and headed to the display area only to find William, police officers and the old lady from earlier that morning.

“William? What are you doing here?”

“We have a situation, Francois.”

“That’s the man!” Mrs. Martha yelled frantically as she pointed at Monsieur Francois.

“Are you sure ma’am?” The police questioned.

“Yes, I’m sure! He spent an hour this morning telling me how much I look like Roberta Luiz when all he was really doing was planning how to rob me once I left!”

“Excuse me, Sir. You need to come with us to the station.” The policeman walked over to Monsieur Francois and reached for his arm.

“The station? Pour quoi? I don’t understand!” asked Monsieur Francois as he anxiously looked at William and the old lady desperate for more information that would explain the dramatic episode that had just ensued.

“You don’t understand? Well, that’s just typical! An evil man you are! How could you harm an old lady like that? And to think you were charming… You should be ashamed of yourself!”

“Mais, pour quoi Madame? What have I done?”

“Where is that Izaodra you snatched from me? Give it back to me you thief! Did you think I would not recognize you? You foolish young man. I may be old but my eyes are working fine!”

“Madame, I am sorry but I have no clue what you are saying. You bought the Izadora this morning and left with it!”

“Unbelievable! This is absolutely absurd!”

“William, what is going on?”

“Francois, this lady here is accusing you of stealing the Izadora from her outside of Blain Park at around 5:00pm.”

“What? Mais… why would I do that?”

“I don’t know Francois, but they have a video proving it.”

“A video? But I was here the whole time! I really don’t believe this!”

“Maybe this will make it easier to believe.” A young lady in her mid-twenties stepped forward with her phone in her hand. Obsessed with filming everything on her travels, she managed to capture the intruder’s face up close right before he attacked the old lady.

“Ce n’est pas possible! Je ne crois pas!”

“I couldn’t believe it myself, Francois. This must be a misunderstanding. Tell me there’s an explanation!” William looked as puzzled as Monsieur Francois.

“I cannot believe it! He looks just like me. But I was here the whole time!”

“He looks just like you? This is absurd! He IS you! Aren’t you going to arrest this man,” demanded Mrs. Martha.

“Sir, you’re under arrest. You have the right to remain silent.”

“Wait, now hold on a minute. If Francois said he was here the whole time, then he must have been. Let’s have a look at our own footage to see if we can prove he’s right.”

William led them all to the back room and played the footage from the time of the incident. Just as he had hoped, Monsieur Francois was there the whole time, sitting in the inventory room working through the paperwork.

“But that doesn’t make any sense!” remarked Mrs. Martha, baffled and utterly confused.

“Oh, but it does.” replied Monsieur Francois with a despondent look on his face.

“What do you mean?” inquired William.

Reaching out for the young lady’s phone, Monsieur Francois explained; “look closely at this man’s face.” He paused the video on the frame clearly showing the intruder’s face. “Do you notice that?”

“Yes.” They all nodded back taking note of a dark mole above his lip; a feature so apparent yet easily unnoticed in a heated situation.

“I don’t have it.” He looked back at them with his innocent face.

“Oh my.” Gasped Mrs. Martha. “But how could that be? He looks just like you!”

Monsieur Francois looked back at her and sighed a heavy sigh. “That’s because he’s my brother, Madame.”

Everyone stood quietly before him, trying to make sense of what he was saying.

“I have a twin brother, but we are, how you say? Not on speaking terms. We’ve always been very different and have never really gotten along. I am quite surprised he is in town; I have not seen him in 10 years. What a bizarre coincidence this is!” Monsieur Francois turned to the old lady and said, “I apologize, Madame. I completely understand why you thought it was me. I am truly sorry about what happened. Je suis desole.”

“Oh, no, no, no. I am truly sorry, young man! I have accused you of such a horrible thing when all you’ve given me is kindness.” She uttered those words as her hands gently patted her cheeks all the while shaking her head in disbelief and shame.

As everyone left the store, Monsieur Francois turned to William.

“I am very sorry, William. If I knew he was in town, I would have seen this coming. It’s always been like this with him.”

William sat on the chair unaware there was a book over it and looked at Francois.

“Nonsense, Francois. You are the best employee at Le Marchèlle and one of my dearest friends. I knew you would never do anything like that.”

Uncomfortable in his seat, he reached down to move the book from under him and smiled as he noticed that it was Monsieur Francois’ very own business bible, The Number One Rule to a Successful Business: The Customer is Always right. Handing it over to him, he concluded, “And on this occasion, Monsieur Francois, the customer was most definitely not right!”

THIRD PLACE- THE ONE THAT DOESN’T WANT TO ASK?

By Noor Nass

We are withholding the story as the author is working on it based on Katie’s feedback

THE BOOKING

by T. S. Srinivas

NOTE: One other entrant has given me permission to publish his story here. It is a first attempt at a challenge! Well done Srini for entering

After screaming through the phone, he banged it down – but did not move away! Vijay Kumar kept staring at the phone for , what seemed to him , an eternity. He was angry and at the same time afraid! A feeling of panic was gripping his very being after hearing the words of the hotel employee a minute ago. In fact the exact words kept ringing in his ears “ I am extremely sorry Mr. Kumar, you can repeat yourself as many times as you like , but the Majestic Conference hall is definitely not available tomorrow. The best we can do for your function is to provide you the Business Hall which is much smaller but equally good”.

Vijay Kumar was the honorary President of the Bahrain chapter of the Indian Engineers Society. Tomorrow was the 10th anniversary of the chapter and a grand program had been planned. The highlight of the program was a panel discussion – which included renowned technical experts from India also as key participants. A number of local dignitaries had also been invited. Vijay knew that for the event to be a success the venue had to be grand and what place better than the Majestic!

He had initiated the contact with the hotel 2 months ago right at the time when the Society’s board had mooted the idea of a celebration for their 10th anniversary. He had spoken to the hotel’s Sales head and they had agreed in principle. Subsequently, he had handed over the task of venue finalization to the Society’s Logistics Committee headed by Ms. Lakshmi Prasad. Even last week , at the Society’s meeting for review of the Anniversary Program, Lakshmi had confidently affirmed that her group was in touch with the hotel and Majestic Hall was settled. There in Vijay’s mind the hotel was being vey unprofessional by denying the promised venue at the last moment.

Seething with anger he decided to go in person and give a piece of his mind to the hotel management. Being a well known name in social circles, Mr. Vijay was promptly shown into the office the Sales Director Mr. James Callaghan. The conversation that followed went something like this:

Vijay : “James, are you even aware of what your staff have done? We have such an important function tomorrow and they are going to ruin the whole thing by forcing us into the cramped Business Hall. And this after I got the okay from you two months ago! And you know how much business our Society has been giving your hotel in the past few years.”

James :” Mr. Vijay, first of all very nice to meet you in person again. Of course I know how much the Indian Engineers Society means to this hotel. And I always give you the best possible deal. But this time , I am sorry, you people have not acted in a professional manner. We waited as long as we could , but at the end of the day , business is business and in the absence of proper confirmation from your side, we had to give the Majestic hall to another party. But even now, I am trying to help you. Though you have come at the last moment, I am willing to work flat out to make the other hall available to you tomorrow!”

Vijay: “ I think you are forgetting how good a customer we have been. And what do you mean , no confirmation?! After me speaking to you, our Logistics Committee has been regularly following up with your staff – in fact practically every week. And I hear from them, that your people were dilly-dallying suggesting that the Majestic Hall may not be available for us and very next week saying it will be. And so, today I finally decided to take the matters into my own hands and called up only to be told we were not getting the venue. So I am forced to come here and confront you. Sorry to say this, but this time your hotel did not treat a long-time customer in the right manner!”.

James : “ Well Mr. Vijay, I have spoken to all our concerned staff and have gotten the entire picture. Let me tell you what exactly happened. After your initial contact, your people kept calling on and off. Then we told them that they have to fill and submit a booking form, duly signed by an authorized representative of your Society. Then the record would be created in our booking system. And then 4 weeks before the actual program date, an advance has to be paid. Normally we charge 50% advance, but in your case we were willing to accept even 25%. All this was communicated time and again to your people. But the problem is that every time a different person from your group would call up, give verbal assurances and then we wouldn’t hear from that person again.

Mr. Vijay, end of the day we are running a business. There is quite a lot of demand for the Majestic Hall. So we do need to have things in writing and some sort of advance payment to justify us turning down other requests. Finally we had no choice but to give the venue to another customer who promptly complied with our very minimum requirements. There is no way we could justify any further delay to our management. So , in fact , I am sorry to say, in this instance your people have acted in a very unprofessional manner.

However, let us now discuss how best we can enhance the arrangements in the Business Hall so that you are at least able to conduct your program tomorrow and make it a success”.

Faced with the undeniable facts placed in front of him, Vijay realized that his Committee had been negligent in doing the paperwork required by the hotel and in following the required procedure. They had made assumptions and taken things for granted – leading to this fiasco. He realized that the old business adage “A customer is always right” is not always right!

July 2017
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