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.

 

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Susan M Toy

hpim3640

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!

Our reviewer for the challenge was Paul Newton-Palmer who is in the final agonising all-consuming throes of publishing his first book. Paul has an MA in Creative Writing from the University Chichester, UK. He is also an accomplished short story writer and has a high interest in poetry, although, he stresses, he is primarily a novelist. His first crime thriller will be released shortly.

The challenge for April/May was open, that means it could be about anything in any genre and style. The only constraint was to start the story with the letter ‘D’. We had five delightful entries that our reviewer Paul, said he found a pleasure to read. He has provided detailed and insightful commentary to each of the writers, that I think they have found both useful and encouraging.

I shall place a photograph of Paul as soon as I receive one.

Here, without further ado are the stories in the order I received them:

I Spy with My Little Eye Something Beginning with D

By Glen Stansfield

“Dragons’ eggs?”

“Yes, in a cave.”

“There’s no such things as dragons,” Danny said.

“Is too, and I found their eggs – in the sand.”

“How big are they then?”

“Not that big, but I know they’re dragons’ eggs, ‘cos, – ‘cos they’re all knobbly.” Brian was confused. He thought Danny would be excited by his news.

“They’re probably seagull eggs.”

Sometimes, Danny didn’t know why he bothered with Brian. He was only eight, Danny was ten and so much wiser, almost grown up, or so he thought.

“Bet you’ve not even found a cave.”

“Did so too. At the far end of the beach.”

When the war ended, two year old Danny met his father for the first time. Brian hadn’t quite been born; the product of a forty-eight hour leave pass, eight and a half months earlier. Living next door in their two-up, two-down terraced houses, it was inevitable the pair would grow up together. They spent hours kicking a football around the streets, or playing cricket with an old bat and a ragged tennis ball. And despite the numerous warnings from their parents, they would sometimes play on one of the bomb-sites still littering that part of Coventry.

“Show me.”

“Now? We can’t go to the beach on our own Danny. We’ll get into trouble.”

“I suppose, but when we go this afternoon you’d better show me that cave, or else.”

Their fathers worked together before the war, employed as handymen in the nearby Alvis factory. After demobilisation they started a business in the building trade. Plenty of that to be done in post-war Britain, especially in a heavily bombed city like theirs.

They did well for themselves, and after so many years of hard work, arranged to take their families on a well-deserved holiday. Two weeks on the south coast of England, in the county of Dorset.

“I still say you’re making it up,” said Danny.

Brian responded the way little boys do when doubted. He thrust his hands in his pockets, pouted his lips, looked at the ground and scuffed the toe of one shoe on the floor. A little boy in a sulk can be difficult to deal with, for a minute or two. Then they forget all about it and move onto something new.

Brian tapped Danny on the shoulder and shouted “You’re it!” starting yet another game of tag. Brian set off along the boarding house corridor, squealing in delight with Danny in pursuit.

ooOoo

Even though on holiday together, the two families agreed from the outset they would not spend all their time in each other’s company. After all, the two men worked alongside each other, and their wives, being next door neighbours, spent a lot of time together. A little time apart would do them no harm. And that is how Brian had found himself wandering the beach without Danny.

The previous afternoon, his parents decided to spend a bit of time in the sun, while Danny’s parents took him on the bus to Weymouth to do some souvenir shopping.

Brian didn’t like sitting still in the sun. He soon got restless and wandered off along the beach.

“Don’t go out of sight,” his Mother called.

“I won’t.”

He went further than he intended. At the end of the beach, he clambered over the rocks beneath the cliff face and that’s where he came across the entrance to the cave.

A hundred and fifty feet high, and jutting out some fifty feet, a rocky outcrop protruded from the rest of the cliff, as if trying to reach the sea. It formed a natural barrier between the beach and the continuing shoreline. From a distance it looked to be a part of the rock face. It was only when you got close you realised it was there.

In the corner, between the promontory and the cliff was a dark hole, visible only when you had passed by and looked back towards the town. A sandy patch stretched from the sea and extended into the cave as if someone had cleared a path.

Like all young boys, Brian had a fascination for things he knew might be dangerous, so he slowly made his way towards the void. He was aware things were different here. The sea was quieter somehow. He was becoming uncomfortable, but his curiosity got the better of him.

Cautiously, he went inside, hesitating at each step. He had no intention of going too far. It wasn’t a shallow cave. A dark, gaping hole, both beckoning and intimidating at the same time. He would go inside for a few steps, no more. As he did so, he tripped over something sticking up out of the sandy floor. Two egg shaped objects, partially buried, knobbly and green, and very strange. Brian bent down to take get a better view.

The squawk of a gull echoed in the cave, startling Brian, and he fled before he had chance to examine what he was now sure were dragons’ eggs. They were smaller than he expected, maybe this was a small dragon. He wasn’t going to look again. The noise had spooked him. He wouldn’t go back in there until Danny came with him, and wouldn’t he be surprised when he saw the eggs. Brian couldn’t wait.

He scrambled back across the rocks and back onto the beach. His Mother was looking for him and he waved, she beckoned for him to come back.

“What did I tell you?”

“I only went on the rocks, Mum. I could still see you.”

“Well I couldn’t see you, so you can stay here now.”

“But, Mum…”

“Brian, don’t argue with your Mother,” came a voice from under the newspaper. And with that Brian sat down and began digging a hole with his spade.

ooOoo

In the afternoon both families gathered up the beach mats, buckets and spades, and all the other paraphernalia that makes for a pleasant afternoon in the sun, and set off for the beach. Pleasant for the adults that is. A bucket and spade was all the average child needed as long as there was an ice-cream van nearby.

After half an hour, Brian could take no more.

“Can me and Danny go beachcombing?” he asked.

“You better not disappear like yesterday.”

Brian knew better than argue. That would be the quickest way to get the answer ‘no’.

“We won’t. Promise.”

Despite Danny’s thoughts about him being young and inexperienced, Brian wasn’t stupid. If he and Danny made a bee-line for the cave, his Mother would suspect something. So with all the wiles an eight-year old can muster he grabbed Danny by the arm.

“Come on, let’s go down there.” He pointed with his free hand towards a patch of dried out seaweed, a hundred yards away on the tide-line.

“I thought we were…”

Danny got no more of the sentence out as Brian stamped on his foot and nodded his head towards the four adults lying on the beach mats.

“Ouch.”

Though not happy about the method of silencing him, he knew Brian was right. Maybe he was a bit more grown up than he thought.

After ten minutes of rummaging in the sand-fly-ridden seaweed, the pair checked on the nearby adult supervision. No signs of life, other than the occasional wave of a hand to ward off a particularly persistent fly.

They worked their way along the tide-line towards the cliffs and soon reached the promontory. Every few steps they paused to check on the adults.

Danny knew you couldn’t rely on adults, they were always doing the unexpected. This time they didn’t spoil things. They wouldn’t be long at the cave. Just enough time to prove Brian wrong about the eggs.

“Brian! These aren’t eggs you idiot, they’re hand-grenades.”

After gently removing the sand from around the two green orbs, Danny had his suspicions confirmed when he saw the release mechanism. He had seen hand-grenades in pictures his dad brought back from the war in North Africa.

“They must have been left over from the war. My Dad says they did exercises all along the coast. He says they practised for D-Day somewhere around here.”

“Are you sure?”

“Of course I’m sure. We need to get out of here and tell someone. We could be blowed up.”

“I was sure they were dragons’ eggs,” said a disappointed Brian.

“I told you. There’s no such thing.”

Something moved inside the cave. They both froze. Something being dragged across the sand.

“Don’t be too sure about that,” said a deep, resounding voice from inside the cave. It resonated and echoed, in their bodies as well as their ears.

The boys were motionless, their eyes wide and their mouths open.

A light flickered, seemingly floating in the air. A flame, building in brightness until they could see it reflecting off the gold and blue iridescent skin of what was unmistakably a magnificent specimen of a dragon.

— The End —

Dear Vikki 

Seumas Gallacher

It was more than fifty years ago now, but it’s as clear in my mind as if it were yesterday.

At fourteen, most of my non-school hours meant kicking a football with my pals on the spare ground close to our home in the Glasgow slums. An open piece of grass where piled jackets served as goalposts, was bounded by tenement buildings. On weekends, the noise of up to twenty or more of we lads reverberated for hours. Somehow, we never felt tired. One of the buildings which housed exclusively older, retired folks overlooked our makeshift pitch. Singletons all, either spinsters or widowed individuals, well beyond even the age that I’m now skirting with, they lived in a comfortable, protected environment.

One day I heard a call from the third-floor balcony of the unit facing where we played. A petite, white-haired lady waved to me, and beckoned me to come up. It was the first time I met her. Miss Kerr. Even at this distance of time, I know she must have been approaching her eighties. I had to pass by the caretaker’s office and get permission to go upstairs.

“Aye, up you go, son. That’ll be Miss Kerr, wanting you to go do a few errands for her,” he said. The wooden strip on his door bore the name, J. Cassidy. Mister Cassidy fitted in perfectly with the age group of his charges. A big, broad-shouldered ex-docker, he and I would have many conversations in the ensuing months. His well-worn hands could convert to massive fists if ever needed, but the gentle giant in him showed his caring skills.

The elevator to the third floor opened onto the corridor running the length of the place. At the end, the diminutive Miss Kerr already stood with her door open.

“Hello, Miss Kerr? Mister Cassidy told me your name.”

“Come in, come in,” she said. Her tiny hand motioned me inside. The winter sunlight glared in to brighten a small, one-roomed area. A neat table set near the window gave her panoramic access to the goings-on up and down the street, including our football patch. In the corner near the window, a gas stove fitted against the wall, partnered with a low bank of shelves.

“You’ll have some tea?” she asked, pointing at the shelves. It was more a command than a question. “There’s some fresh brewed there. If you’ll just take out a couple of cups and saucers. And in that wee tin on the top, you’ll get us some biscuits.”

I put the cups on the table and my elderly hostess brought over the teapot.

“My back’s killing me,” she said. Her slow gait looked painful. “I’m waiting for a hip replacement, but the time they take here is so long, I’ll be pushing up the daisies before they get round to me.”

I sat on the chair opposite her sentry-watch position.

“What’s your name, son?”

“Jimmy.”

“Good. Jimmy. I had a brother called Jimmy, but he died during the war.”

I realised she meant the First World War. While she talked, my eyes took in the rest of the apartment. The worn bits of carpet stretched to the inside of the unit, all the way to her bed tucked against the far wall. A chest of drawers and a white cupboard completed the furnishing.

I took a sip of the tea. Then something caught my eye. A small movement on top of the bed. A teddy bear? No. Teddy bears don’t move on their own. A small terrier dog lay, wrapped in a piece of blanket. Miss Kerr saw my surprise.

“That’s my dear wee Vikki,” she said. “She’s not very well. That’s why I asked you to come up.”

My face must have displayed my puzzlement.

“I need you to help me to take Vikki on the bus to the Vet.”

Then the penny dropped with me. The Veterinarian for the district held surgery in a mobile unit parked in the shopping area about ten minutes down the road from where we lived.

“Aye. No problem, Miss Kerr. “So, what’s wrong with your doggie?”

“Just a wee cold. The Vet’ll fix her fine. They did the last time.”

We had nearly finished the tea.

“Shall we go now?” she said.

“Sure.”

Vikki made a quiet moaning sound as I picked her up from the bed, but made no resistance to being carried in the blanket. Miss Kerr busied herself in readiness to go out. A grey coat, which had seen better years, would have fitted a small schoolgirl. Dark blue shoes, which my mother would have described as ‘sensible’, showed the scuffing that no amount of polish could hide. A maroon beret protected her head from what was, despite the sun, a biting, cold, morning wind.

A lick of pale, pink lipstick and she was ready.

The bus conductor nodded to Miss Kerr as we boarded. No need for her to show her pensioner’s free pass. She made to pay for me, sitting beside her, cradling Vikki. The conductor smiled and refused her pennies.

Similar courtesy appeared at the Vet’s office, where the surgeon’s assistant clearly knew Miss Kerr.

“Doctor won’t be long, Miss Kerr. Is this your grandson?”

“No, just a young friend from near where I live,” she said, with a smile. I felt strangely pleased to be thought her relative. A few minutes later the assistant ushered us through to the Vet’s area. Doctor Beattie was a middle-aged lady, with a terrific smile.

“Hello, Miss Kerr. What’s wrong with your wee dog, then? Let’s have a look.”

I handed her pet over as gently as I could. The dog barely moved. I noted the change of expression on Doctor Beattie’s face. Something was badly amiss.

“Hmm. Vikki is very sick, Miss Kerr, Do you want to leave her with us?”

“How long until she gets well?” asked my new surrogate grandma.

The Vet spoke as gently as she could. “I don’t think she has much longer to go. We can take care of her, if you want?”

Miss Kerr’s demeanour changed instantly. Her voice hardened. “No. I’ll take her back home. She’ll be okay with me.”

She was firm in the way older people convey when they want to do things their way. Stubborn, resolved, determined.

Doctor Beattie knew it was pointless to try further persuasion. She administered an injection to alleviate the dog’s symptoms. No payment was asked.

We retraced the bus journey back to Miss Kerr’s apartment. She didn’t speak at all, and I didn’t attempt any conversation.

When the owner and her dog were settled back in safely, I sought out Mister Cassidy.

“Hello, son. How did it go?”

“To tell you the truth, Mister Cassidy, her wee dog’s dying, almost gone already according to the Vet, but I don’t think she’s able to accept that. It’s not good.”

“Okay. I’ll keep a close watch on her. Thanks, lad.”

Two days later, Miss Kerr appeared again on her balcony and waved for me to go up. I knocked on Mister Cassidy’s door and he signalled to go ahead. When I entered the apartment, a foul smell caught my nose.

“Jimmy, I need you to go and get some medicine for Vikki,” said Miss Kerr.

I went to the bed where the dog lay. The eyes were staring, lifeless, probably dead since the day we brought her home from the Vet. The smell was from the decomposition already setting in. Miss Kerr had obviously been sleeping on the same bed as her pet.

“Miss Kerr, Vikki’s dead,” I said. “We need to take her out of here.”

Her chin pushed out, lips a straight line. The edge returned to her voice. “No she’s not, Jimmy. She still hears me when I speak to her. Look at her ears moving when I talk. Now will you go to the Vet and ask for some medicine?”

“Okay. Okay,” I said. I left her and went to seek out Mister Cassidy.

I told him what I’d seen and the rancid smell in the unit. Good man that he was, he immediately made a phone call. Twenty minutes later, people arrived from the local animal shelter. The lead officer was excellent in the way he appeased Miss Kerr. He explained they were taking Vikki to the hospital to get her well. In the meantime, Mister Cassidy and I took our charge to lunch. The fumigation team moved in while we were away from the place. Of course, Vikki was never coming back. Miss Kerr had lost the most important companion in her life. During lunch with us, she was even more subdued than usual, the reality probably settling in slowly.

A week or so passed in which I wasn’t able to visit. Eventually, I went to see how she was faring. Mister Cassidy wasn’t in his office, and I went straight up to her apartment. My knocking went unanswered. I went downstairs again and found the caretaker back in his usual place.

I started to tell him there was no reply to my knocking at her door.

“Sit down, son.” His voice wavered. He shook his head. “Very sad news, I’m afraid. Miss Kerr passed away two days ago.”

As the years drift by, I think of her often. A lady I met and knew only for a matter of days, but that brief encounter has remained with me. My new grandma for a week. In the intervening years, I‘ve owned many dogs. Always a terrier, and always called Vikki.

— The End —

Note: There are two point I need to make as a preamble: One there was some confusion in the writer’s mind between the piece we were to share at the last Workshop and the Challenge that was to start with the letter ‘D’. So this entry is a short one. The second is that the entrant wishes to remain anonymous.

On Grief

By Anonymous

Darkness started to envelop the beautiful red and yellow sunset just moments earlier. The surreal sky with its vivid colours suited the dream-like state everyone was in. Shocked, in disbelief, in denial, in a dream. Yes, let’s pretend none of this was real. It’s easier not to feel anything at this moment. Ouch, the cigarette I forgot about, burnt my hand; forcing reality upon me. I stubbed it out and lit another one, immune again, inhaling deeply. I hadn’t smoked in a while but it came back to me like second nature. I took a long drag from the cigarette and stared at the house. The air was humid and all I could hear was the buzzing of a lamp by the pool and the distant sound of people at the house. I stared hard at the lit up pool, at the house, at the people. I still felt numb. Someone had seen me despite my efforts to keep my distance. They started walking towards me and I stubbed out the cigarette. I stank of smoke but who gave a shit, what did I care about my reputation at this point? When she came close I saw it was a close family friend, she gave me a long huge hug, my head nestling into her black abaya. I teared; it hurt to cry at this point. ‘I’m so sorry’ she said and I nodded in acceptance but words couldn’t come out of my mouth. She turned and walked towards the house I couldn’t stay in. I felt sick, I wish this wasn’t real. At this point I felt as if nothing mattered, anything material was worthless. How could he die so suddenly? There was so much I didn’t tell him, so much I didn’t know about him. This wasn’t fair; he was too young to go. I was angry, fuming mad now. How could you do this to me, to us, I asked silently staring at the black sky.

— The End —

Dear Life

by Muneera Fakhro

Dear Life,

You have been so unfair to me, by bringing me to this life,

I grew up in an agonisingly cruel environment, but had been fighting with all my might,

I was poor, weak and fragile, barely scraping through you and finding something to eat.

I was young, I had big dreams to realize, and bigger obstacles to beat,

just to be recognised, despite those who bullied, beat, and cursed at me, saying I will not make it far,

that only made me fight, against words, diseases, time and went through further distances than soldiers in war.

 

I grew older, I had seen many things, experienced many other,

But then I saw … great injustice in you, towards those who believed in you,

I saw your reality, and how -to you- they were not much of a bother,

You are just a rollercoaster of ups and downs that somehow all, including me, are so into.

I had seen how you manipulated us, dividing us into different societies

that would cast some outside if they did not fit into certain categories.

 

I had had enough of your games, fortunately it was just a phase,

For I had gone away, never to return to this place, I had simply left this maze…

 

Dear Mom and Dad,

You brought me life, my question is why?

You barely got along, or had enough to get by.

I was one of 5, so that makes it five mistakes,

neither of you ever liked kids, how long did it take

for you to lose your patience? And to start beating us

for the very first time?

 

We were always disrespectful, in your mind,

and did not deserve yours, you thought, but oh were you so blind

of what we did for you, we slept on time and studied hard.

Amongst them, I was the hardest worker, sometimes going overboard.

However, to you, I had been and always would be the biggest mistake, the ignorant retard.

 

Truth be told, you were the ignorant fools,

too negligent to take responsibility of your mistakes!

No longer would I go by your rules,

and for that I would do whatever it takes.

I had decided, what needs to be done is for

me to quit it all, and change the five into four…

 

Dear Friends,

I had lived my whole life alone, detached and friendless,

up until a while back, you came along and changed it all from a curse to bliss.

I had dealt with it all, for twenty years long…so empty.

But when you came you shared, bore and chased that pain away, and I thank you plenty.

You broke the shell that I had always lived in, and shattered the chains that pinned me down in my place,

You showed me how life is like, and taught me how to communicate face to face.

 

When I started talking, it was hard to hear what I say, all that came out was a mumble.

I tried speaking louder, but then I stuttered. It was not too easy to come out of my bubble.

I would always get misunderstood, though you were more understanding,

until they showed up, and changed you with whatever they would bring.

I would not blame you, since we live in a life ruled by materials.

Despite that, throwing me aside like we never been, was worse than any betrayal.

 

Now I am alone once again, with no more paths to take and follow.

There is nothing more for me to do after I have become so hollow…

 

…Boss,

You were the head manager of a respectable company,

the reason it flourished actually.

I was told I will be in good hands,

and be in charge of the marketing brands.

You were fair with all the costumers, and attended to all their needs,

and towards enemies and competitors you never pay no heed.

 

However…

To colleagues in this office, you were such a flirt.

to that, I had not been alert.

You gave special attention to the ladies,

in no time would you forget all about your mateys.

When there were eyes on you, somehow I became the one to blame.

I have lost my rank, and for that, my resentment and fury turned to a blazing flame.

 

Before I leave this world I left a little gift for you, a ‘flaming touch’ to your house décor

I could do the same for your car, but your salary will not handle any more.

I could leave this life with no regrets,

since I had faced the only one I was up against…

 

To my unrequited love,

You were my college buddy, my closest buddy,

we shared our notes, food and money.

We would meet on every break, and talk about random things,

you had kind eyes and make a cute giggle at every topic I would bring.

Whether we talked or sat still in silence, it would be enjoyable.

All the moments that we shared will always be memorable.

 

Your hair up in a bun, never took off your glasses.

Had a fair skin, usually seemed deep in thought.

You would dress nicely, and wear accessories that matches,

often sitting there, eating the snack you have bought.

After we met, that bench became our usual place.

We joked, laughed, cursed and gave each other praise.

 

I had the deepest of love for you, yet you never felt the same,

it drove us apart and turned my life into such a waste…

 

This would be the end of this maze…

 

Lastly…

 

Dear God,

Why did you create a life that is so unfair?

One which gives us hopes and dreams only to be shattered away,

no matter how long, how much we say the same prayer.

It will only give so little thought before throwing them, and us, away.

Why did you grant couples who can’t raise children with kids of their own?

They will grow to be nothing but trash to be thrown.

 

Why create people to be easily swayed by a materialistic life?

You gave everyone a rateable value which is worse than handing each a knife.

Also giving high ranks to people with the worst of traits

who would take advantage of others when they are in for questions and debates.

And what good would love someone so bad do if they do not love you back?

I could not have described it better when saying one would become a punching sack.

 

All these questions I have come to ask of you,

In a little while I will be hearing your answers right in front of you…

— The End —

 

 Drowning in the Gulf

by Gordon Simmonds

This is part of a story whose full title is Flying in the Gulf (or something similar), which is a follow-on of another real life tale I called Cruising the Gulf.

Somewhere between the clay pigeon shooting and the bungee jumping, a visitor to the Chatsworth Country Show may notice a big sign promoting helicopter rides. For a small fortune, you too can experience a ten minute tour of Chatsworth House from the air. Wow! This is a true story about how the largesse of the off-shore oil industry allows its employees so much more than this, and not only is it free, but they will pay you to enjoy the delights of travelling by chopper.

Of necessity, this story doesn’t start in the Gulf, but in that great city of culture and opulence, Kingston upon Hull. More commonly known in the local dialect as ‘ull, (pronounced ull) it is famous for its fish docks and, er…fish.

To qualify for free helicopter flights, you become subject to the oil industry Health & Safety regime, which means that if you die on the job, they can wash their hands of any culpability. So your first requirement is to prove yourself fit enough to cope with the demands of North Sea travel – this means a trip to the local quack. You know the score; read this chart, pee into this, and as us gentlemen know, cough – while doc stares at your dangly bits. Then, with a clean bill of health, you can move on to the next stage of the process, which is survival training.

As the name suggests, you are taught to survive most benign incidents. As for the catastrophic ones, I’m reminded of the old parachuting joke.

A young soldier is to make his first parachute jump. He is instructed to release his main chute after he exits the aircraft. If that fails, he is to release his reserve chute. If that also fails, he is to shout GEROMINO!

So he jumps out of the aircraft and releases his main ‘chute – it doesn’t work.

He releases his reserve ‘chute – that doesn’t work either.

Then as he hurtles toward the ground he passes his instructor in mid air and shouts over “What was the name of that bloody indiannnnnnnnn?”

The first part of the course is a cruise around Hull docks, otherwise known as escape capsule awareness. You are directed to a site deep inside the dock complex, and you know you are close because forty or fifty feet in the air is a bright orange boat. Your first thought is “that’s a long way up,” but some time later, you are assured that they won’t be dropping you from such a height because a quick change into bright orange overalls and you are invited to embark on a boat/capsule they launched earlier.

It’s not really a boat, (which is why they call it a capsule). True it is boat shaped and floats, but with a roof the same size as the hull, a hatch in the side to get in and out, and a glass bubble at the top which allows the ‘driver’ to see where he’s going. It’s probably 20 foot long, and boasts a capacity of 50 people and you can’t help thinking that they must be very thin people, because the ten or twelve people on the course seem to fill it to capacity. Put another way, it is tight enough to hope that your neighbour hasn’t had a strong curry the night before.

The instructor runs you through the procedure for lowering the boat from a 40 foot platform and releasing it from the cables that lowered it. He omits to mention how to start the engine, at which point you might ask “How do you start the engine?”

He might reply that “The coxswain will do that for you.”

Which begs the question ”What if the coxswain isn’t here?”

That elicits a funny look which says, “If there is an incident and the coxswain doesn’t make it, you won’t be here to worry about it.” He stops short of mentioning Geromino.

The instructor then twiddles a few knobs, starts the engine and takes us all for a tour of the dock. Half an hour later you’re back on dry land and ready for the next part of the course. So you jump in the car and make your way to the headquarters of the training company where you are told that the next lesson is first aid. You arrive at a classroom and are confronted by a body on the floor – but don’t panic, it’s only a plastic dummy. What follows is like a scene from Casualty. You shout “Can I have some help in here?” check to see if the dummy is dead yet, punch the poor guy in the ribs and start pumping his chest to the tune of “Nelly the elephant packed her trunk and said goodbye to the circus.” Of course, your efforts are all in vain, but if you get it more or less right, you pass that session and it’s now lunch time.

A bite to eat and it’s on to fire fighting for dummies. You get to dress up like a fire-man – great if that’s a childhood ambition – not so great if it’s a hot day and you’re kitted out in fire-proof overalls, steel capped wellies, gloves and helmet. They tell you all about fire extinguishers and how to use them, and then they light a few fires. First there’s the chip-pan fire – throw a blanket over it without getting yourself charred in the process. Then there is the oil spill where they light up a big tray of fuel, maybe one or two metres square, and invite each of you to put it out with an extinguisher. Now I don’t use the word ‘dummies’ lightly – because there’s always someone who will insist on chasing the last remnant of flame around the tray until the extinguisher runs out, whereupon the whole lot starts up again. Mark him down as someone to avoid in an emergency.

Next is the smoke chamber, where they dress you up like Darth Vader, with breathing apparatus, and send you into a series of shipping containers which are blacked out and dark, very dark, and full of smoke. They want to teach you to find you way out of a building with zero visibility. Your team forms up in a line. The lead guy is meant to run one hand up and down the wall looking for an exit; his other hand moves up and down in front of him to detect forward obstructions, while his feet shuffle along looking for holes and hazards. The rest of the team place one hand on the wall and the other on the guy in front – a bit like a conga line without the party. It’s not that difficult, so a minute or so after entering, the lead man finds the exit door, and you’re back in the light. On the other hand, if your lead man is one of the dummies mentioned above, be prepared to shuffle round and round until they send in a search party.

If you manage to escape, there endeth the lessons for day one. A quick change and an early drive home.

Next morning you are introduced to the pool where you will carry out the underwater escape. The pool is no bigger than a typical municipal swimming pool, but the water level is maybe four or five feet from the top, and the water is much deeper. Suspended above the pool is a big red fibre-glass helicopter-looking contraption – but that comes later.

You’re invited to select a survival suit from a rack of what looks like yellow space suits. You’re then fitted out with a life-jacket and another bag like thing that they call a re-breather. Suitably attired, the first lesson takes place in a life raft which has been inflated in the corner of the building, where you are told how it works – it will inflate automatically on contact with the water – if not, it can be deployed manually – if that fails, shout GEROMINO! They didn’t actually say that last bit, but it does cross your mind.

At this point I must digress to explain something that us North Sea Tigers don’t necessarily mention to our spouses. Helicopters can move in every direction, up, down, left, right, forward and back, but what many people don’t realise is that if the engines fail, they can glide, just like a fixed wing aircraft – the only problem is that the glide path is straight down.

In ideal circumstances, the engine dies, nothing falls off and the chopper auto-gyrates to land gently on the surface of a calm sea. The helicopter floats inflate automatically, as does the life raft, you open the cabin door and everybody steps out without getting their feet wet. A rescue boat arrives within a few minutes and its back to base and home in time for tea.

A more likely scenario is that; assuming the rotor blades remain intact and the gearbox is sound, the chopper auto-gyrates and hits the sea like a sack of potatoes. Since calm seas in the North Sea are rare, it’s more likely that the immediate danger is that the still spinning rotor blades will hit a wave and disintegrate, sending shards of carbon fibre flying through the air. Survive that and the next probability is that the engine, which is mounted above the cabin, make the chopper top heavy and the next wave will cause the whole thing to roll. You then have to fight to get out of the upside-down doors and windows to reach the surface where the life raft may, or may not, have inflated. If you are stuck in the water, even at summer temperatures, hypothermia will set in within minutes rather than hours. But what’s that compared to spending 60 or 70 quid at the Chatsworth Show?

Catastrophic failure is where one or both of the rotors fall apart or stop turning. There is only one course of action if this should ever happen – shout GERMINO!!

You are told how to operate the life-jacket and instructed in how to use the re-breather. This is a bag about the size of a large envelope that you wear round the neck with a diver’s mouthpiece. You take a deep breath, blow into the bag and this stores enough oxygen to let you breath normally for about half a minute. So it’s into the pool for the first practical exercise.

At one end of the pool is a platform about a metre wide complete with hand rails and about four feet below the surface of the water. You are required to inflate the re-breather and swim underwater for the seven or eight metres width of the pool. The survival suit is what divers call a wet-suit; which means that it is meant to fill with water, but initially is full of air which tries to make you float. So you have to use the handrail to keep yourself under while breathing from the bag. If you are too slow, you notice the gradual loss of oxygen, but normally, it is easy enough to get across without coming up for air. You must now drag yourself up the ladder at the far end. I use the word ‘drag’ because now, you are carrying an extra half ton of water in the suit. If you get through that, you’ve passed another test.

(NOTE: This was a much longer piece, but as there was a natural break here, Gordon said he was okay if the rest of the story wasn’t included and so I too am ending this here.)

— The End —

Liam Saville

Headshot

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

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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 you know the September Challenge became the October challenge and that kind of segued into November and we still didn’t have any entries.

I rattled some sabres. Sent out pleas. Threats. Practically begged. All but fell on my knees. Asked repeatedly, ‘Do we want to do these or not?’. The replies almost always came back enthusiastically, not so enthusiastically, but in essence ‘Yes’.  However, by the time November rolled around I had also identified and got on board a writer to critique our stories. And all I had were two entries. So, in desperation and to make up a decent number of entries I wrote one story myself. And I do hope I won’t ever have to do that again.

The challenge was:

One day your smart phone screen changes into a jungle … Tell a story in under 2000 words what happens when you discover this.

Our judge, as I mentioned in one of several emails was Alex Shaw

Alex Shaw

ALEX SHAW headshot BWALEX SHAW B.A.(Hons), P.G.C.E. spent the second half of the 1990s in Kyiv, Ukraine, teaching Drama and running his own business consultancy before being head-hunted for a division of Siemens. The next few years saw him doing business for the company across the former USSR, the Middle East, and Africa.

Alex is an active member of the ITW (The International Thriller Writers organisation) and the CWA (the Crime Writers Association). He is the author of the #1 International Kindle Bestselling ‘Aidan Snow SAS thrillers’ COLD BLOOD & COLD BLACK and the new DELTA FORCE VAMPIRE series of books. His writing has also been published in the thriller anthologies DEATH TOLL, DEATH TOLL 2 and ACTION PULSE POUNDING TALES 2 alongside International Bestselling authors Stephen Leather and Matt Hilton.

COLD BLOOD and COLD BLACK are commercially published by ENDEAVOUR PRESS.

COLD EAST – The third Aidan Snow Thriller will be published in January 2015.

Alex, his wife and their two sons divide their time between homes in Kyiv, Ukraine and Worthing, England. Alex can be contacted via his website www.alexwshaw.com You can also follow Alex on twitter: @alexshawhetman

You can find out more about him here:

FB author page: https://www.facebook.com/pages/Alex-Shaw/383476491724127

Goodreads: https://www.goodreads.com/author/show/6550104.Alex_Shaw

Authorgraph: https://www.authorgraph.com/authors/alexshawhetman

Amazon Author’s page: http://www.amazon.co.uk/Alex-Shaw/e/B002EQ6R9G/ref=ntt_athr_dp_pel_1

Alex’s Selections were was below:

FIRST PLACE: THE GATE

by Michelle Schultz

I was swiping fat snowflakes from my eyelashes when the phone rang. I dug around in my coat pockets, trying to remember where I’d dumped the phone. I had only bought it last week, one more thing to buy after moving overseas. My half-numb fingers finally found it and pressed it against my cap.

“Hello?” I said. I shifted from foot to foot, wishing there was not so much space between my boots and the hem of my skirt.

Around me, the dim Manchester morning was silent except for the thick static of snowflakes drifting slowly down. On a Saturday, few cars braved the unplowed roads, scoring muddy tracks through the clean white expanse of snow.

I didn’t hear anything, so I pulled my cap aside. I said hello again, pressing the phone tight to my ear. I thought I could hear rain falling.

The slick, cold surface suddenly turned warm and wet against my ear.

I screamed and dropped the phone right in the snow. I scratched at my ear frantically, trying to get whatever was on it off.

My chapped fingers came away wet, streaked with golden pollen.

I looked down. A scatter of pink and purple petals mingled with the pristine snow around the bus stop. My phone had landed facedown in the snow. All around it, the snow was melting, leaving a widening circle of black asphalt.

I gripped the phone by the edges and lifted it up. Instead of the high-resolution icons and default wallpaper, deep green leaves shivered under a patter of rain behind the glossy black frame of my phone. I tilted the screen, noticing the lack of a reflection. I poked at the image of a leaf, and it bent underneath my touch, leaving my fingertip golden.

Holding the phone away from me, I turned and headed back toward home.

“Well, that’s hardly useful,” I snorted. “Why is the window so small? It’s not like I’ll fit through there.”

 

“Melanie? Back so soon?” John asked, peering into the entryway when I banged the door shut. He was still in his flannel pajamas, his feet hidden in slippers.

In answer, I held up the phone. It was still leaking rainwater and the odd petal.

“You’re kidding me!” he said. He took the phone from me, cradling it as if the leaves were going to bite him. “So where’s this?”

“Don’t know,” I said, pulling off my snowy boots.

“You have to,” he said, following at my heels as I went to wash the pollen off my hands. I could see streaks of it on my coat as well. “You make the gates.”

“Not on purpose,” I corrected, rolling my eyes. “They just… happen.”

“Could they happen to something cheap next time?”

“I didn’t want a phone in the first place. Their big reflective screens can be problematic,” I said a little nastily.

As I dried my hands, a butterfly popped out of the phone and started investigating the kitchen.

“Maybe we should close it?” John asked. To his credit, he didn’t look enthusiastic about it. He had been forced to close a few gates over the years when I couldn’t bring myself to do it. It usually involved destruction of the object in question.

“Not yet,” I said. I lay the phone so I could look down into the jungle. “Just put a cloth over it so no bugs get through.”

“You think this one will go away?”

“First time for everything,” I said with a shrug. From my pocket, I pulled the list of items we needed to finish making our new home livable. “I don’t feel like shopping anymore.”

A few hours later, John took the list and walked down the icy sidewalk to the nearest store. I had wanted to explore a bigger city this morning, but my exploratory mood had soured.

Instead, I was curled on the sofa with a notebook, trying to think of a way to start my new blog post. I usually wrote about self-improvement, meaning organic food and positive thinking, topics suggested by my tiny but growing following. I wrote them on paper, and John typed them when he got home from work.

With my condition, it was a bad idea to sit near reflective surfaces for long periods of time, especially if I was trying to be creative. Windows weren’t a problem if they had curtains over them, and our house had only two small mirrors, which I spent very little time in front of.

Next to me, the phone under its cheesecloth cover twittered with strange birds and the intermittent patter of rain. It was a nice sound in the too-quiet house.

I put my head back on the sofa and kicked my feet in their wooly slippers. Truth be told, I hated this blog. A friend had gotten me involved, and it filled the time while I looked for work, but I didn’t care about blogging. Most days, I had nothing to say. What was important was avoiding fiction or things that might make me daydream. If I was bored to tears reading about gluten allergies, then I wasn’t thinking about space flight or exotic landscapes.

I lived such a boring life.

Another bee approached my phone from inside whatever jungle it was connected to. The cheesecloth shifted as the bee bumped against it, then it flew somewhere else. I could hear it receding in the distance.

I had dreamed of somewhere with trees last night. The image of trees remained. Now, on my new phone, the thickly clustered leaves of trees moved back and forth.

I wanted to push the leaves aside to see what else was there, but thinking like that was only going to keep it there. I was supposed to be thinking about clean eating, not exotic jungles.

“I know you’re there,” someone said.

I froze. I looked around, but the room was empty. I hadn’t heard the door open, but I called John’s name.

“Not John,” the voice said. “It’s Alexander, or whatever you are calling me these days.”

I left the room.

Hands shaking, I poured myself a cup of coffee in the kitchen, focusing hard on thoughts of preservatives and food additives.

There was no Alexander and never had been. All children have imaginary friends, or so I was told. Alexander was just persistent.

“I’m not going to hurt you!” Alexander said loudly, his voice echoing in the hallway from the living room around the corner.

I didn’t come any closer, just tried to think of boring, dull things. If only I remembered more math. Quadratic equations might drive that voice away.

“I don’t know this place. Did you move again?” Alexander asked. There was an odd sound, like he was wheezing. “It smells cold. It’s summer here. You’d like it. Join me, just for a little while.”

“I like it here,” I said, then cursed myself for engaging him.

“You are killing me,” he said. “This place is awful. Why are you thinking so hard about math?”

“I’m…” I started but couldn’t finish. “Take your jungle and go away.”

“Not when you invited me.”

The sound of John moving around outside was a godsend. I darted into the entryway so I could greet him, taking myself further from my wretched gate.

After taking his bags and picking John’s brain about everything he had done, he finally looked in the direction of the living room.

“It’s him, isn’t it?” he asked, and I nodded.

John scratched his head, looking down at his feet. He looked back up with a sheepish grin.

“Why don’t you visit him?” he asked, his eyebrows crooked up in the middle.

“I don’t even know where that gate leads!”

“It never hurt you before.”

“I was a child then. I didn’t know what I was doing.”

I had walked through the gates as a child, at least until Mom figured out what I was using the mirror in my room for. I never went very far into these strange places, and Alexander was there to explain the place to me. Still, my friends’ imaginary friends never took them out of their homes.

“Look,” John said, “Whatever we’ve been doing isn’t working. Maybe you should just… see what he wants.”

I had wanted to be normal. I had picked the dullest degree I could imagine, business rather than art or literature. I had married the most sensible, staid man I ever dated. We didn’t own pets, and living in another country meant that we could forego all of the holiday traveling. I blogged about boring topics and read computer repair magazines for fun.

This wasn’t what I had seen myself doing as a child.

“Why are you always right?” I asked John.

I released his fingers, took a breath to strengthen my resolve, and walked into the living room.

I set the phone on the floor, pulled the cheesecloth away, and tried to step on the screen without thinking too hard about it. My foot sort of shrank and sank into the leaves.

I wobbled before lifting the other foot. It too vanished into the greenery. I closed my eyes.

The sun was red-gold through my eyelids. The air was hot and wet against my skin. I kicked off my slippers, letting my toes dig into the moist earth. The air smelled loamy, sweet with bruised flower petals.

I opened my eyes. Tall leafy trees blocked out the sky overhead, but ahead, the sun melted into a pool of red and orange clouds over the horizon. The land was bright with greenery, unlike the uniform white- and grayness of the English midlands in winter.

“It’s been a while,” Alexander said. He wore a suit, but he always looked out of place in my dreams.

“John thinks I should ask why you keep coming back,” I said, my voice swallowed up by the immensity of the jungle around me. The sawing of insects and chirping of birds was deafening.

“But you know why,” Alexander said with a shrug. He turned and began walking backwards, leading me toward the edge of the jungle ahead of us. “You’re just in denial.”

“What do you want?” I said, remaining in place. “I have to grow up, Alex. There’s no future in this.” I gestured at the world around us.

“There would be if you tried,” Alexander said with a scowl. “You just don’t have the resolve to make all of this and your writing come together.”

I looked away, my eyes falling on a butterfly. I wondered what sort of people lived here, and if they knew what this butterfly was called.

“Until you embrace this,” Alexander said, his arms spread wide, “it will keep breaking in.”

He walked forward and pressed my phone into my hand. Now it looked like itself, all brightly colored icons.

“You have the gateway right here. Don’t lose this one,” he said softly. “Otherwise…”

He trailed off. A dry wind whipped up, obscuring the trees with dust. Grit blew into my eyes. The sun vanished, the sweet smells traded for dryness and a chalky taste in my mouth. The ground grew soft and insubstantial.

Alexander grew thin and wasted, and then I could see through him.

“Don’t waste this gift” was the last thing I heard before everything went dark.

I opened my eyes to our living room. I was sitting with my jungle phone in my hand, a pen in the other.

Beside me, John was reading a book. He smiled tentatively when he looked up.

“How was your trip?” he asked.

I looked down at the empty notebook and its crossed-out topics for the blog.

“I’m going to write a story.”

 SECOND PLACE: ESCAPE

by Rohini Sunderam

The jungle has its own unique senses.

There is a sensation of the old. It is primordial and comforting while still able to set our senses on edge, turning them acute and more alive than they’ve ever been in the city or around technology.

The smell is fecund. Peaty and redolent with the odour of birth and rebirth and death.

Silence is the sound of the place. Not the dead muffled silence of a recording booth or an ENT clinic where they test your ability to detect decibels, but the sound of life as it moves between the nocturnal and diurnal, pulsating to the throb of a gigantic heart.

Textures abound. But we daren’t touch anything because we are city creatures. We are afraid that the gnarled bark of a tree, the smooth sharp blade of grass or the velvet of an unknown leaf may hold hidden dangers, saps to which our soft, urban skins may be allergic, wary of resins that could burn and scar.

Ah but the sights! We can’t get enough of those. Our eyes drink in the seemingly million shades of green. We revel in the bright yellows and blues of butterflies and birds, the shy white flowers and ferns of the undergrowth. I look fascinated at orchids in their purple splendour clinging wild and wonderful to a branch. The words bromeliad and epiphyte find their way to the top of my mind, bringing with them memories of my school botany class and the stern teacher staring over his black-rimmed spectacles.

The dappled back of a panther makes us stop in our tracks and whisper as we watch its sinewy black and gold shape glide down a pathway, sending the monkeys chattering up into their trees, its head tossing away flies. It’s unusual for him to be strolling at this time of the day.

Just as it is unusual for us be to here.

It is exactly 11:11 on my smart phone face and the jungle, which appeared magically one day at this exact time, has, on cue, flashed onto the screen. Its tall grasses are once again beckoning us to leap into it.

We’ve made this trip into the portal twice before. The first time was a thrilling adventure. I touched it and it seemed real, even that typical jungle smell came out of it. I turned to my friend and showed it to him, “Check this out, this smart phone is something else.”

“It can’t be,” he said, ever the sceptic.

“Just touch it!” I challenged him.

The minute he did that a tiny fly flew out of the screen and into the room.

He’d opened his eyes wide. “Shall we?”

And without quite knowing why, we both held hands and touched the screen together.

It made a sucking sound and the next thing we were inside the jungle. An instant safari. On foot. And dressed as if we’d planned it: in khaki shorts and long bush shirts, sandals and cotton stockings looking like Dr Livingston with backpacks complete with emergency supplies and water. And what’s more we had a guide, an Indian in long khaki pants, t-shirt and a sola topi.

He looked at us and smiled, “Right on time sir, madam.”

I checked my smart watch and that’s when I noticed the magical: 11:11a.m.

We wandered around for exactly one hour and one minute and at 12:12pm we looked up, held hands together, stretched up to the sky and bang, we were back in my office cubicle.

He looked at me and said, “Were we…?”

“Sure felt like it”. I answered and looked at the smart phone, which had gone back to its regular wallpaper colours of lavender and white.

“Felt like what?” he asked challenging me.

“Like we were in the jungle?” I asked him back.

“Weird,” he replied, “Let’s not tell anyone, they’ll think we’ve been doing drugs or something.”

A few days later he was at my desk again and we were discussing an ad concept and he asked me again, “Was that jungle thing for real or did we imagine it?”

“It felt very real.”

And then I smelt it, the jungle, sending out its earthy perfume. I looked at the smart phone and sure enough 11:11am and the jungle was back on the screen.

“Let’s get something to prove it this time,” he said, “even if it’s only as a confirmation.”

So we went again. And as before the guide was there with his, “Right on time sir, madam.” But his smile seemed a bit different this time.

No cause for concern, because at 12:12pm we returned again as before. Only this time I’d surreptitiously picked a tiny flower, from its roots.

When we returned I put it into soil and watered it. It had taken root and had grown quite large in just two days.

“We won’t do it again,” my friend advised. “I felt uneasy about the guide this time.”

“So did I.” I confessed.

And yet three days later, 11:11 a.m. I was alone. And the jungle was calling me in to the phone.

‘How dangerous could it be, to go alone?’ I asked myself. ‘All I need to do is stretch up at 12:12pm and I’ll be back.’

So taking a deep breath, I held my hands together and with my index finger I touched the screen.

The loud sucking sound pulled me in.

And everything was exactly as before: the safari gear, the guide, with his, “Right on time madam.” Only this time he chuckled. I was not sure if it was my imagination but his laugh made the hair on my neck stand on end.

Instinct is as primeval as the jungle. And as a sense it should be obeyed.

The trouble with those of us who are and have been urban and civilised for so many millennia is, that we treat instinct as though it were a myth. Not real. To be mistrusted. And what’s worse, ignored.

After that initial laugh from the ‘guide’ and that uneasy sensation I allowed myself to be lost in the tour.

This time we went to a marshy sanctuary with a pool in the centre. It was loud with the buzzing of mosquitoes and dragonflies, bees and hornets. And birds of so many hues I couldn’t believe my eyes. There were waders watching the marshy pool intent on catching their prey. Other birds had their heads tucked under their wings asleep. Some flew from one branch to another chattering with their relatives and friends. Rarely speaking to another species.

The air of predatory earnestness in all the creatures gave the scene a sinister sense of foreboding.

“I’d like to see something else,” I said to the guide.

“Come,” he said. I still hadn’t asked his name, and somehow felt it wasn’t up to me to do so.

The guide then took me up into a tree house from where I could watch the lemurs.

“I will be back madam,” he said, “Just a small job to do.”

I was camouflaged in the leaves and the heat made me drowsy. I must have dropped off for, well more than a few minutes, because when I awoke it was way past 12:12pm, in fact it was one o’clock.

The guide was nowhere to be seen.

I started to worry, but then I thought perhaps this isn’t time related and I clasped my hands together and pointed upwards. Nothing happened. I was still in the tree house.

‘Okay,’ I said to myself, ‘maybe it is time-related’. At 1:01pm I aimed my hands upwards.

No. I’m still in the tree house.

Okay, I think. Let’s try 13:13 on the 24-hour clock.

Nothing.

The guide hasn’t returned.

I look up and can see my office friend peering down at me from the sky.

I wave at him.

He can’t see me.

“Hellllp!” I shout.

He can’t hear me.

It’s one thirty now. My friend has gone from the sky. The guide isn’t back.

I’ve tried getting out at 2:02pm, 14:14, 3:03pm, 15:15…

“Helllpppp!” I cry weeping, frantic. “Helllppp!”

They can’t hear me on the other side. They can’t feel me on my smart phone screen. They can’t see me.

“Oh dear God!” I cry as tears of panic threaten to choke me, “I want to go home…please, somebody, anybody, bring me back.”

With an excruciating effort of will I control the panic, “I have to be patient. I have to try again.”

When it comes to our smart phones and technology so many senses are stimulated to such a degree that in the end they are deadened.

It is now 5:05pm and I haven’t been able to return.

I’ll try again at 17:17.

I hope I have enough water in my backpack to last until 12:12pm tomorrow…

 THIRD PLACE: THE MIST OF SKARA

by Noor Nass

The story is being worked on, in the light of Alex Shaw’s comments. And when she’s ready, we’ll post Noor’s story here.

We have four entries for the August Challenge. The idea was to re-tell the Red Riding Hood story and make it fresh – by maintaining the main story, but giving it a new plot line, perspective or Point of View, other characters… whatever our creative writers desired. And I must say they have done a marvellous job. Personally I would find this very hard to judge!

It was a long time coming, but what a great job!

I am posting each of these stories anonymously so you can vote on which story you think is the best, second best, etc.

Red Riding Hood

Hello there! My name is Red Riding Hood. Until a few years ago, they called me the ‘Little Red Riding Hood’, but not anymore. I am all of 25 and look it too. When I was a little girl of 12, I was sent off into the woods, very irresponsibly, by my mother to drop a basket of goodies to my grandmother. It was years later that I found out that she wasn’t my real mother. She was in fact a cruel stepmother who wanted me out of her way so that she could have children of her own with my beloved father.

I digress from the main story.

Well, most of you already know what happened when I travelled through the dark woods, all alone, unsuspecting and innocent. A wolf came along and it surprised me much that it was a wolf that could talk. Now where do you get to see such talking wolves? The little girl that I was, I was mesmerized. The wolf, very cunningly got all the information he wanted from me and went straight to my grandmother’s house and gobbled her up. When I reached my grandmother’s house, I could see she had changed so much. Something was definitely wrong. Soon, I realized it was that talking wolf who was pretending to be my sick grandmother. But it was too late. He gobbled me up too.

Well, that is the version in the children’s books but that isn’t the truth at all. This is what really happened. So I met this wolf enroute and I found him to be special because he could converse in the language of humans. He told me about this special pack of wolves deep in the forest that had the gift of speech because they come from interbreeding with some forest people.

Gross, right? But well, weird things happen in this world and this was just one of them. This wolf looked like a wolf but could do everything that humans could. He could walk on his hind legs, gesture with his hands like you and I could and could even wink! For an innocent 12 year old, I was quite taken. I confessed to him that I was fascinated and even began to refer to him as Mr. Wolf like I would do to a real person. I knew very little about what interbreeding meant as a 12 year old and understood it as humans being friends with wolves. I invited him to visit my village to which he responded with great fear in his eyes. He said, the civilized humans had no tolerance for absurdities of nature, like him. I asked him why he chose to come out of the dark woods to speak to me? My question was met with a long silence. Mr. Wolf, cleared his throat like a man would when he is about to confess something. Ofcourse, as a child, I knew none of men’s mannerisms. But now that I am all grown up and seen many men come and go, it is a trait I know so well. Mr. Wolf took a deep breath and he wouldn’t look at me in the eye when he narrated his confession.

“My pack is dying.”, he said.

To this admission, I felt a concern, yet quite uncertain as to what it really meant.

“My mates are dying because there aren’t any forest people left. They all killed themselves in their internal bickering. We can’t breed among ourselves and it is only the humans, who would willingly breed with us can keep us alive. I followed you and my instincts told me that you are like the forest people, innocent and one with nature. I wanted to lure you away so that many years later, you could help us breed and survive. But now that I have met you, and I know what a kind creature you are, I leave the decision to you.”

As a 12 year old, Mr. Wolf’s words did not mean much. The only bit that I really understood was that I was to go away with him and that would mean, I wouldn’t be able to see my family. Mr. Wolf had all the mark of a gentleman but then he was an animal. For a 12 year old, I must say, I had my wits intact. I told him that I needed time to think. After I met my sick grandmother, I could on my way back, provide him with my answer. Mr. Wolf, had a sly smile on his face and that was when he looked more of an animal than he had since I met him. He said, “By all means, young lady, take your time.”

I nodded at him and moved on towards my destination. He called out and said, he would wait for me at the exact same spot. I reached my grandmother’s house when the moon was bright and shining. My grandmother, who was sick, was overjoyed to see me. I gave her all the food and gifts my mother had sent for her. I was anxious and my grandmother was quick to notice that. My grandmother, looked into my eyes and said,” What is it my dear? You look exactly like your father, you are worried. Out with it now!”

My grandmother was a brave woman. She had brought up my father all by herself and worked very hard until a few years back when age caught up with her. Nothing escaped her knowing eyes. It was matter of minutes before I related the entire story to her. I expected her to laugh at me because I mentioned about a talking Wolf and the breeding deal that he extended to me. I told her, I couldn’t go back home now because he would be waiting for me. She listened to me with all seriousness that surprised me. She told me the only thing to do under such trying circumstances was for me to stay on with her. I was ecstatic to hear this and nearly jumped out of my red hood, which by the way, I never take off; even when I am sleeping.

So for the next few days I stayed on with my grandmother, spending time with her and helping her around the house. Often I thought of Mr. Wolf and my conscience tingled for having broken my promise. The other difficulty was there was no way to relay the message of my extended stay to my parents. They would have to make the journey to find out about my whereabouts. One fine day, I was picking berries outside my grandmother’s home and I heard a rustling of leaves behind me. I peered into the woods, not far away from my grandmother’s home. It did not take me long to recognize the glistening yellow eyes. Mr. Wolf was looking right at me. He revealed himself completely and I let out a loud cry and rushed indoors. I looked out of the window, frightened and my heart thumping in my chest. He was gone. I was scared to step out now. Suddenly I also heard some voices and I was completely surprised to see my mother with a woodcutter heading towards my grandmother’s house. I was delighted and was about to rush out when my grandmother held me back with her strong arms. She looked out of the window with me and we overheard them speaking to one another.

“She ought to be in the house because we searched the entire forest for her body. But is seems like she was lucky to pass through these dark woods, unharmed. How I prayed for her to be dead!” said my mother in an angry voice. The woodcutter looked annoyed as he was obviously tired running around the woods with the heavy axe in his hand.

“You shouldn’t fail me Andreas. I need her out of my way else I shall forever be a slave to this father-daughter duo”, she said with her face crumpling up with intense hate.

Involuntarily, I felt myself shivering. My own mother plotting to kill me! How on earth did it get to that? What did ever do to deserve her hate?

My grandmother pulled me towards her and I looked up at her with tears streaming down my cheeks.

She told me, “Red, your mother isn’t who you thought she was. She is your stepmother, who took you on when your own mother died giving birth to you. Your father made your stepmother promise that she should never tell you that she isn’t your birth mother”

These were shocking details that completely changed the way I thought about my life. In a few seconds, I was all grown up. My grandmother held me in her arms and asked me to be brave. She said, they would have to get her first before they got to me. That scared me even more as I did not want my grandmother to die for me. Suddenly, it felt as if, it would have been better if I had walked away with Mr. Wolf. It would was solved my stepmother’s problem and saved my grandmother’s life.

Within seconds, we heard a knock on the door and my grandmother moved to open it. But she hid me under her bed before she opened the door. My stepmother asked my grandmother where I was.

“She never came here. I never saw her.”

My stepmother looked around the house and immediately spotted the goodies she had sent in my basket. “You lie, you cunning witch! Kill her and then search for Red.”

Andreas strode in with his large axe and in a strong stroke tried to hurt my grandmother. My grandmother dodged his move and ran inside. I couldn’t take it anymore and ran towards the door and yelled at my stepmother, “Here I am, leave my grandmother. It is me you want.”

Andreas turned towards me and rushed to attack me. My stepmother laughed triumphantly. But something happened and in a matter of seconds, Andreas was knocked out cold and all we could see was a large, hairy creature, making it off to the woods with my stepmother. My grandmother and I were rooted in our places. My grandmother was first to gather her wits and she dragged Andreas body inside and locked him a room. She told me that we needed to create a story for the truth would shatter my father. I agreed to her plan wholeheartedly and we spun this delightful tale around the Little Red Riding Hood and Mr. Wolf. When Andreas came to his senses, he seemed to have lost his memory which worked in our favour. We made him the hero by thanking him profusely by saving our lives by murdering the wolf who had gobbled us up. Thankfully, Andreas bought the story and went to the village feeling all smug and happy about being the hero. Since then we never heard anything from my stepmother, who according to the villagers, was last seen leaving for the woods. My father was devastated but then he had me and we lived happily ever after, especially because grandmother moved in with us.

Well, that was the real story and believe it or not, I have to remind myself about it every now and then, else I too, tend to believe the version that you do. It is funny when sometimes, I think about it, I feel there was no wolf at all that I met on my way and at times I felt that my stepmother was the wolf who escaped into the forest because she couldn’t live with us humans anymore. My grandmother is no more with us so there is no one I can turn to, to verify my story. But then, does it matter at all, when all we need is a good story before going to bed.

Red on Grey

The sound of her heels sounded on the pathway. She would have blended seamlessly into the grey of the city, if it were not for the color of her clothes she wore, Red. The young girl wore her solemn expression well. Her cold glassy eyes took nothing away from her beauty. Her bright red hair shone in what little sunlight filtered through the clouds. Red against the dull grey.

She boarded the subway cart in a casualness, uncommon in this time. Time to mean this era as well as location of the sun in the sky. The ticketing sensor at the door buzzed as it read the id implants on the people entering, charging their bank accounts automatically. Feinting indifference to the gaze of the men captivated by this fragile oddity in their otherwise grey lives. Someone may be tempted to talk to her but alas their little electronic devices buzzed with ferocity in their hands and pockets. Emails to be sent, voice mails to be heard, bread to be earned.

None of them were the man that had her attention today and she slipped out at her station without anyone noticing. She was going to meet someone for the first time, an older gentleman who she had made an acquaintance on the internet. Her heart beat fast and her palms were sweaty. She walked at brisk pace but not too fast as to seem overly eager. She was meeting him in a public place. But both had plans to go somewhere private later. This was dangerous but that was partly why she was doing it. The thrill was alluring.

She walked towards the park. She could already see him waiting at the entrance. He had his jacket pulled over him to shield him from the cold winter air. He scanned the passing crowd eagerly, almost hungrily. His eyes came to rest on her just as she did away with her smirk. There was no mistaking her identity, this was the girl he had spoken to. He saw her walking towards the entrance with her hood pulled over her head, lost deep in thought. A lock of hair partly covered her slender face. There was no way to miss her, no way he could look away. She stood out against the landscape of grey office buildings and apartment complexes. There was no better way to describe her than say, it was as if an artist added colour to an old monochrome movie. Red against the dull grey.

“Red?” he Enquired

Feigning a startled expression Red turned to him. “Mr. Groze?” She said letting out the brightest smile Mr. Groze had seen on for the longest time.

They strolled through the park for a bit, casually chatting about their ride over. “I know a nice coffee shop we can visit” Red said “it’s just a few blocks from here.” She dropped her gaze to her feet as she said the words.

Beaming, Groze was quick to offer to drive both of them to the cafe. “But it would be far more fun to walk there.” Red called back as she skipped ahead.

The thought did not thrill Groze, for he had other plans for this innocent girl who until now was playing perfectly into his hands. He pondered how he would steer her skipping feet up to his hotel suite.

Red was stealing peeks of Mr. Groze. Groze, a strange name, spelled differently it meant “big” she picked out from her memories of German classes. Groze Von Wolf had his hair was cut into a short spikey hedge. He was a big man who towered over her buy at least a foot. His chest and arms were broad and muscular, which must have taken a lot work or a lot of money paid to the right body modifier clinic. Red was not bothered by this, she smiled to herself.

He caught Red’s smile. “Is she blushing?” He thought to himself. The thought that he had affected this petite beauty to this extent, amused him. He had met her in a chat room, a young, rebellious, energetic little thing who decided that she is wise enough to trust the first man she meets on the the internet. He went through his usual steps, made it obvious to her that he was a cool, handsome, not to mention rich single man, who was looking for a “deep and meaningful” relationship. Catching his reflection in a shop window, “handsome” he thought. The money he had put in body modification was well spent, not that he cared about throwing around that kind of cash for fun. But he needed to be good looking for there was nothing quite like the hunt to Groze, so much more thrilling than the day job. Endless meetings with a stream of overzealous generals and politicians who had knew nothing better than to kiss his ass to increase production of the precious weapons that kept the party in power. Groze was the ideal citizen, as long as the checks kept coming in and the government’s agents kept out of his business.

Red skipped ahead cutting the conversation they were having mid sentence. “I know a short cut here!” She said gleefully eager to show off her knowledge of the city. He smiled as she stepped out of sight, her lose red hoodie fluttering in the wind behind her… “Even the joy in her voice was the color red”, he thought, “Red against the dull grey”

He trotted after her, expecting her to have reached the other side by the time he turned the corner. Instead, he found her waiting towards the middle of the alleyway, leaning on the wall. The alleyway was dark and damp with trash strewn on the ground. This was definitely not a place fit for Groze, he should be up in his suite on the hundred and fiftieth floor. He walked over to her to see why she had stopped, his patience wearing thin.

Red looked up into his blue eyes and placed her left hand on his chest. She gently pushed him back to the wall, all the while her sweet smile mesmerizing him. Groze didn’t like the idea of standing in this rat infested filth, let alone get physical with a woman. But this girl was gorgeous and if this was her weird fantasy, then he would make an exception just this once.

She traced the outlines of his chest under his tight shirt. She could feel his muscle, tight and hard under his shirt. She felt his heart beat quicken under her hand.

“You’re Groze Von Wolf, aren’t you?” She said as she lovingly drew lines, with her fingers, over his heart.

“Huh?” Groze managed to mutter. Despite his importance, he wasn’t famous. At least not outside the people of the party and upper defense.

“I recognise you. You have something to do with the Nanobuild corporation.” She said with a sparkle in her eyes. “You make the nanogen ceramics and weapons.”

“Yes that’s me. I own the company.” He said laughing. “Now what does a little girl like you know about Nanoceramic?”

“Everything…” Said the little girl as she thrust her right hand out with tremendous speed. The ceramic blade protruding from an opening in her palm, slipped perfectly between the two ribs that her index and thumb were tracing. The blade cut straight through the muscle, ripping the heart open. She held the wound shut with her left hand.

Groze, in shock and panic, pushed with the animalistic rage of a provoked lion who was off his guard. His enhanced muscles went into overdrive to get the little red demon off of him.

As his body started to fail, it suddenly dawned on him. “Cyborg.” he whispered hoarsely, staring into her now red eyes.

Red’s smile never flickering, drew the blade, spun and side stepped to avoid the spray of blood.

“Should have sided with the rebellion, man. Grandma sends her regards.” Said Red, watching him go limp, body hitting the floor.

Red let the blade slide back into her arm before placing her hands back into her Hoodie pocket, innards of which were lined with a high absorbent micro fiber. In a few seconds there was no trace of deed that was just done. Her fake id implant picked a new id tag from its list and loaded a completely new identity. She turned and walked away, leaving the body on the floor. The blood pooling around it on the grayish dirty asphalt. Red against the dull grey.

Granny’s Story

“Where’s that ninny of a girl?” Granny complained as she paced around her kitchen floor, rolling pin in hand and a ball of dough on her counter.

She wiped her hands on her blue apron with a pocket on the front for important things like keys, a torch and a whistle for emergencies.

“It’s my fault,” she muttered as she went to address the cinnamon-spiced dough all ready to be rolled and cut into biscuits. The oven was preheated to a good steady 2000C. “If I moved closer to the town we wouldn’t all worry every time she came to visit me. But, how can I? There’s so much here that’s me. My memories. My life. My history and our legends.” And she brushed a tear from her cheek smearing it with flour. Oh, well, I may as well get on with these. The silly child that she is has probably stopped to pick flowers or chase squirrels. Fifteen years old and she still behaves like a kid.”

Granny went at the dough with some energy, pummelling and kneading it more than she intended to. She shook her head and continued to talk to herself, “Dorothy! I’ve said often enough to her mother, you’re spoiling her. Imagine giving a teenage girl her own motorbike. I understand that they all have them, but really!” And she shook her head as she pulled out the star-shaped cookie cutter and set to work placing each perfect, sharply cut biscuit on the baking sheet. Granny knew how to keep those cutters honed as keen as a blade.

As she turned to place the biscuits in the oven, she thought she saw something whizz past her window. She looked again and all she saw was the lovely forest, with the leaves just turning gold and russet in the early autumn sunshine. This was where she’d spent her entire married life, raised three children who had all flown off into the town or city nearby, and lost her loving husband to a wolf attack.

“Those wolves,” she said, pursing her lips, “They wouldn’t dare come this way again.” And she glanced at the nearby axe with its red handle and its hefty blade that she was able to wield in her work-strengthened hands. She patted her pants’ pocket making sure her .22LR revolver’s comforting weight was still there if she needed it. That was something she kept close to her all the time. It was a good little gun for a close wolf attack.

Granny set the timer on the oven and opened the back door a crack, nothing and no one. She opened the door and stepped out onto the back patio, clapping her hands to rid them of the excess flour. The forest stretched out, calm and serene, as far as she could see. Her eyesight was still acute and now with her new spectacles she could see every leaf on the tree. Her ears were sharp too, attuned to the natural sounds of the forest, the birds chirping, the stream in the distance and the occasional chatter of squirrels and other woodland creatures. So, when she heard the heavy crunching of tires on the gravel road beyond her entry gate, she hastily pulled off her apron, ran back into the kitchen and shut the back door.

“Who could that be?” It didn’t sound at all like Little Red’s motorbike, more like a heavier vehicle, a car perhaps. She waited behind the drawn curtain of her hallway window peeping through a crack that she pulled open between the curtain panels.

Her eyes popped.

She’d never seen such an imposing, sleek car in her life. It was a shiny onyx black, so dense it seemed to suck the light out of its immediate surroundings. Its wheel guards were like the well-contoured haunches of a lynx as it prepared to leap. And the front of the car appeared to imitate a big cat leaping forward.

A dapper, city-dressed man slowly emerged from the front, unfolding his long legs, encased in slim tweed trousers. As he stepped onto the gravel something about his piercing eyes made granny drop the curtain, but she felt he had sensed her standing behind the window. His boots grated over the pebbles as he walked to her door and rapped the old knocker, choosing that over the newly installed electric bell.

She waited a good minute before she flipped the lace panel aside and using her frail, old-woman voice, asked through the letter slot, “Who is it?”

“I’m sorry to bother you,” came a rich baritone voice that Granny couldn’t associate with the reedy thin legs she had seen emerging from the car. “I’m Victor Lapin, I’m your granddaughter Rose’s friend. She has something for me that I’d given her to carry. She told me she’d be coming this way today. And rather than go into town I thought I’d collect it here.”

As she peered through the slit in the curtain, Granny saw that there were two other men in the back of the car. ‘Too many’ she thought.

“Boss” one of the men called out. “Boss!”

“What now Lucas?” Victor Lapin almost growled.

“It’s urgent.” Lucas replied.

As he stepped away from the door, Granny was able to get a better look at Victor Lupus. ‘He is well named,’ she thought sizing up his dark eyes, slicked back black hair just streaked with grey, when he turned around, she pursed her lips, he even had narrow hips and a rolling gait. ‘No siree, this is no friend of Rose.’

Victor and Lucas exchanged a few sharp words, then Victor nodded, and the old woman clearly heard him say, “Go get her.”

‘I do not like this’ thought Granny, slipping the chain guard on the door as she rushed to the back of the house and double bolted the kitchen door. Then she opened the door to her larder and hunkered down behind the big sacks of potatoes and flour. ‘If only there was a way of warning Little Red’. She smiled at the memory of the nickname, taken from that old Grimm’s tale and for the very same reason. Rose always liked to wear a hood, whether it was on a cape, or a jacket, even her summer t-shirts had a hood attached and there was always some hint of red in it.

She heard the shattering of a glass. ‘They’ve broken in. if I sit really still and steady my heart they’ll not find me. I should have brought the axe in here with me. If Rose doesn’t come, they will probably leave. Oh heavens! My biscuits!’

“Granny, ohh granny!” she heard Victor Lapin call out in that deep voice of his, to which he’d added a little-boy lilt. “Don’t hiiiide, I will find yoooou”

His boots thudded on the tiles of her kitchen floor. Granny held her breath. But her heart echoed in her ears as the sound of his boots came closer to the larder.

“Mmmm!” he said, “biscuits! How nice of you granny. Where are you granny? Blast! These biscuits smell so good and strong I can’t smell anything else. Can you?”

‘Oh God! There’s another one with him. I can’t handle two of them.’ And for the first time Granny wished she could have locked the larder door. But her heartbeat steadied as she heard the sound of his boots retreat further away from the door.

There was a muffled response from the other man.

The next thing she heard was Rose screaming, “What have you done with my Granny? Let me go!”

“Just give me your basket dear and I’ll leave.” Victor’s deep voice wasn’t quite so soft this time.

“There’s nothing in it, except custard and fruit and some chocolates from the town.” Rose snapped. “I thought you were a gentleman, Mr.Lapin. Why are your goons handling me like this?”

“All I want is your basket, Little Red.” Lapin’s voice had an edge to it that was almost menacing.

Granny had by now crept up to the larder door and was peering through the cracks in its slats. She could see Rose standing in the centre of the kitchen, one man, the one she thought was Lucas had his hand on Rose’s arm and was squeezing it tight. He was burly and heavy featured; his eyes were drawn into a narrow squint and his big nose twitched.

The other man was lean and slightly built with narrow shoulders and a long face and chin. He leaned against the broken kitchen window where the door now stood ajar. His bushy eyebrows were drawn as he appeared to be looking at his own slender fingers, while casting his eyes around

Lapin had his back to Granny and Rose was across from him.

“Why don’t you just give me your basket?” he asked Rose. As he turned to Lucas and said, “Let go of her arm Lucas, she can’t do anything now.”

Lucas released his grip of the girl’s arm and she turned and shot him a hard glare.

‘That’s the spirit! My dear’ Granny smiled grimly to herself.

“Why do you want my basket, Mr Lapin? I told you there’s nothing in it.”

“Ah, my dear, but there is. I slipped it in when I met you earlier on. So just give it to me and we’ll leave.”

“Here it is then!” Rose said as she flung the basket at Lapin. The custard splashed against his face blinding him.

Lucas lunged forward to grab Rose’s arm when Granny flew out of the larder with her .22LR in her hand she shot him in the chest killing him instantly.

Lapin having wiped his eyes grabbed Granny’s arm, but his hands were still slippery from the custard so she twisted round and rammed the butt of the revolver against his nose.

“Red! The biscuits,” Granny shouted.

The third man rushed towards them but Rose had by now grabbed the rolling pin and she swung it with both hands against his face cracking his jaw and then grabbing the pot holder she opened the oven door and smashed the hot baking tray, biscuits and all, onto Lapin’s head, while Granny shot him in the knee to prevent any further assaults.

Granny looked at Rose. “Call the police,” she said quite out of breath by now.

“Let’s tie these fellows up, first. Granny keep that gun at their heads.”

Rose rushed into the larder, where she knew granny kept the rope, and trussed Lapin and his third accomplice together back to back. Then she called the police while granny put on some water for coffee.

Just then Victor Lapin gained consciousness. He looked at Rose, narrowed his eyes and said, “I will get you some day, Little Red.”

“No,” said Granny with a knowing smile, “You never will, Mr Lapin. That’s not how this story goes.”

“What do you mean, Granny?” asked Little Red.

“Child,” said granny, with a knowing smile, “you really should know your own folk tales and legends. And know them well.”

Just then the police cars came up, their sirens flashing.

After they’d taken Lapin and his accomplice and Lucas’ body, the inspector turned to Granny, “You need to be careful, lady. These men are known to be dangerous robbers and are in fact wanted for a recent robbery.”

“It was self-defence,” Granny asserted, “He was attacking my granddaughter.”

“There will be a hearing, but yes we can testify that it was self defence, we can see that.”

After they’d left, Granny turned to Rose, “Did they really put something in your basket, dear?”

Little Red smiled quietly as she dangled a beautiful diamond pendant that had been concealed under her jacket all along.

Wolves & The Color Red

His mad eyes behind the bushes glanced at the hunters one by one, there were too many of them. ‘Mama was right, after all.’ He thought, his fur grazed the branches he hid in, his spine one with the curves they drew. He had to remain quiet or else he would alert them to his whereabouts too soon.

“Nothing here, Sir!” Said one of the hunters reporting to the hideous looking man in the middle of the armed group. The hideous man nodded, the moonlight skirting upon his face, illuminating the deep scars on his skin. Those were the marks of his kind, just as the cloak he wore; it was unmistakably wolf skin, draped around his shoulders like a common sheet.

“Look closely, Henri! He’s here…I can feel it!” Said the man in the wolf skin, he hardly noted how their kind spoke but years of being their prey made him know their tongue all too well. The wolf in the bushes was still, unwavering in his need to survive this, for any little movement of his paws would alert them to his whereabouts.

“Sir, the trail leads down to Mrs Fouchette’s cottage.” Shouted another hunter.

“That is exactly why we are here, you imbecile, just find the cursed animal!” Hissed the man in the wolf skin, striding towards the loud hunter with murderous intent.

Mrs Fouchette, had it coming or ‘Grandmother’ as the unconscious redhead called her, ahhh curses! If only he had gotten to the girl before her screams were heard, perhaps then he wouldn’t be in this current predicament.

Suddenly, all stood still, he heard it too, his brothers call for him, the cursed animal these humans sought shivered at the intensity of the sounds his kind made, they were close to where he was.

AWUUUOOOO! They howled, the sound of their paw steps coming closer and closer, rushing into the sinister forest to where he hid, they growled low, while the humans beyond him turned over and over, their useless sight did not register where his brothers were, but he could; they were around them, their red eyes glittered in the darkness and suddenly all turned gruesome.

They pounced, their lethal claws drawn, their snares against the horrified expressions of the hunters until their teeth found flesh, and he watched enraptured, seduced by the screams they made as beast fed on human, they colored his vision with the sight of blood, torn flesh beckoned his senses, drawing him forward to the deviant feast they made, the branches fell away as he exposed himself, his black fur a sign of his royal bearing, his eyes as green as the dark leafy branches around him, his eyes looked upon the fallen would be hunters with inner gloating, his chest drawing breath as he too howled to the moon in praise of their victory over the dreaded two legged creatures. He saw some of their victims twitch at the legs, only to draw the wolves back to gouge at the fallen men with their sharp fangs. Celestina, Dram, and Gunner had come for him, their bodies larger than the common wolves; their fangs like his; overlapped their canine lips except theirs were marked with blood that dripped down the forest floor.

“Did you do it?” Celestina asked him, her snarl made his erect ears twitch, she was the deadliest of all.

“ I did.” He replied, his green eyes on her crazed red gaze.

“Where is she? Where is she?” She asked stepping forward, excitement for her next kill.

Dram and Gunner remained a few paces back indulging in the torn bits of the hunters they had over thrown.

“Colban, I need to see her…give her to me!” Growled Celestina her eyes on the branches behind him, her powerful snout sniffing his catch despite the blood in the air.

He had caught their tormentor, the witch, the girl in the red cloak that made them prey to the worthless lot of humans, she had designed their lives for them, a contract she had made with the forces of the underworld so that they would never see sunlight or day, nothing but this pit of darkness she allowed for them.

And when he had cornered her, threatened her to reverse it, she screamed for her grandmother, the ancient witch that had trained her to her ways. The treacherous thing made him the villain while she fainted to the ground; he had barely gotten out of there with the girl draped on his back. She had been light, her scent was that of a young girl but not a child, it was those awkward human years that turned these creatures into the most horrendous acts.

Mrs Fouchette tracked him with gunshots of course, followed by the hunters on horses, shooting at him as if he was a common fox fresh out of a hen house. But the red-cloaked girl had fashioned them to adapt well in the darkness, and he had used her cursed gift to his advantage, it had been the perfect clearing, the perfect hiding place to commence watch on what had happened.

The girl stirred, and he heard the leaves beneath her crack as she moved, humans had no stealth when it came to movement, they announced their existence in loud ways that offended the wild. Colban watched as Celestina fell on her in an instant, drawing the girl’s wide blue eyes in full alertness. “Don’t…Please…I didn’t mean it!” She wept, as she slid further and further away from Celestina’s grip, until her back came against a tree bark behind her. The black Colban watched, as Celestina drew her claws over the girl’s leg, exposed from beneath her thick skirt, she did not mar her skin yet, but simply graze her thigh in a threatening manner. “Give it back, you witch!” Celestina growled, her crazed red gaze against the girl’s wet blue eyes. What Celestina meant by ‘It’ was their lives, but she did not pronounce it well in her elation, for wolf to human tongue did not translate as smoothly for her.

The girl was weeping as they surrounded her, her slim shoulders shook, sending her long red hair to weave about her form, the red cloak fell away down her back onto the dirt flooring of the dark forest, and slowly her girlish voice thickened as she continued to cry. “I don’t want to…”She wept, her voice visibly changing from the desperate whimpers into something other worldly, frenzied. “Idon’twant! Idon’twant!” She chorused in that rabid, diabolical tone, his brothers took a step back wary of the creature beyond them, and bit by it, the girl’s fair skin fell away, exposing the monster within her.

The scarlet snake, a giant serpent that enveloped the clearing they stood in, its eyes as icy as its heart, and they jumped in union as it’s poisoned fangs drew to attack. It cackled and swayed, as they too drew their fangs to gap menacingly.

His mother had been right about this too, she had foreseen tonight’s events in her visions and had warned him that a danger would come that would trigger light and darkness to collide. He had assumed that they were the darkness his mother spoke of until now; the beast beyond them slithered from side to side, it’s eyes taking note of their numbers in a calculating manner that unnerved him, he abhorred the footless beings just as much as he did humans, but these were harder to asses, they made very little sound and were much harder to read in battle. Nevertheless, he was the prince of his pack, and a true wolf never cowered.

The snake lunged its long form towards Celestina first, its fangs bit into her ginger back mercilessly while his sister cried out in helpless pain, the snake shook her from side to side, her fangs penetrated her thick fur to her actual flesh, it had marked her as the most powerful and had seen to it that she die first. They Growled and barked in fury, their eyes narrowing as they watched the cursed creature throw away their sister like refuse, she fell on the bushes, her face to them, her eyes blank with nothing but darkness, her ginger fur drenched with her blood.

Gunner lunged then, his crazed paw work shaking the ground as he scratched the snake’s exposed front, the most prone to their attacks for it’s back was as hard as rock and their fangs and claws could never penetrate it, Gunner’s attack served to draw their sharp attacks into the most suitable spot. Dram came next, his fangs sunk into the snakes exposed front while Gunner circled it in an effort to distract it. Lastly it was his turn, the black Colban, he and his brothers jumped upon the swaying snake still reeling from their brutal scarring.

His fangs sunk into it’s chest, while his brothers captured it at the throat, they drew it backwards until it swayed and fell upon it’s back, Dram and Gunner bit abundantly upon their killer’s throat, while he dug into it’s skin like a dog to dirt, drawing it’s blue blood to pour over him, until he finally saw it; the repulsive heart that was beating under the skin. He tore at it, while the snake screeched maddeningly to the black heavens. The dark heart he had between his teeth shattered and fell in worthless lumps of blackness upon the blood-muddied floor.

They were finally saved, the skies lit a thousand colors above them, never had they seen more light, while he watched the heavens twinkle and move in clouds of color, his brothers moved towards their dead sister pulling her down from the harsh bushes. The did it, but not without a casualty, for the black heart of their nemesis would never allow the darkness of their world to fade without one of their own as payment.

Celestina had died well, and as they dragged her battered body down the shimmering pathway towards their home, they heard the unmistakable mocking laughter of the girl in the red cloak behind them followed by her sickening, jovial voice saying, “Let’s meet again, Mr. wolf.”

Now for the poll

NOTE: This poll is now closed. The winners are:

1st Place: Red Riding Hood

2nd Place: Red on Grey

3rd Place: Wolves & The Colour Red

Congratulations to our entrants and thanks everyone for your votes!

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!

We had to combine the March challenge with April as we didn’t have enough entries for one month. In the end we received 7 entries all so different that, as our judge D. Krauss said, “Congratulations to all of you, and thanks for letting me play. You are a rather dynamic group of writers, and it was a real pleasure to read y’all’s work.”

The challenge was a simple phrase: ‘Final Morning’ to be completed in 2000 words and the entrants were allowed to interpret that in any way they wished.

Our Judge D. Krauss

Cropped sitting #3

D. Krauss currently resides in the Shenandoah Valley. He’s been a cottonpicker, a sod buster, a surgical orderly, the guy who paints the little white line down the middle of the road, a weatherman, a gun-totin’ door-kickin’ lawman, a layabout, and a bus driver, in that order. Website: http://www.dustyskull.com

These are his picks for the winning stories

First Place

I Object

by Chandan Sen Gupta

“Na’am?” asked the man at the counter. Accustomed to hearing Bahrainis converse with Indians in Hindi, I blurted out my name. “What?” he bellowed. I realized my folly immediately. His query to me was in Arabic. “Oh! I have an appointment for the renewal of my identity card,” I quickly corrected myself.

The sluggish token display system in the bustling waiting hall was no match for the briskly marching digital next to it. I dropped down into one of the few empty chairs, resigning myself to a long wait, and soon my mind drifted back to the March Creative Challenge. In spite of my best efforts I had not been able to frame a story yet.

Why did the prompt have to sound so apocalyptic, I wondered. The Mayans had been proved wrong; the world did not end in 2012. But the hint of a doomsday in the obligatory phrase – Final Morning – unnerved me. Even the cynical Sandeepan, undeniably the most learned among my friends in matters related to the Earth and its environment, had admitted that things were beginning to look up over the last decade or so. “If it is true that the Chloro-Flouro-Carbons blew a hole through the Ozone layer in the Stratosphere, then tell me why it appeared over desolate Antarctica instead of America or Western Europe? After all that is where most of the CFC was coming from,” the non-conformist Ambarish had posed the other evening, after a few pints of beer. “Extreme cold, freezing vortex wind, frozen atmospheric clouds and six months of darkness…” began Sandeepan. “But Professor isn’t the hole showing signs of closing up already?” I asked, cutting the pessimist short. “You must give humanity full marks for initiating the stitching process by choking out the CFCs.” Sandeepan had nodded reluctantly. Even the North Pole ice, which should have vanished by 2013 if the gory predictions on the effect of Green House Gases and Global Warming had proved right, was now showing signs of revival.

I had tried hard but could not get going with the prompt. The perpetual cycle of day and night, the change of seasons and the cycle of life so fascinated me that I refused to see any finality in them or anything else for that matter. After many failed attempts I had, finally, made it to Riffa Fort for a breakfast last Saturday. But there was nothing final about it. I wanted to go there again and gaze at the country side at the foot of the “Rimrock” – through the windows in its watch tower – just like the ruler Sheikh Salman Bin Ahmad Al Fatah once did.

Last week, while leafing though the newspaper at a coffee shop, a fellow writer let out a whoop and claimed triumphantly that he had, at last, found a thread to the story. “Americans see Blood Red Moon,” I saw the screaming headlines. “A presage to the Armageddon,” he declared, framing an imaginary title in the air. “But its occurrence can be explained though elementary Physics,” I protested. He frowned at me for being a spoilsport. “I know that, but Physics can’t make a good story.”

“Are you sure it is not “Final Mourning?” Sukanya tried to help me out with an alternative approach, yesterday. “Err….but is there a preliminary mourning as well? You die only once, is it not?” Now I was more confused and distressed than ever. “A coward dies a thousand times before his death, but the valiant….” “Please Sukanya, not Shakespeare again. Give me a cue to the March Creative Challenge,” I begged. “Get your laptop out and start pecking away at the keys. You’ll soon be there,” she counseled and breezed out of the room.

A call on my mobile distracted me. “Good morning Sir, this is Tolby.” The name failed to ring a bell with me. “Tolby who?” I asked. “Tolby, from the Holiday Club, Sir. You became our member last night, remember?” “Ah yes, I do. Go on Tolby.” There was no way I could forget the chap. “What are your hobbies?” he had asked, as we took our seats for the presentation the previous evening. “I used to have one when I was about your age. But not any longer.” Penetrating through my defenses wasn’t going to be easy for him, he realized. “You look tired. Are you just back from work?” he enquired, the smile never leaving his face. “Hmm,” I nodded. “How many children do you have, Sir?” he asked again, trying a different approach to pry me open. Before I could utter a word, Mita had given him not only the answer to his query but also a brief bio-data of Ankur and Rinky. From them on he directed all the, seemingly, lucrative club membership and vacation schemes at my wife, realizing that she was the key to open my impregnable guard. “Imagine staying at the best resorts in town absolutely free for the next fifteen weeks, once you have become a member of the Holiday Club,” he said after taking us on a virtual tour of the world – from South East Asia to Europe and America. “But your membership fees account for eleven of those fifteen years,” I pointed out, after a quick mental calculation. “We also have the club facilities that come as a bonus,” he came back promptly. I looked at Mita. Her wistful eyes suggested that she was already in far away Thailand or Malaysia.

“Congratulations Sir, for this wonderful gift to your family. I hope you are feeling better now,” Tolby had said, shaking my hand at the end of the signing of the contract. For the first time that evening the smile on his face looked genuine. God knew who was, actually, feeling better. “Yeah, thanks for showing the way,” I said and turned around. “I thought you mentioned that last year’s world tour was a let down,” I asked Mita as we drove back home. “Yes but we can’t go to Mars, can we?” she remarked. I joined her in the laughter. It was true – a man’s happiness lay in the contentment of his wife.

“Sir, I called to remind you of the photographs that we require for your membership cards,” Tolby said over the phone. “I’ll be there tonight with those,” I said. “Thanks, have a good day, Sir.”

“What is your token number?” asked the security guard, looking down at me as I switched off the mobile. “1090.” “Come tomorrow, 1095 is already at the service desk,” he pointed toward the display on the wall. “Uh! Oh!” I mumbled. The tortoise had finally caught up with the sleeping hare and gone past him. “But how..” I started to protest. “Don’t worry, I was joking,” laughed the guard. “Go next.”

While returning home after work that afternoon, I prayed for clear roads. It had been a backbreaking day at the office and getting bogged down in the weekend traffic could finish me off. On my first day at the Driving School in Isa Town, ten years ago, the Traffic Instructor had posed to the trainees, “What is the major cause of bottlenecks on Bahrain’s roads?” “Saudi Drivers?” a girl suggested innocently. Though the Instructor had roundabouts in his mind, everyone saw her point. As luck would have it, I ran into a snarl at the mouth of Exhibition Road. The lights turned green, then amber and finally red but the traffic remained as static as ever. When, after an agonizing wait of fifteen minutes, the vehicles started moving again, I saw my path blocked by a gleaming Volkswagon Beetle. I risked annoying the others and honked, but the car did not budge. In despair, I watched the lights go back to red. When I finally managed to maneuver past the stranded car, the reason behind its immobility became clear- the exhausted driver had fallen asleep at the wheel!

“Let’ walk down to Exhibition Road and get some Samosas for a snack,” suggested Mita, as I entered the house. “Not a bad idea,” I concurred with her. The sight of young men playing cricket next to our building always enthused me. On most Friday mornings, the sound of their strokes woke me up from sleep. It was wonderful to see Indians, Pakistanis and Baluchis forget their national rivalries and enjoy the game together. Further down the road, we passed the footballers in their brightly coloured jerseys, deeply engrossed in their game. I loved the vibrancy in the air. My program for Friday was already planned – an early morning visit to the heritage buildings along the Pearl Route in Muharraq and a tour of the Al Areen Wild Life Park later in the afternoon. My work load over the next two months, to achieve the project milestones, was substantial, but the thought of the week long trip to the exotic Caribbean islands after that thrilled me no end. How I wished this life would continue forever.

The bleep on my mobile notified me of an email. It was a reminder from Rohini for the March Challenge. My mind was made up. I would write back saying that this prompt was not for me, may there never be a final morning.

2nd Place

Another Long Journey Home

by Gordon Simmonds

Excerpts from the Memoirs of an Industrial Mercenary.

I was thirty something and working as a technician in Saudi Arabia. In accordance with the contract, I only got home to Ireland for two weeks every four months. My employers in Saudi gave us the cost of an air fare direct to the UK in cash, which allowed us the opportunity to book our own flights, and if we could find a cheaper route, we could pocket the difference. It’s hard to believe now, but I must have been more resilient in those days, because the cheapest route I could find was Dhahran to Bahrain, Bahrain to Kuwait, Kuwait to Heathrow, Heathrow to Belfast. I presume it must have been Kuwaiti Airlines because the key condition was that I must travel via Kuwait.

I’m not sure what year this took place but I guess 1977/78 and the weather was fine and sunny although it was not summer. The trip home was long but uneventful and I spent the vacation with my parents in Ireland. On the return, I chose to have a stop-over in London so that I could stay overnight with my brother and his family in Essex on my way back to Saudi.

My flight from Heathrow to Kuwait was at eleven o’clock in the morning, so it was very early and I am almost ready to leave for the three hour journey to Heathrow when there was a knock on the door. Hard to imagine these days, but without a word of a lie, there, on the doorstep were two uniformed policemen. They asked if they could talk to Gordon Simmonds. When I identified myself, they went on to say “We have just received a phone call from your mother to say that your brother hasn’t got a phone so she can’t contact you. She wants you to know that there is a rail strike today and there will be no trains running”. Just that. I thanked them and away they went.

Oh dear, this was going to be tricky. In my usual delinquent fashion, the time I had allowed was adequate but with little room for error. In my defence, I had just spent four months in the desert and two weeks in Ireland, and was totally out of touch with the situation in England. Anyway; my brother didn’t have a car, so straight away I contacted a car hire company……. and another, then another. There was not a car to be had in the whole of Southend. Obviously, everyone knew about the strike – except me.

I’m panicking now. What little spare time I had allowed was gone, so at the cost of an arm and a leg, I called a taxi. At least I was on my way – but not for long. We had barely got out of town when we hit the queue….. forty miles of it. Every commuter who normally went to London by train was on this road – we could have walked it quicker. However, after hours of travelling at a snail’s pace, we got to the airport. Breathless and exhausted I arrived at the check-out with ten minutes to spare whereupon, “Sorry sir. You are too late, the gate is closed.” I begged, I pleaded, I claimed extenuating circumstances. I even appealed to higher authority, but to no avail – the gate was closed, the plane had gone.

OK then. Plan B… Except there was no plan B. So I invented one.

I found out that the next flight to the Gulf was British Airways to Doha leaving around midnight. From there it was only a short hop to Kuwait. In those days there were only two types of passenger, first class and the rest, and a ticket was transferable. The fact that I don’t remember having to pay extra, suggests that I must have been able to use the existing ticket. Otherwise that would only have added insult to injury, and I wouldn’t have forgotten that.

Anyway I’m booked on the flight and I’ve got twelve hours to wait. Then, as now, airports are the most soul destroying places on earth. Nowhere comfortable to sit, nothing to do, and a mortgage required for food and drink. After reading the daily paper from cover to cover and doing all the puzzles, midnight arrived; at which point the message came up on the notice board, “flight delayed”. Two hours later, we started to board. The captain came on the intercom “Sorry about the delay ladies and gentlemen, but if you look out of the left hand window, you will see that this three engined plane now has four engines”. He went on to explain that a Trident was grounded in Doha with engine problems and needed a new one, so they had bolted a spare one on the outside of the wing. This was a novel excuse but sure enough, there were two engines on the left wing and only one on the right. Perhaps they could now call it a Quadrant and I’ve claimed the bragging rights ever since.

We took off and I adopted my usual travelling procedure and was fast asleep before the plane left the ground. Waking only for meals, we got to the gulf six hours later, at which point the pilot came on the intercom and said “Sorry ladies and gentlemen, but there is thick fog in Doha and we are having to divert to Abu Dhabi”. Plan B was looking decidedly flawed, since this now meant I would miss my connecting flight to Kuwait.

I’d been travelling for twenty four hours when we landed at Abu Dhabi and after a while in transit, the fog cleared in Doha and we continued the flight. As expected, my connecting flight to Kuwait was long gone, but with the consolation that there was another later that day. Another interminable wait and then off to Kuwait which by now was in darkness. Now you might be forgiven for thinking that the journey was nearly over – no such luck. My next connecting flight to Bahrain had also gone.

Kuwait airport was under renovation and the transit lounge had plastic sheeting for windows. As I’ve already stated, I’m not sure what time of year this was, but it was either early spring or late autumn because it was cold. I spent a very uncomfortable night shivering whilst trying to sleep spread out across three or four plastic seats. Next morning, I finally got the flight to Bahrain. By the time we arrived I had been travelling for forty eight hours. I must have had to wait all day for a flight into Dhahran, because it was dark again when we landed. Passport control and customs was always slow in Dhahran, so I made sure that I was among the first to get off, and reached passport control at the front of the queue. I presented my well-worn passport to the official and he flicked through the pages, and again, and again. He looked up at me and said “mafi visa” (no visa) and waved me away in that peremptory fashion typical of Arab officials. Stunned, I too flicked through the pages, and again, and sure enough the passport was full and there was no entry visa.

At this point I must tell you that Saudi visas took up a full page of a passport, and flicking through, it was easy to count the visas……. entry, exit, entry etc. until the last page which was exit. What had happened was that the visa office had stamped the exit visa, but couldn’t add the re-entry visa because there were no more pages – and then decided not tell anyone. Eventually one of the airline staff was brought over and I was duly escorted back to the plane I came in on. Next stop Bahrain.

After travelling non-stop for so long, the next few days were something of a blur to me and I remember little of the detail. I took a taxi to a hotel; I don’t know what or where and fell into a dreamless sleep. Now here I must digress to explain that British Embassies are there for the sole purpose of providing a palatial edifice for the residence of the ambassador. Any British citizen in need of help is merely an unwanted distraction to the main business of entertaining rich dignitaries.

My first obstacle to getting into the place was the man on the gate; an unshaven local employee who made it obvious that I was a nuisance and had the cheek to interrogate me as to my intentions. Eventually I got through to a room that looked like a bank, but not so posh. I queued for ages and when I got to the window, I had to go through all the interrogation rigmarole again; looking back now, I realise that I never saw or spoke to an English person throughout the whole sorry time. I was told to come back the next day. I suppose I ought to have been grateful for such a quick turn-around – but at the time, I wasn’t.

Next day was a similar story at the Saudi Embassy. Again, it was come back next day, and again, I should have been grateful, but again, I wasn’t. Eventually, armed with a shiny new passport and another full page visa, I was able to board a flight for the short fifteen minute hop to Dhahran. Six days after I started this journey, I got home and back to work.

3rd Place

Final Morning

by Michelle Schultz

We are withholding Michelle’s story as she is developing it further.

Congratulations everyone!

Other Entries!

Continuing on from last time – with the permission of the writers I am placing a few of the other entries. Please leave your comments so we know what your take is on the stories! The stories are listed in no particular order of preference.

Nancy the Servant

by Noor Nass

It was 1930, when Nancy was cleaning the balcony and placing some lavender flowers on the balcony of the house. Everyone called it Al Jara at that time.

She hears a man entering the door, with his pondering footsteps. The servant who was a part-time maid whispered to her: ” Is it that English man again, the one I spoke to you earlier about”

“What was his name- oh yes, D A I LY. Sargent D A I L Y. Looks like – they found something in those field digs that you heard earlier about, dear Nancy”

Nancy responded to her coworker ” sounds like a break through”

Colonel Daily responded to the servants with a hiss ” is that English I hear?”

“Yes sir!” As Nancy & her co-worker bowed down with respect, and continued cleaning up the Jara house, with what looked like a mopping stick made from palm leaves.

Colonel Daily – with merely a whisper ” we found it, we found it” mumbling with joy to his spirit. “Where is he?” Questioning what looked like a soft physique yogurt skin young lady at an age of 19 years young, that was so focused on cleaning.

” Who sire? ” – Nancy’s Co-worker responded, with thick Gramanic English accent, as she was old.

They might assume that you are an Anglo-Norman, some say.

Nancy responded to DAILY directly “ over their – Sargent!”

As her Majesty enters through the door, “Well, of course – you mean my dear husband,” the Queen enters to the living room bows her head down with respect to the Sargent DAILY as the guest of the day. While, signaling a sign language of dismissal to the servants, so they can receive their signal to leave the room & carry on their house duties or chores.

” Who, are you looking for Sargent Daily, and please be quick & specific” as his highness Prince of the Arabs has been given you enough of his time following the events you handled on some English nonsense.

My dear Queen ” it is time, to inform the Prince of the awaited result”

” We found it, the first Arab dig of Oil ” it is the first in the region it is unbelivable.

The Queen directly ordered the servants back again and firmly spoke to them by saying, “call your Majesty directly and interrupt his Ottoman phone call.”

The events that took place after that shifted rapidly, in the Sheikh and his people lifestyle and economical situation. The Delmonia that they once knew has transformed itself to a considerable important hub, of national and international affairs in the oil industry of the 1930’s of the 20the century.

Delmonia became an export and import of international affairs, which allowed them to invite new neighboring bloods, to take over hand on jobs. While, the people of Delmonia- transformed themselves to a desk job. In order for them, to delegate future aspirations, and environmental security and economical welfare of prosperity. Wealth found it’s way hidden among them again.

These were the days of how life changed, outside the Palace of Al Jara.

As the days ends at the palace, Nancy picks up herself and finds her way out to the awaited carriage, to be driven by the escorted mule to what sounds like a muddy road of pouring rain.

All of a sudden the mule begins to make a sound, and stops to what seemed like a nearby village.

It’s up north from the Palace, and it took Nancy and her carriage some 45 minutes, until arrival. Due, to the darkness with dim lightning’s.

The village was made of five houses placed next to each other, to resemble a neighborhood.

Each house was made from dried palm trees leave and felt very natural as in part of nature.

Nancy stepped down of the carriage and walked to her home alone house of palms, that within her she always dreamed of a different of prosperity.

It was made of 4 bed rooms and a palm rug. In the hallway!

Originally, Nancy’s mother – was brought down by an English navigator from the ports of Phoenicia.

Her mother was a common country girl, which lived in an upper scale society. She fell in love with a man outside her family circles. The neighbors say, he was an English or French man – that they were not quiet sure about. Due, to the newly introduced – world order back than.

No one knew the true identity of the carrier. As Nancy’s mother, kept it a secret and took the first exit trip on port to a country they called Delmonia for a fresh water start.

There, she gave birth to her daughter at the Path hospital and she named her daughter Nancy, in relevance to a nurse nun that delivered her first baby.

Nancy’s mother was a brilliant dancer and enjoyed life at the night clubs that thy called Malahi. Arwa never understood why some men never enjoyed whisky and gin and strip dancing for clients that paid substantially good amounts.

But, the changing world was coming and Arwa had to stop what she was and settle down with a Muslim man. As the custom of Delmonia was known to be a savior and not a lover.

Arwa loved him dearly, and never understood the world of the laws. And Adnan never knew that she was the best thing that happened in his life. Soon after she passed away, from the Collaria Mosquito – leaving Nancy at the age of 5 years old with Adnan as her step father.

And that is how Nancy was brought up in Delmoni in the 1920’s by a man named Adnan that taught her how to read, write and type on a type writer in English broken grammar as their mother language.

By the age of 15 Nancy found her first job as servant in al Jara and Adnan as her stepfather, moved out to settle with his new wife from a country called Yamen Eden.

When Sergeant DAILY left the house, after his meetings with the Sheikh, all he can think about was Nancy.

Her soft spoken dialect with sweet respect to her Majesty the Queen made him want to keep Nancy all for himself, as a luxury of a hard days work.

Back in the village Nancy began wondering how life would have been if she was ever married.

Pretending that God left her all alone in this world.

Well, off she goes again as her next door neighbor watches her clean the palm rug from the dust and fix the lanterns for reading time in the dark. While supper is boiling, of sweet potatoes, spinach and lentil beads.

All of a sudden she smells smoke – oh no the house is burning. She grabs her necklace and runs to the neighbors. Her neighbor tried to calm her down and made her go to bed directly.

And one final morning as Nancy wakes up and walks outside of her gorgeous savior neighbor’s house, only to find her palm house smashed with mud and charcoal smoke. That covered the whole area of the village with what looked like a black mist of smoky palm leaves. All the neighbors began sobbing and were just thankful that it was the other nigh of element of nature. Due, to the heavy rain that washed away her burned home by Hooligan Thugs out of revenge of someone.

She couldn’t capture what to think or feel at that moment, because she loved him and feared him. Luckily she did not understand authority and how series they are for those that commit to them.

She can see that authority walking right towards on a fine morning day. Sargent DAILY walks beside her and, gets down on his knees and proposes to Nancy. While, she has tears streaming down of her eyes of what was lost of hard days work. She responded back to him, I do not know what to say, as the answer will not please you ears or your mouth alone. I already asked your father, and he gave me my yes. Can you give me yours?

– End –

Prisoner # 42114

by Noor AlNoaimi

Metal sounds echoed in a random but rhythmic hymn of dread. Their steely dank prison was a cluster of square rooms, divided by bars, parted by a slim corridor that slithered past them towards the stairs beyond to the faint light there- Freedom. Teasing their eyesight, yet it was elusive, away, like the air they breathed yet could not touch.

Christopher was in his last days, no longer did he dream like the young men around him, of a home and a wife, of money and fame, of dark deeds done in the night, of continued debauchery, of crimes that were yet left uncommitted jailed as they were.

Murmurs, curses, rotten oaths that bounced off their lips like breath, so commonly said, weightless towards the passing guards that strolled past their bars. He sat there, his empty eyes upon the sight of the free man of the law beyond him, whistling his tune as if the sight of the fallen men around him was a delight.

“You’re up next, Columbus!” Cooed the officer beyond his bars, and for a moment he did not realize the words were to him, he had long ago forgotten his name, the famed surname he carried was exchanged for prisoner number 42114, plastered upon his mucked uniform right against his heart.

“For what?” Snapped his younger neighbor, another prisoner of the metal chambers.

” Just a quick poke in the head, he wouldn’t even have to stand.”

Some gasped, some laughed, others stared in plain horror for that same cruelty might turn to them next.

His neighbour did not go on in his show of defiance, he stepped back, starred at the warden then glanced towards him, Christopher, at a loss for words.

 I will be dead soon. His numb mind predicted, just as the lone officer passed him still humming cheerfully, his glazed hollow eyes stared at the man of the law, swaying up the stairs in good cheer, as if such an event was a jovial one, perhaps it was. He had not led a good life, not in the least. He had smuggled more than any of these common folk dreamed of, he had leached enough to have limitless fortunes overseas, and even more in his motherland.

But it was no use, for they were blocked away, banished from him just like the lifestyle he used to lead, he was now an exile of that life, a nothing, a figment of the man he had been, a loser; and losers always ended up in these situations.

The echoed voices of the men around him carried on, checked ‘Boom’ explosions into the dreadful present, their faces would glance his way, men leaned against their barred cells to talk to the occupants of the next one, “Who was he?”

“Used to be some big shot in New York.”

“Millions! They said he stole it all.”

“How did he do that?”

All eyes settled on him, killers eyed him, assessed him from the top of his white head, to the tips of his chipped shoes. Their disturbing smirks, daggers into his long dead pride, perhaps gleeful that one of those rich show offs was first in line, in what un-doubtfully be their fate too. Younger delinquents looked to him in awe, stricken that they did not know more of the quiet old man that was to die, Others who have witnessed such things did not bat an eye, relics of the place much like the bars behind him, a cool reminder of that the discomfort he felt now would only be temporary, it would all end soon.

Christopher Columbus was a man of very few words; he kept to himself, took a seat at the corner and did not make eye contact with the rest of them. He would look at times but his eyes would blink them out of focus in a moment, it was clear to all of them that he did not want any attachments, and for a cell of emotionally challenged cons that was easy enough, they left him to his solitude, ignored him. For who would care about numb old 42114? Nobody did until now, until death came with the timely proclamation that he was to be jolted and poked until he was gone from this world.

He stared ahead, his startling blue eyes now paler than they’d ever been, his head of fine blonde hair turned shades of white and grey, he was dying as it was, his very body shrinking towards the ground, it did not matter if it was tomorrow or the next, death would come, swift or slow, it will come.

The light around him snapped off, the whispers around him ceased and he closed his eyes for a moment, welcoming the dark.

Next he opened them, it was morning, the metal sounds returned, banging upon the rusty bars of the cells, it was like any other day really, except this time the clanking stopped with him, they opened the bars, and in walked the warden, the same man from yesterday, his hand clasped his belt, his eyes black pools in the dim lighting.

“Stand up, Columbus…Its gonna be over soon.” He said.

Christopher stood, though his knees were wobbly, his step unbalanced, the two officers behind the warden held him by his arms, pulling him out of his dank cell and adjusting his wrists to the hand cuffs they had.

“Like he’s a threat!” Chuckled one of the cons on the opposite side of him.

“ Smooth sailing, Mr. C”

“Bye bye, Mr. C”

“God bless.”

The array of their masculine voices echoed behind him, young and old, deep and boyish, mocking and kind.

But his mouth was mute to reply, he felt heavy as they made him walk the steps towards the elusive light, the effects on his eyes was devastating, for it wasn’t the sun or the stars but fluorescents, rectangular blocks of lightening that blinded him. He squinted, then closed his eyes for a moment as he was led away, letting them take him to the dreaded beyond.

The chill, dark, even dampness of the air, he could smell his own sweat, his hair matted like a pampered dog out in the sun for too long.

“Here we are.” Came the warden’s voice as he banged the white doors open, walking him over to the metal seat at the center of the room.

“You may stand aside, Fin.” Said an accented voice in a masterful tone.

Christopher dared to open his eyes now, the haunting lights made everything look green and sallow, or perhaps it was his own vision that did that.

Behind the long table beyond him, sat three individuals all wearing similar black suits, their frames broad and slim, their eyes held his in an assessing manner, the papers in front of them signified one thing.

He was a job, a workload they wanted to get done and over with. They did not care for his history; they did not care for his past, nothing more than to get him in a grave soon enough to indulge in their morning coffee.

Their voices recounted his wrong doings, his crimes, reasons that had put him into such an existence; reasons for the death he was about to experience.

He stared at their lips, the numbness slowly began to leave him, while the officers exchanged the metal cuffs for the leathered ones to bind his wrists onto the chair’s arms, his neck was also bound against the metal back of the chair, his head too, forced upon with that ominous bondage, wires hung around him in a deathly sway, murderous trappings for prisoner 42114.

“…Following the decree of the condemned, we hereby order to initiate the execution.”

“Any last words?” They asked in union.

Hot saliva snaked his mouth, his gaze blurred a thousand versions of them, and to his aged eyes, they did not look three at all, more like a hundred demons gliding up to meet his helpless gaze to ask that malicious question.

Last words? His brain repeated, an empty echo through his bare mind.

“ Any Last words, 42114?” They asked again, impatience in their tone.

“My name-“ He rasped, “My name is Christopher.” His voice sounded weak, and low so he said it again. “My name is Christopher…”

“We know that, Mr. Columbus. Will that be all?”

“ My name is Christopher.” He repeated. “My name is Christopher.

Again and again he said it, his discarded tongue speaking after much silence, the one truth he knew of his life, his name.

“Commence.” Said the man at the centre, his tone even, still masterful.

The lights around him turned red, purple, yellow…radiant colours that jolted his brain a thousand times over, the electric shots that went through him, burned and chilled him, smoke ensued and he could smell his own burnt flesh in the air, charred skin over fire.

Then it all stopped, his breath caught.

He longed for the sun, the empty sky that so resembled his eyes, but he did not see calm blue, no he saw black, jarring black, peering into his pupils.

“Still breathing!” Barked the warden to the distant corner, obviously to the one responsible for the deadly contraption that would lead to his undoing.

It did not take long for the colours to come back, the smell to return, the breathlessness to continue. The jolts intensified, shaking him a million times a minute, the stabs of the laced wires pulled his soul away, scorched his body until once more it turned dark.

Black, just like the eyes of the warden, emotionless black beads that stared into his.

“There has been a mistake.” The devil whispered.

Christopher’s gaze widened, he looked around him, it was the same room, the same dark fluorescent lighting, but there was no one else, he was alone.

“ Unfortunately, I cannot remedy your death.” The devil went on in that disturbing whisper.

Christopher stared, speechless, shivering at the news the creature spoke to him.

“You were an innocent…a little more than a common thief. I’ve had Pedophiles, Killers, rapists. A lot more deserving of this than you…yet here you are.”

Where am I? He wanted to ask but his teeth were bared down against each other, his mouth immobile to utter a sentence to the menacing face of Satan.

“Lets make a deal.” The devil continued a clawed finger emerged, black and menacing from his oversized fist. “I will let you walk away from the hell I represent if you do this…”

The faces he last saw before he left the world were around him, emotionless as they bore down their gazes at his body, none blinked as they touched his charred flesh, nor did they whisper a prayer for his sake, none cared to.

“Revenge?” The devil murmured against his ear, the vowels he spoke slurred in a song that touched his consciousness, he was under his spell, a deviant urge to rise and kill someone, specifically the men that put him to his doom so unjustly.

“Yes…”He rasped in the dark.

 -End-

 

Our Judge Robin Barratt

Robin Barratt copy Profession:     Author, Writer and Publisher Nationality:    British Email: robinbarratt@yahoo.com Website:         http://www.RobinBarratt.com Facebook:       http://www.facebook.com/robin.barratt1 Robin is a writer and author and has written hundreds of articles for magazines and newspapers worldwide and is a genre best-selling author of five non-fiction true-crime books, a biography, a self-help guide and has edited, written and published a number of industry specific manuals and trade directories as well as two coffee-table photographic portfolios. Recently Robin was commissioned to ghost-write and publish a tribute book about Abdulla Ali Kanoo, the late Chairman of one of the biggest merchant families in Bahrain, and in 2012 compiled edited a travel anthology titled: My Beautiful Bahrain and is currently planning a follow up. Robin loves travelling, exploring and experiencing, and his all-time favourite quote is: “If you don’t want to lead an ordinary life, don’t do ordinary things!” Robin found the stories very interesting, but felt that one or two of them could do with some work in the crafting. His feedback has been shared with the various entrants. Thank you Robin, it helped immensely that you have lived here in Bahrain as the challenge was set here.

THE CHALLENGE

Twilight in Bahrain – You’re near the American Mission Hospital crossing the street near the building that everyone says is haunted. For no reason at all you get a really sinking feeling… what happens next? And here are Robin’s winners:

1st Place Scott Birch

Out In

I keep my eyes down walking out of the American Mission Hospital on a hot, humid summer day. The sun is very bright and feels like a weight on my back. So I keep my head down and stay out of the way of a crowd of moving feet. The street is dusty, dirty, noisy, overcrowded and ripe with the smell of sweat, rubbish and car exhaust. I’m immersed in the noise of people. My sunglasses have steamed up within seconds of me leaving the hospital Don’t stumble and fall, you’ll catch something. My body is wet and sticky under my work shirt. I have to look up when I want to cross the road. Cars are still moving quickly so I have to see further than 10 metres. I have to get back to the office. Time to brave the sun, and so I raise my head, blinking even behind my sunglasses and finding my chance to cross to where my car is parked. As I scurry across the road I take in the crowds, the cluttered shop fronts and dust everywhere. Then, like all the other times I’ve left the hospital. I see the empty block. The empty flats have been that way for years. The block sits brooding on the corner a few busy metres from the main road. Haunted, people say. Any building emptied by a landlord’s ill fortune is haunted in Bahrain. Nonsense, superstition, underlying fear, all permeates the madding crowd like background radiation. After my first appointment, walking back to my car, I looked at the windows and was struck by that sudden feeling of disquiet. I saw black holes into dead rooms, windows into nothing When you gaze into the abyss, the abyss gazes back into you, somebody once said. That night, I dreamed of the haunted block. Somebody I knew but couldn’t see was whispering into my ear. In you go, your turn now. The street was dark. Everywhere is always dark in all my dreams. The crowds of people were just dry silhouettes, mannequins made out of floating soot. The windows were at ground level, or I was floating towards them, being wound in like a fish on a line. The block appeared much bigger. The windows themselves yawned wide to swallow me, the scenery and the world. They would suck me in and I would be gone. I woke up with a start, entangled in drenched sheets. And that’s how it continued for most nights – a reoccurring nightmare. Some nights I would look at the windows from afar and tell the familiar voice no. Other nights I would
murmur ‘yes’ and find myself flying through the window frame into utmost void. That’s when I would wake up shivering and gasping for breath. And here I am today, back on the street. I look down again, step onto the pavement. I’m a little dizzy from the heat. My gut sinks a little. The block stands a few metres back from the road. Is it my imagination or is it wrapped in silence? The windows from the first floor and higher up stare back at me; blank, empty, somehow scary. A big concrete cuboid covered with black compound eyes. The traffic is slowing now, bumper-to-bumper. Anxious, shiny faces perch on hunched shoulders behind greasy steering wheels. I hear a radio up loud through an open driver window. More news from Syria: bodies have been found, claims made, denials issued Chemical weapons. It’s terrible over there, a whirlpool of hate. I’m walking along the dirty pavement with a sick feeling in my belly to match this bad news. The future of Syria looks so black, dark seeds of hate germinating, uncoiling, spreading within the nation. Groups of people coalescing and setting themselves against other groups of people in pitched battles. There’s so much conflict in Arabia and everywhere else. In Bahrain on streets like this one, angry youth fester in discontent. It breaks out in riots, kids throwing Molotov cocktails and burning tyres, to be met with tear gas, a toxic, stinging white mist as if to answer the poisonous black fumes. Where will this violence, this division take us? Into what hole could Bahrain be dragged by extremist madness? I look up briefly at the haunted block again. Those rectangular frames around darkness are looking back at me and I wince What is in there, through those windows? I can’t see in. Head back down; I’m walking through a cloud of sweat, breath and harsh, querulous voices. I remember the calm voice of the doctor whose surgery I’d just left. Please sit down. It was hard to meet his dark, gentle eyes. We’ll need to perform a resection and anastomosis. After … There have been advances in therapy. We can help you manage the side effects with anti-emetics and other medications … I remember Dad in hospital years ago. He couldn’t talk and he was so frightened. His eyes wide open, blue irises framing black terror or blinking with surprised pain I can’t say it. Nurses in clean white uniforms brought in what looked ludicrously like a little shopping trolley with sickly-bright yellow bags riding on it. The bags carried the black hazardous materials symbol that looks like a clutch of scythes Poison. The nurses moved calmly, spoke reassuringly. I
remember the smell of antiseptic and a note of something coppery under it, a faint suggestion of the butcher shop. Clean, white trousers and shoes swished past me hunched in my seat Not me too Dad I’m not strong it’s too much and you’re not here anymore. The haunted block stands there looking strangely cold in the heat of today. I’m drawn to look at those windows and I wonder what’s inside those rooms I think I know oh god no. Everybody around the haunted block looks so busy, but the block still to my mind lends this corner of the street an air of tension. As if in affirmation, I see an argument break out between two labourers. Fast words a- jostle with the vowels and liquid consonants of the Southern Sub-Continent tumble between frenetic mouths and flashing eyes. Many of the citizens of Bahrain are this angry and even more hostile towards each other. It’s all over social media. People on both sides of a chasm within their minds are hurling abuse at each other in text online, or on placards and posters. Terrible words of hatred. How can anyone call a group of people that? Communities, sects, cultures – you can’t just excise them from your imagined utopia as if they were a disease! Dehumanizing terms that historically have prefigured outrageous conflict have been thrown around with abandon Toxic vocabulary. Don’t they see where such abuse can lead? Don’t fall in. The dangers of social division, people against each other? They only have to look a few hundred kilometres away, where a lexicon of dehumanisation has seeded, grown and borne its evil fruit. A country divided against itself, fighting itself, literally poisoning itself Don’t say those things. Dad lay there in his hospital bed. He couldn’t talk, but he really wanted to voice his urgent thoughts. I had my voice, but I wouldn’t say what was on my mind. I can’t say the word. I have to go home and tell my family and friends the word, the terrible word. There’s a bench on the street, set back a little in a tiny square. I reach it and slump down onto the hard surface. An old man has obviously been watching my progress. I see his dusty shirt as he bends towards me and I look up at him. There’s concern all over his ancient, creased face. He asks ‘You are okay?” “Yes,” I say and I’m trying to smile. But he’s looking closely at my face and then he touches my shoulder. He’s worried about me. Something inside me breaks. I cringe and now the tears come. It is big and broken and I’m trying to push it up and out of my chest through my throat, one painful cry after another. My face drips. Grief and fear heave up in shards from my straining gut, from that dark thing deep inside me. I can’t say it. I just can’t. So scared, so scared my body at war with itself destroying itself they want to put poison in
me to kill the thing inside me whose name I can’t utter and terror rises in me from the dark place uncurling and writhing like a snake. I see the hazardous material stickers again Dad looked so peaceful but he was pale and so very cold. On television were Syrian bodies laid out in rows. Stinking diesel fumes from a passing truck fill the air. I remember the Bahraini doctor at his desk, only kindness in his obsidian eyes, and I see blooming clouds of black and white. I have to go back to my family and friends and say to them the name of the terrible thing and I don’t know if I can do it, if I can say it to myself let alone to anybody else, if I can go into that dark place. The tiny part of me that always observes knows that the old man has stepped back. My grief is too open, too raw for him to continue comforting a stranger on the open street. My sobs are less frantic, I’m regaining control of myself, but I continue to cry into my hands, eyes screwed up against a bright sun and an oncoming tunnel pulling me into an abyss of hurt. I feel like an empty shell about to fall apart. What are my chances? How long have I got? Maybe I shouldn’t have been so angry with myself, with everything. I should have thought more, learned more about life from those around me Dad. I should have taken more care of myself. I should have appreciated everything and everyone I have had in my life. I shouldn’t have ignored what I really knew deep down. I’ll have to look this in the face now. Head up! All the thoughts come just like they do to the people that I read about in the magazines. All the same syrupy platitudes suddenly mean everything, right here in this street. Fill the void. Make my days count, forgive myself, forgive everybody else, let the light in, do this business of living right You can still make a full recovery from Stage 3. The storm is over in a minute. I can’t say it yet, but I will be able to soon. I can look at it for what it is. Tears did that. They washed the lying metaphors away. Out is not in. disease is not sentient. It has nothing to say to me but death. People throw the word as an insult because they don’t want to sit and talk. Such a label can never be real, but I’ve got the real thing, so I will have to fight. It is not part of me I am not a community there is a difference there are cells and there are people. I stand up and walk again. The old man is farther off but looking at me. I smile because now I can and I give him a little salute. I will say the word tonight. I know before I look up at the haunted block that the spell is broken. I could get somebody to open it up for me. I could walk into those rooms and see that they’re not so dark, the sun reaches them too. I would step through the doorway and see that those interiors are touched by light.

2nd Place L.P.

Note: Our winner has decided to remain anonymous preferring to use the initials L.P. for the story:

The Dentist

I put my hand on my cheek and couldn’t help but feel sorry for myself. My jaw felt like it had been pounded at with a hammer. They said I wouldn’t feel anything from the numbness, but what they hadn’t mentioned was that the feeling was repulsive in and of itself. Every time I swallowed, I felt as though someone had cut off part of my tongue and replaced it with a heavy sack of tiny needles. After sitting in the dentist’s office for 2 long hours, as he carried out his bloody and gruesome work inside my mouth, I felt I needed some fresh air. Living in the neighbourhood meant I could afford to walk around and allow the breeze to blow away some of the painful memories and sights of that night. I took my bag, mumbled a ‘thank you’ to the receptionist through all the gauze in my right cheek and stepped outside of the American Mission Hospital in Saar. I took a deep breath and swallowed a chunk of left over blood. Yuck. Half my tongue was numb, my cheek was beginning to swell up, and my stomach was busy pumping acidity. Needle. Drill. Knife. Blood. Needle. Drill. Knife. Blood. My head swirled. Stop it, Arlette. It was bad enough to sit through, there’s no reason for you to replay it in your mind over again. I looked up at the full moon and pondered what awaited me. Looks like it’s going to be a long walk home. I stepped out onto the main road in Saar and crossed the street to the other side. I needed to be away from all the noise so I walked inside the compound I lived in when I was younger. It was quite a large place with around 50 white Victorian-styled villas. They all looked the same on the outside with well kept gardens, fresh flowers along the entrances, and brown picket fences surrounding them. Although they all adhered to identical exteriors, they were home to varying secrets and stories. As I reached the second block, I found myself staring at the Harper’s house. I spent so many days in it with my childhood best friend, dancing around and playing pretend. Around the corner was the Anderton’s house. I recalled how I broke my leg running down the stairs and was grounded for the rest of the month for running indoors. It felt nice to reminisce about my childhood. I walked further across the street and saw a house that looked very different than the rest. It looked a lot older with unkempt grass, chipped paint, and a broken fence. It was the house of the three boys who had a physically abusive mother. I couldn’t recall their name, but I remember it ended quite badly. Their mother had suffered from psychosis and was a threat to her children, but the father couldn’t afford to be at home as often as necessary due to his high-powered job. Things eventually changed when she had her worst episode and ended up choking her youngest son, Kieran. She was taken away and the family had to return to England to stay with their relatives. It was quite heartbreaking. After that incident, the house was deemed ‘haunted’ and had been abandoned ever since. I walked over to the park and sat on one of the swings. I saw myself playing hopscotch and 40/40 with the other kids. They were such beautiful memories. My head was starting to throb so I walked up the stairs to the pool and laid on the hammock seat by the adjacent trees. I gazed at the dark sky and felt the blood rush to my head, back to my jaw, and then down to my stomach. The full moon was so beautiful. I allowed the silence to sink in and tried to enjoy the moment while it lasted. It was getting late, but I needed at least 30 minutes of solitude before heading back home. As the minutes passed by, the night breeze became colder. The chill began getting to me and I knew I couldn’t handle sitting out in the cold much longer, so I got up and started heading back. Strangely enough, I had a very eerie feeling walking back. I wasn’t a fan of walking in the dark, but I had walked these streets many a times as a child and felt safe revisiting my childhood. I was about to head towards the gate when I turned around to take one last look at the neighbourhood I once called home. I took a deep breath, swallowed more blood, and sighed heartily. Right as I was turning back, I heard a loud noise that made me jump. Oh Lord! It was merely a cat rummaging through garbage. Then I noticed something I hadn’t noticed before. The side of the ‘haunted’ house had a green symbol painted on it. It looked freshly painted. Hmmm…how strange! The more I looked at it, the more I noticed other peculiar characteristics. The main door was run down, but the doorknob seemed to have been recently renovated. How bizarre! Why would anyone only renovate the doorknob? I slowly walked a bit closer to it. The tips of the fence had small red marks. I put my finger on one of them to feel the texture. It was moist and warm. I looked at my finger and noticed the paint was still wet. That’s odd. I smelled it and immediately got goose bumps. It was blood. My whole being was telling me to run away as fast as I could, but I heard a small screech. Oh no! What if someone’s in there? I heard the sound of an old squeaking door slowly open and slam. There was another screech. Oh no. Oh no. I pushed the fence forward and walked to the side of the house. I looked through the window and into the darkness. I must be imagining all of this. Yes, it’s probably the anaesthetic from earlier. This is all in my head. Squeaking door. Screech. Oh Lord! A small candlelight appeared at the back of the room. I heard the voice of a baby crying in the background. Oh good God, there’s a baby! I didn’t know what to do. I considered leaving, but there was a baby. Why was there a baby in an abandoned house? “Is anyone there? What’s going on?” All I heard in response was the squeaking door, the baby’s cries and an old woman shrieking. “Hello? What’s going on? Are you all right? Who’s there?” I freaked out. Hearing the baby cry and the woman shriek gave me the urge to do something. I reached into my bag, took out my perfume to use as pepper spray and stormed in. Simultaneously, someone started whistling. You can do this, Arlette. You can do this! I moved towards the light and felt something on my shoulder. Oh boy. Goosebumps invaded my whole being. I turned around and it was her. I can’t believe it’s her! “Hello, Mrs….” Yikes. She looked really old. She had a torn white gown on and was reaching for my face. Breathe, Arlette. Breathe and back away slowly. “Kieran…” “No! No!! I’m Arlette! I used to live across the street from you! Remember? I’m not Kieran!” Her eyes widened as she reached for my throat. I quickly moved my hand in an attempt to spray her with the perfume but I lost my balance and fell backwards. She landed on top of me. I tried to wiggle myself free from under her but she held my shirt and pulled it towards her. I felt her body weigh heavily on me. Her white hair was slowly making its way over my face. I noticed a strange burning smell and wondered if it was her stench. I then looked to my side and noticed that the perfume bottle had fallen, broken into pieces, and landed on the candle. It caught on fire. She grabbed my throat and placed her thumbs on the hollow at the base of my throat. I tried to push her off, but I couldn’t breathe. Breathe, Arlette! Breathe! The burning smell was getting stronger as the room began fogging up with smoke. The woman’s screams were ringing in my ears. Someone kept opening and slamming what sounded like old wooden doors. I wondered why they were more preoccupied with that than helping me out. You can do this, Arlette! I mustered enough strength to bend my knee upwards and kick her in the stomach. She rolled over and her dress caught on fire. I coughed and breathed and coughed and breathed. The burning smell was suffocating me. I tried to get up, but fell down the first and second time. I tried a third time and managed to start running. She screamed at the top of her lungs. I ran as fast as I could. Before long, the whole house caught on fire. I laid on the street in front of the house coughing as the flames grew bigger and bigger. The woman’s screams were getting louder. And so were the baby’s. Oh no! I forgot about the baby! I got back up to run in to the house, but a man came out of nowhere and tried to stop me. “The baby! There’s a baby in there!” The baby’s cries were heartbreaking. The woman continued screaming. The fire grew bigger. “Calm down. Are you okay?” “But the house! We need to stop the fire! The woman is still alive! Kieran is still alive!” The woman’s screams began quietening down, but the baby continued to cry. Every time he did I felt my heart break into smaller pieces. You must save him, Arlette! “It’s okay! Calm down. It’s all going to be okay.” He hugged me hard. “The baby! The crying! There’s a baby! I need to save the baby before the fire gets to him!” I yelled at him, failing to understand his calm demeanour. “Shshsh. It’s okay. There’s no fire. Calm down. It’s just me. It’s all going to be okay. There’s no fire. It’s just us.” I felt him hold me tight as he calmed me down. I looked up and found myself by the pool on the hammock. I must have fallen asleep earlier. “It seems you were having quite the nightmare.” “I suppose. Gosh, it seemed so real!” He giggled. “It’s okay. It’s all going to be okay now.” He put his hand on my cheek. “Ouch!” I felt my jaw and cheek throbbing. “Sorry! Are you okay?” “Yeah. I just had my wisdom teeth pulled out and it still really hurts.” I rested my head on my hands. “Man I hate dentists.”

 3rd Place Noor AlNaimi

That Feeling

Lights. They surrounded everything on that eerie street where the world seemed to be in busy turmoil. Cars swerved past our vehicle; honked and slithered so close they threatened to scratch my husband’s new convertible. ” Who in their right mind gave you a license? ” Shouted Mo out the window as I slumped back against the leather seat. It was dark and blurry; I didn’t like the rocky way we had to careen through the tight pathways, much less keep up with my husband’s short temper about the places I pick and their impossible locations. “I told you we should’ve gone to the Ritz.” He said. …And It was such a good night too. I thought annoyed; we had a very nice dinner at La Fontaine, took a long walk around the villa and I even managed to get Mo to comment on a few of the artworks displayed. Yes, granted all he said was. ” I’m not paying two thousand dinars for a doodle!” But still I made him look. Now I had to survive my husband’s Saudi style driving which made ‘Fast and the Furious’ look tame. “Slow down.” I said as we passed a red light. “And get smashed to the side? No! Let me handle this.” He scoffed all masculinity and steel. It was a busy street and that night the traffic was worse than usual. I looked out the window to watch flashes of buildings as we passed all I got were little glimpses due to the speed we took. What agitated me most were the blinking lights around us, they were blinding and overpowered my vision so I had to squint most of the way until we arrived at another speed bump. “Stop!” I screamed, the whole world shook in that instant, my heart plummeted to my stomach as the car screeched to a halt, almost grazing the hunched figure mere millimeters away from the front of the car. “Oh my god.” I mouthed as we gazed at the woman who was standing in those macabre lights, like a nightmarish being. Her face was grotesque. Her skin wrinkled and swarthy. She looked to me like she had seen much of the world and did not like it. Her yellow eyes looked at us with deadly promises after the near fatality we could have caused her. A sense of dread crept through my whole being, the hair on my back stood on end and at that moment everything stopped. She stared at us and then drew her lips up exposing her teeth in what can only be described as an animalistic snarl. “Oh my god…oh my god…”I kept saying my palm against my gaping mouth, “We almost ran her over.” I whispered, staring at her as she crossed over to the other end of the road seemingly unharmed. She was an old woman I realized. I watched her walk over to the other side of the road, her body heavy, balanced upon those shaky limbs. A poor old woman. I thought once more trying to calm myself and shake off the image of her horrid snarl. It was only nerves due to our would-be accident, I should brush It off like Mo and steer myself away from those murky thoughts. “We didn’t.” My husband replied. I thought I saw him breathe a sigh, but it was very swift, as if he too wanted nothing more to do with the scene, he cruised away just as swiftly, far off towards the wide highway. But even after we reached the house, I still couldn’t shake off that memory of her face. Glaring and hateful, there was a world of evil in those eyes…so much evil. I shuddered thinking back on her wild features, tossing that foreign feeling aside. I felt my husband take my hand in his with a tight squeeze. He seemed to notice me rallying with myself, and I responded with a smile.  Pull yourself together. I thought as we finally walked into our bedroom, the lights were dimmed thoughout the house, the kids were probably sleeping soundly, this was usually my favorite time of the day yet it felt very wrong somehow. “I should check on the kids.” I said fighting the need to just dive into the sheets and call it a day like my unruffled husband, who was changed and ready for bed. Our near calamity was already a thing of the past to him. I darted out of our room towards the nursery, a flicker of lights greeted me from within, and I had to squint once more as I opened the door, left slightly ajar, to the kids’ bedroom. I peered inside, expecting to see two angelic faces upon their pillows just like it was every night. I saw feet. Little feet curled against the crumpled pillows and hidden beneath the covers were the rest of their little bodies. With relief, I adjusted them, chuckling at the grimaces they gave me before finally, they were properly placed. I retreated back to the bedroom to find my husband already asleep with an orchestra of snores; I rolled my eyes and drifted past the bed to change out of my dinner attire into some very comfortable pajamas. I proceeded next to slip into bed for some much needed rest. It never ends. I thought with a contemplative smile. I went on to replay my day, trying to extinguish that ridiculous dread I was feeling, purposefully tossing that image of that horrid misshapen woman out of my mind. Poor old woman-walking the street, relax! My cool mind told my frantic heart; somehow through the night I found the right corner for slumber, but I drifted from dream to dream all random fluff and blackness. When daylight broke I was back on my feet once more, padding upon the floor towards the kids’ room, my husband had probably woken up earlier with work calling off the hook. “Noor.” He said from the doorway, his eyes wide in an expression I did not see very often. “What’s wrong?” ” I found this.” He said and handed me a piece of paper, “It was under the door.” As I unfolded the scrap of paper, my heart began that familiar frantic tempo, reminded of the sensation I felt the night before, the note read: ” Who in their right mind gave you a license?”

– END –

Congratulations! Everyone and thanks for taking the challenge.

May 2019
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