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Joey Fitzpatrick joey 2

Our reviewer for the July Writing Challenge was Joey Fitzpatrick, a Halifax-based writer, recently retired from The Chronicle Herald. He can be reached at dukeyboat@hotmail.com

For the moment that’s as much of a profile as he has offered. However, on closer examination it is learnt that he was until recently an Editor at the provincial newspaper and is experienced in traditional and online journalism, newspaper writing, feature writing, story telling, creative writing and editing among a host of other skills. He has provided our entrants with much-appreciated feedback.

The choices for the writing challenge for July-August were as follows:

– Describe the last nightmare you had.

– People must not look outside at night from 3 AM to 6 AM. Children are often kept in windowless rooms and adults often wear blindfolds during sleep to avoid incident.

– The evil super villain and the hero are siblings. They still have dinner at Mom and Dad’s house for the holidays.

– It seemed like a good idea yesterday…

– Nobody else is awake.

– Write a story that will make me afraid of the dark.

– Write a story that starts with a word you pick out of the dictionary at random – in this case please state the word in the prompt line.

I am delighted to report that we had eight entries. And here are the stories in the order received.

A Believable Nightmare

by Noor AlNoaimi

Describe the last nightmare you had. (This is not the last nightmare though.)

We were instructed to stay inside, but we never listened to anything they said. They; my aunts and mother, women like children, were ordered to do the same and so did not merit any of our youthful respect. I recall the vision in a blur of grey and sand. The TV was unreadable, an old 80’s model that failed to catch any signals and provide much entertainment, so we sought to entertain ourselves. It wasn’t the best of times, Kuwait and Iraq were at war and thus we were told that the air outside still contained the sickening fragrance of the offshore missiles. We sneaked out of a window in the corner room anyway. The windows were sealed, and we had to pry the tape off in order to escape- My cousins and I. There were three of us attempting our rebellious adventure- None of us really understood what war was, but it did not look good. Nobody acted like themselves, and instead started talking about people we never heard of- a name did reoccur, I think he had a ‘Bush’ of some sort.

I saw my cousins grinning below me, motioning for me to follow which I excitedly did- We barely reached the main gate then, for suddenly my eldest cousin stopped, his gaze towards a khaki colored jeep filled with people. I don’t know why, but we were all afraid of them- The men inside were armed, their countenance did not look friendly when it met ours, and I did not think they were beyond shooting us where we stood.

I heard my uncle’s voice then, I don’t remember what he said but I recall his tone, he was so fierce- we children imagined him transforming before our eyes into a dangerous lion, Instead he drew a gun- I did not see it initially- but he shot it, not towards them but to the sky. We’ve been momentarily struck deaf by it’s after effects despite the good distance between us and his weapon. I watched as the jeep fled leaving behind clouds of dust, and my uncle; giving us a good whiff of what our aunts meant about the smell of war.

I never really understood that dream, and I wish I could remember what my uncle said to them- We were very young during the war, but even so- Our sleep was still disturbed by it.

By the Lake

by Shalini Vaghjee
It seems like a good idea yesterday…

During summer holidays, we always went to my grandmother’s house far from the hustle and bustle of the city. That year, things were quite different though. I had lost my grandmother and my father just few months Earlier… But I knew that I had to take a break to that house where we have been spending our summer for the last nineteen years…

My mother would come a bit later with my sister and her newborn baby girl. Mixed feelings from the intense sadness of the loss of my father and grandmother but a deep joy for my sister who’s dream came true in the form of this angel she recently gave birth too… How happy dad and grandma would have been…
I took the train and then walked through the forest as we did in the past. But somehow the forest looked denser and even the house looked further away… Finally I saw the beautiful cottage next to the blue lake. I felt happy and all the tiredness vanished away… I ran to the house… Oh! Grandma was not here anymore to welcome me with her huge hug, so I took out the keys and opened the door…

As I entered, beautiful memories of giggling and the nice aroma of grandmas favorite pie came to me. The house had been closed since grandma fell unwell and moved to our place in the city for her treatment. The house desperately needed a good make over and I decided to dust and clean the house as our newborn princess would be here for her fist visit. I opened all the windows to let the fresh air and beautiful sunshine in. Then I went to fetch water from the lake, cleaned the house and two hours later, the sun was down. I had some sandwich which I brought and then crawled on the couch and fell asleep.

Few hours later, I suddenly woke up and wondered where I was. Of course I’m in grandma’s house, nothing to worry. But something felt awkward. I looked outside to see the dark night with hardly any stars. This was very rare.. Could it be cloudy? But the sky was blue during the day and here it had never rained during summer. Something was weird. I switched on the lights and to my dismay, blood was oozing out from my skin. I tried to rub my arms and body. But more blood continued oozing out. I felt something crawling on me, clinging to my skin and at times I felt being stung by something, but nothing invisible. On my head, in my nose, my ears…  And the blood kept oozing out… I stood on a puddle of blood, my own blood. I was breathless and even though I wanted to shout for help, I knew this was in vain. There were no neighbors for some kilometers and no one ever came on this side. Then I realized that these tiny insects were coming from the window and they clang to the skin to suck the blood out. These insects were microscopic and could be detected by the rays of light only. I desperately tried to close the window but again in vain. Looks like an army of their kind had held the window and I could not close them no matter how hard I tried. I felt dizzy, I did not know what to do, who to call. Then I remembered one of my friends who stayed nearby and quickly sent her a message. My throat was choking, so calling would not be appropriate. But I did let some missed calls on her phone. Then I fainted…

Two days later, I opened my eyes in the hospital. My body was bandaged and I was given an intravenous blood drip. I still felt a bit dizzy but I badly needed to know what happened… There were police officers, forest guards as well as my mother were waiting for me to open my eyes. We learnt that these insects were always in the forest but they never did any harm to people or even animals. However, recently  some bully teenagers came in the area and they destroyed the underground habitat of these tiny insects. These were inevitably enraged and since then they started attacking men and animals. Once they attack someone, they left the body only when all the blood had oozed out. These insects did not depend on blood nor they like human flesh. They did it only as a revenge to what these teenagers had done to their family. We learnt that they came only at night and windows need to remain shut, not like earlier… I guess opening the window at night to enjoy fresh air seems like a good idea yesterday… But not anymore…

Forever

by Mike Rollins

Nobody else is awake in this dark half of the world but we two, it seems, as I sit beside his bed through the hours that God forgot. And then there is only me.

I rang my brother as early as I thought fair, and he knew as soon as he heard my voice.

“When did he… go?” John couldn’t bring himself to say die. Guilt? I don’t know, but they had not spoken for more than two years now. And John had been Dad’s favourite. But I was the one who had been looking after him: Living with the rages and the stony silences; putting the fires out; apologising for his behaviour.

“One this morning. I didn’t see any point in waking you. It’s not like it was an emergency.”

*

I had no idea at the time what it was that caused the rift between them. They had always got on well. Dad was hardest on the eldest: You guessed it. He never hit me though. He would ground me, take away my stuff. He once burned my football boots because I made the girl next door cry. I couldn’t believe it: I didn’t make her ugly, I just confirmed it for her.

Mum had died when we were young boys. I barely remember her. She is just a presence that lingers in a certain room at a certain time. There and gone. I grew up thinking that Dad hated the world because she died, until at fourteen I saw him through the partly opened door of his bedroom, holding a picture of her and crying like a child; noiseless sobs that were all liquid sighs and short breaths. I realised then that he was a mean bastard because of love, which made it easier to understand. It didn’t make him any easier to live with.

*

Our fight at the funeral might have been less of a spectacle if it had been a cremation, and if it hadn’t been raining for three days.

It started as the coffin was being lowered. I happened to murmur, ”And don’t come back.” I know; not the nicest thing to say, but my life had been hell these past few years, looking after him with no real respite… I suppose it just all welled up in me right there, right then.

John swung at me, missing my jaw as he slipped on the mud and hitting me on the shoulder. I had been wanting to smack him one for a long time and got in a good one as he skidded past me. Up on his feet, covered in mud, he charged at me. We tumbled into the hole and Dad’s coffin broke beneath us, the cheap wood splintering.

We lay there in Dad’s grave, the rain pelting down on us, the funeral party staring,, as silent as they’d been during the service. John’s body suddenly convulsed above me, starting to shake: I thought he was crying. I was wrong. He raised his head, rolling on to his side, and I saw that he was laughing; laughing so hard that tears were mingling with the rain and the mud streaking his face.

That started me off. We lay there and howled our laughter at the grey sky.

As we walked across the stone garden, John leaned into me. “I stopped speaking to him when he found out I was having an affair. He was so disappointed in me, James; I couldn’t look him in the eye. It was over in a few weeks but I just couldn’t face him.”

*

We went for a drink later and talked about how much we loved Dad.

Nobody Else Is Awake

by Preeti Rana

Nobody else is awake.

It’s the chirping of the birds as always.

They hold up the dawn by their beaks. For me. Close to the window so I can see better. I can see better. I am so close. To the pane.

Something about the night has remained both sides. One side my breath frosts the warm glass. On the other side, I see bits of grass on the sill. The night wore green too. Or the bulbul must have stopped construction to peer in.

A laden cloud has rubbed the scent of rain against our window.

The breeze blows nothing new. Today holds the same as all the recent yesterdays. I must go. I need to change. The way you look at me. That look that you know. But won’t tell, spells difficult words. All the plans I’ve been whispering to you. You barely nod anymore.

Once before you looked at me that way. All those years back. And I hadn’t cared. Unbound by you knowing. I was so young. At heart. He had leaned across, hadn’t he, in the light of our dinner table, to listen. To me speak. He pushed aside my careful narrative with all my references of you, family, kids. With that deep hooded look. It doesn’t matter who you are, he had said. What matters is what you want to be.

Maybe he never said it. It could have been all me. Imagining those sparkling eyes as telling.

But they were intoxicating thoughts, worded, imagined. They held me those years. As if by my waist. Carrying me over hills and valleys and I saw views from impossible mountain peaks. You wouldn’t tell me I had gone insane. You hid every mirror that could reflect the insanity in my eyes. Thank God, I began to paint. Everyone, so relieved they had my art to politely applaud. Draw attention away from my madness. You made sure I never ran out of sheets and paints.

I see that night. Me sitting by this window. In my paint splattered apron. It was the first time in a long while you saw my tears roll. Form and roll. Instead of asking what the matter was you said to me “come back to bed”.

As if you didn’t need to ask. I told you I want to leave, that night. “I cannot stay or function around you”. Oh, I said that, didn’t I. You held my hand and took me back to bed. Tucked me closer to you. Held me till I slept.

He was gone. Long gone. Like any passer-by. Or a traveller, leaving behind things he didn’t need.

Or they would have come back for it.

I kept them in poems and aquarelles. But he was gone from it all. What remained held only me.

You almost knew my story. One talks about leaving to those who stay close forever. ‘I don’t love you’ are words said to those you do. It tore my heart as I said it. And you only attended to my wound. I love you. My darling.

You never left my side.

Even today it’s me who has left yours. I must return to you. Jaan. Jaan. Why can’t you hear me? Wake up. This glass. How do I return, how can I get back in. Why can’t you hear me? I’m cold again. I long for our warm bed. The way I fit in your embrace.

I am in a fall. Falling from this height is a flight. There is a fierce velocity against my flesh. No. My bones. No. Against me. I am dissolving. I see a chasm form between us. It spreads like an ink blot, my love.

You still hold my hand. Head back and asleep in my reading chair.

The babies we made on the sofa, that rug.

Asleep under the blanket of morrows. Surrounded by your books. Under our roof. Oh, look at her. Isn’t she lovely. Her heart will crush into a million pieces as this sun rises. No one would see the mosaic lines. Except us. The lightest blow could make it crumble. And she’ll build a fierce protective shell. Oh, let the heart chip with use my darling. Tell her that. Tell her now. Oh, I should have.

And look at him. Our crown prince. You have taught him to resolve with restrain. At the eighteenth hole, when he thinks no one is watching I know he will cry. And there will be no one to wipe his tears. Oh, my gentle boy. Hold him till he cries on your shoulder. Hold him now.

I wish I could breathe just one more breath.

It’s late yet only now I am awake.

Nobody Else is Awake

by Renjith P Sarada

Nobody else is awake”, that was the thought which crossed my mind intermittently when I was lying on the bed, awaiting the Goddess of Sleep to bless.

“Am I the only person who is awake in the midst of darkness at this point in time?”

“Why am I unable to sleep despite a long and tiring walk a few hours ago?”

“Why am I bereft of the much-needed five-letter word, ‘sleep’?”

“Why nobody else is awake?”

A chain of questions radiated out of my head and persuaded me to find out the corresponding answers. But, I was clueless.

I looked at the wall clock. I could barely see the time despite the fussy night lamp. The time was around two in the morning.  Felt glad to know that the night lamp, like me, was also awake – perhaps beseeching the goddess’ blessings.

I stared at my wife who was sleeping like a baby. I felt jealous.

“When would I be able to sleep like this?”, I pondered. I tried my best to contain the fact that one can sleep serenely along with another person who is deprived of it – both, under the same roof.  I got off the bed and switched on the fluorescent lamp, with a deliberate intention to disturb the sleeping beauty. After an inaudible grumble, she turned towards the other side of the light and resumed her slumber.

Let me elucidate further. I have got nothing to do with insomnia or sleeplessness or any kind of jargons indicating a sleep-deprived condition, from a medical standpoint.

What has taken the sleep out of me was a recent comment made by someone who or what shouldn’t have been of any concern to me.    Because, the “someone” being referred here is someone who is a friend of my son’s classmate’s neighbour.

I was meeting him for the first time in my life – that too during a wedding reception of someone else who was equally far from me in all aspects.   As a courtesy, I was introduced to this “someone” by my son’s classmate’s father as we all happened to share the same dining table.

Being strangers to each other, this “someone” had no business to comment on something which was very personal.   Because, that off-the-cuff comment of his, which he might have thought as a casual pleasantry was strong enough to take my sleep away for a couple of days thereafter.

Is this your son?” – even a blind person had once told about the striking resemblance between my son and myself – but not sure of the mannerisms and/or thoughts whether they match perfectly. Though I was vexed by his opening shot, I nodded with an affirmative answer without showing any displeasure.

The next was the googly (in cricket terminology) which snatched my sleep away.

“Was it a late marriage?”.

 “What”?, I grimaced, but asked myself. On hearing the unprecedented question posed by “someone”, the person who introduced me also started to turn pale – reminding me of the litmus test which I had learnt during my high school days.

“What he had to do with my marriage – if it had happened later or earlier?”,  I wondered.   In a fraction of a second, I could make out where he was coming from.   I recollected that he was looking at my more-salt-less-or-almost-no pepper hair while talking to me.

To speak the truth, he was far better than many others from a diplomatic perspective. I recall many who put it straight at my face asking why am I not “dyeing” (in proper contextual meaning, and not in the meaning of its rhyme, of course).

“Oh! I hate anything artificial. Moreover, I am dead against dyeing. Scientifically, you know, the chemicals used in dye making are hazardous……”, I smiled and changed the topic towards some current affairs – both national and international.

Bringing my thoughts back, I looked at the mirror and stared at the reflection of my head.

“True, my head has become very rich – from black metal to silver”.

 I was tempted, but stood confused – whether to dye or not to dye!  

 Because, I knew it was not at all going to be an easy game for me to get into the habit of dyeing, as I had been a strong anti-dyeing advocate, at home. Many a time, I had efficaciously argued against my wife and other people who either supported or sported dyeing. And throughout the debate, for the sake of it, I used to give lectures on the drastic side effects of dyeing based on true or untrue scientific reasons and also throwing “gyan” on made up stories about people in far away countries who lost hair and complexion due to excessive dyeing. The demography of these protagonists were ideally chosen to avoid any follow up by the opponents, especially my wife who is an expert in using Google and making use of other reliable sources.

I sat down at the corner of the bed, contemplating.

Then, I decided.  Yes, I decided to swim against the tide – but on a safer route.   I wished not to be paraded by those who were put paid to my arguments whenever they see me with glossy black/brown hair.

Before executing the plan, I prepared my own points justifying as to why I changed my mind and started dyeing. Having convinced, I concluded that there is nothing wrong in my decision. I had been voicing against dyeing, or rather against applying “artificial” colors and paints – definitely not henna.   So, nobody would have the guts to blame me for violating my argument points or call me a hypocrite if I do a henna treatment on my hair. Moreover, henna is natural.

I remembered spotting henna powder in the ‘things to buy’ list a week back, but was unsure whether it was bought and if so, whether it was black or brown. Without making much noise, I rummaged around my wife’s vanity bag. Thankfully, I could get hold of a packet of powdered henna – and that too, having the label ‘100% Natural Henna”.

For a systematic execution, I came out to the TV room where the lighting was better than bedroom. I read the instructions on the pack many times to ensure that I am not doing any mess-up with my hair, consequently affecting my face.  I looked at the list of ingredients mentioned – all were written in biological names – felt quite agnostic, but were solid enough to substantiate my justification.

“Soak the powder for 4 to 6 hours and then after applying the paste on hair, leave on for 3 to 4 hours”.

I looked at the clock. The time was almost three.

 “Oh! my God!   If I go by the instructions word-by-word, the process would not be completed even by lunch time the next day”, I thought.

Not thinking any further of pros and cons, I cut opened the packet, made up the henna paste with utmost confidentiality by getting in to the bathroom. In line with the instructions, I added a few drops of vinegar to get some highlighting. After the mixing was done, I sadly realized that I had partially tanned the wash basin by spilling the colourful paste inadvertently! I feared of the consequences that are bound to happen the next morning, when the sleeping beauty gets up.   I sprung into action to clean the bathroom at half past three – something I had never done in all these donkey years!! What a plight at night!

I waited patiently in the bathroom itself, for the paste to set in.    Feeling bored, I came back to the bedroom and lied down beside my wife without disturbing her sleep. Moreover, I wanted to give her a surprise the next day morning by posing a different look and feel!  I envisioned my potential appearance, and how everybody would be complimenting me for the new look. After waiting impatiently for an hour, I examined the paste and confirmed that the same is good to go.

“Goodness!, There are no hand gloves available. If I use my hands, I would end up like an Indian bride aftter a Mehendi/Henna ceremony”.

As a stopgap arrangement, I made use of a plastic carry bag – transformed it to a hand glove, applied the henna with much enthusiasm (like how the floors of traditional houses were coated with cow dung during pre-technological era).

I saw my reflection on the mirror – I looked ugly – which I presumed as a precursor to the imminent handsomeness.   After applying henna on the head, I covered it using the same carry bag and tied it with a rubber band.   Due to lack of experience, I could not paste adroitly thereby spoiling the bathroom floor.   I sprung into action again – cleaning the bathroom, the second time in a span of two hours.

After the cumbersome exercise, I found it prudent not to get out of the bathroom thereby spoiling the floor of bedroom too, because I had no fascination to do cleaning any more.

I decided to stay put in the bathroom. As I had nothing else to do, I read all my pending official mails on the phone. Feeling discomfort, I decided to forget all the instructions and clean off the hair without waiting for even an hour.   I was unsure about the henna stains while washing as I did not wish to clean the bathroom for the third time in a row.  So, I took off a trickle from the head, put it on the floor and confirmed no stains remained when I washed it off with running water.

Good to go !

I took off the carry bag from the head, opened the shower and stood underneath. The colors washed off from my head through my face. I felt breathless for a while, but managed to finish the shower quickly.

Anxiously, I looked at the bathroom mirror.

“Awesome!”    All the white strands on the hairs had vanished.   I looked much younger. I came off the bathroom, dried my hair and combed it with perfection.

Oh! my God!”   I looked at the mirror again after switching on all the available lights.

I literally screamed.

This reflex of mine awakened my wife who got up from her sleep with a jolt, screaming likewise. I got a shock of my life and that made me scream again.

She looked at my face helplessly.

“What is this?? What have you done with your hair??”

Shame! I looked like a peacock, with only brown feathers. My head had turned completely brown as if my head was varnished.   I didn’t know what to do. As I lacked expertise to reverse the wrongdoing, I kept quiet.   I knew that I would be a laughing stock in the office if I go in this peacock design!

I asked my wife to suggest a remedy before the day breaks. She told me that the only quick and effective choice left was to use a black dye to cover up the brown shade – but she was unsure whether the henna stains would remain or not.

I envisaged as to how I would be in my office attire the next morning – white shirt, blue trousers, black & brown hair.

“No way! Its ridiculous. It is against my ethics. Moreover, the dye is having lot of chemicals ….”. With a typical facial expression, I was stopped abruptly by my wife handing over a sachet of black dye, which obviously contained artificial colors and chemicals.

Hesitantly, I applied the dye, waited for another hour, washed it off and came out of the bathroom – just to find my wife sleeping calmly as if nothing had happened.

I looked at the mirror.

“Not bad! Yes, I am looking much younger. Why was I against this magic all these years?”

I felt like singing a romantic song in my rough voice.

Luckily, nobody else was awake.

 “Nightmares?”

by Michelle Schultz

The last nightmare I had involved eating out at one of my favorite coffeeshops. My husband and I had arranged to meet with friends I hadn’t seen in a while the week before, so I had been looking forward to it. Our schedules didn’t often mesh with work taking my husband or our friends late into the evening with no warning, so it was a pleasant surprise that everyone was able to come and no one had to cancel at the last minute.

As I had come to expect, the coffee was wonderful: nutty, earthy, or faintly floral depending on the type that I chose. The desserts were hopelessly decadent but large enough to share, so share we did. The subdued music piped through the speakers upstairs covered any silences in the conversation, but I had plenty to discuss with these lovely individuals. We talked of everything except politics; we’d all had enough of that cropping up in our Facebook feeds. I learned that one of my friends was taking vacation soon, and another was strongly considering adopting a cat. As I was always eager to talk with other cat people, I made a note to ask in the coming days if the adoption had worked out.

I only knew two hours had passed because of my watch. It was almost ten at night by the time we had to call it a night. Time had flown, leaving me with that disorienting feeling I get when I’ve stopped focusing so much on making charming small talk and worrying about the next interesting thing I’m going to say. Instead I just let the conversation take me where it wanted, and it had gone beautifully.

I drove us home, the windows down to let the humid air make enough of a breeze to cool me. For a summer night, it was surprisingly pleasant. Maybe I was adapting to the climate here after all.

Given the hour, my husband and I only took a few minutes to pet the cats before readying for bed. It was quiet in the house, and the neighbors in the houses on either side were somnolent as well. You would hardly know anyone else lived in our compound given how peaceful it could be at night.

I lay down in bed, tired enough in a pleasant way from so much conversation, that I didn’t need to read like I usually did before going to sleep. My books were safe on the nightstand as I turned to study the insides of my eyelids instead. I felt the familiar bump as one of our cats bumped my feet before settling down to sleep on one ankle. I could feel his purr in my bones as I drifted asleep.

I blinked awake minutes or hours later. The room was dark, no curtains cracked like I used to do. My feet were cold and devoid of cats.

I turned my head, barely able to make out our dark pillows against the pale bedspread, but my husband’s pillow was empty. He must have gotten up to use the toilet and woken me. I rearranged my pillow and turned over, waiting for him to come back because he’d only wake me up again if I fell asleep.

The silhouettes on the other side of the bed were wrong. I realized that his side of the bed was neat, as if it was still made up. How odd for him to make the bed when he was coming right back.

I sat up and shook the cobwebs out of my head. I leaned forward, half-climbing out of bed to look down the hallway outside the door.

It was as dark and lightless as our bedroom.

No water ran in the bathroom, no whir came from the fan running, and no one stubbed their toe in the dark as they came back to bed.

The room was suddenly too quiet. The lack of sound was like an annoying buzz in my ears, static to fill in the empty spaces that was far too loud once you could sense it.

My husband hadn’t been home for weeks. Work had taken him out of the country, and he was supposed to have been home this week, but those things often changed.

How had I forgotten? What a bizarre, utterly mundane dream to leave me so confused. It was just like last year after my aunt died, when I dreamed of talking to her on the phone only to wake up and realize that the memory of that conversation wasn’t real.

Had I even met with our friends tonight? I strained to recall, but their faces were a blur. I couldn’t remember where we had gone. I couldn’t even tell whether I had met my husband’s coworkers or my friends from church. What had we talked about? Babies? The news? Those things were always coming up in conversation, but nothing seemed familiar.

My imagination must be having a rough time if this was the best dream it could come up with: uneventful conversations with people I already knew in which nothing changed. My muses must be bored. I should make a note to read some more interesting books.

I reset my phone to play nature sounds and lay back down to sleep.

I had a meeting that morning for the monthly women’s gossip session, or at least, that was how I thought of it. Ostensibly it couldn’t all be about women since men could come too, but most often, only women showed up to share what workout they were currently obsessed with because it was the greatest thing ever invented and solved their myriad, highly specific, and trendy health problems when combined with this very particular diet tailored to their genetic heritage, their environment, and the supplements available to them in this location.

I drank black coffee given my bad sleep the night before and sat on the fringes of the latest group to convert to cross-fit/Paleo, or was it Paleo/yoga? Were those regimens even compatible? It didn’t matter. I knew enough vagaries to talk about either if someone asked my opinion. It wasn’t important that I share my experiences so much as ask more about theirs. It was the same with babies: ask the moms questions because deep down, they don’t want to talk about you. Nobody does.

Once my requisite hour was up socializing with the other ladies, I left the room with a excuse about needing to get to my errands. I promised to meet some of them later that week for coffee or lunch so we could discuss the work that we had originally met up to talk about.

I called my husband/rescuer once I got out of sight and asked where he was. Fortunately, he had just finished up some paperwork and was free to drive me home given the heat outside.

I had to wait outdoors so I didn’t run into any of the ladies I had just abandoned, and the heat made me sleepy by the time my husband’s car appeared. On the way home, I just closed my eyes to block out the sun.

When I opened them, it was dark and I was lying down.

I flinched, kicking out and catching only bedcovers. Bedcovers?

I turned my head to get my bearings, but it was as dark as the inside of a black hole and probably just as quiet… unless planets or comets screamed as they were crushed to death, in which case it was probably as noisy as that pregnant silence that filled my ears like a wasp humming.

Once I realized it was my pillow under my head, I almost smiled in relief.

Wow, the muses really were dying of boredom. Now I was being treated to reruns of the last year of my attempts to socialize with other ladies before ultimately giving that up. With only slight variations, that dream could have been any one of a year’s worth of pointless coffees and lunches.

“Sorry,” I said just to break up the quiet as I turned over. I reached out to poke my husband’s shoulder and apologize for probably waking him up with my kicking about.

The shapes were all wrong.

His side of the bed was made up, which was odd. Why would he waste the time if he was coming right back to bed? Had he gone to pick up one of our cats as he sometimes did if he heard it meowing in the hall?

The silence in the room became the slow grinding of gears as my brain caught up with the rest of me.

My husband had been gone for over a month. There was no one here or in the hall.

I flinched anew. Why did this feel so familiar?

Wait, hadn’t I already had this dream? Or a dream? Hadn’t it too been utterly normal, as if I was spending time with friends or acquaintances that used to live here?

My phone hadn’t rung in days if not weeks. No one was calling me to arrange dinner with my husband and me. I hadn’t gone to a ladies’ meeting in over a year.

I lay back down after glancing at the clock. I still had hours to sleep.

“Did you bring the game?” my friend asked as I entered his apartment.

“It couldn’t be anything else in a box this big,” I said, hefting the giant bag holding my favorite card game and one I was eager to teach this group. “I didn’t have time to cook—“

“That’s okay. We were just going to order in this time,” my friend interrupted, closing the door behind me. “Have a seat. Coffee’s in the kitchen, beer’s in the fridge, take what you will.”

“Thanks,” I said as I set the box with the others at the table. I looked around at the familiar faces without being able to put names to any of them. My memory for faces was pretty bad when I’d only met them once, so this was normal enough.

I sat down.

“Hi, everyone,” I said, grinning although it felt a little manic. “I… um, I wanted to show you all my favorite game, the one you asked about last time.”

“Sounds good,” one friend said. “I looked it up. Apparently it won some Euro game award recently.”

“You’ll see why,” I said, opening the box with help from two others at the table. They started removing packs of cards without my asking, eager to get started.

“Did you want something before we start playing?” my other friend asked, standing up slightly.

“That’s alright. I just… want to show you how to play. So we can all play,” I said, my throat closing up around the words.

What was wrong with me?

“One sec. Allergies,” I said, waving a hand before leaving to find the bathroom and some tissues. My eyes were all scratchy too, so I leaned down to splash water on my face. “I’ll be right back. I’m not going anywhere. Please don’t go anywhere.”

I opened my eyes.

It was dark, and the room was quiet.

How funny, to dream of something so mundane. I had been showing… Steve, right? I had been showing Steve and some others how to play my favorite game. My husband hadn’t been there that time, but he would come to our next game night now that he was home.

Wait. I’d had this dream already. Now the dreams were Technicolor mundanity, complete with solicitous friends and eager listeners and clear dialogue. How completely unlike real life.

I checked my phone. The last message I’d had from Steve was from almost two months ago.

I put the phone down. It was still a few hours to dawn. My nature sounds had stopped playing, and the quiet was bothering me again. I turned so I could at least stare at my husband’s back.

The shadows were all wrong.

I sat up on one side and put out a hand. The blankets were all still tucked in, the pillow cold.

My husband had been gone for months. How had I…?

Dammit.

The Nightmare

by Sara Madan

Stranded on the side of the road not a single car had passed by…

My car had broken down in the foggy mist of nowhere. Trying my mechanical skills would be a death wish because I had none. My phone was dead. I decided to walk and find some form of life. I scavenged a flashlight from the dashboard and some left over snacks to keep me going. The foggy mist grew weary to the point I felt I was deep in clouds. The cold kept clinging to my skin like a death trail. I was alone and lost…

I had walked for almost an hour and half. Neither the fact that no vehicles had passed by, nor any sighting of a living form did not bury my confidence, I kept going. Then out of the blue, I saw something like a road sign in a far of distance. As I drew closer, the sign read “Silent Hill population none”. I thought, could this be a joke? My curiosity was begging me to unravel this fact, could it be true? Or was it a prank? Curiosity got the best of me as I moved forward and finally saw the shadows of the town in the distance.

I had finally arrived, the fog disappeared and the view was crystal clear. Houses and buildings were burnt down and I could hear faint groaning and rustling from the ruins. The trees had ghostly look and fearfully strange. As I moved further down I came across a mysterious town hall which was intact without any destruction. I decided to enter and find any signs of life that could help to fix my car. I was getting late and I am sure my parents were looking out for me. As I lunged open the door, I saw a shadow on the other side of the hall, I called “is anyone there? No answer, so I made my way to the other side of the hall, the shadow re-appeared it was skinny like a skeleton of an old man the only thing that was live was his fiery eyes. He had a crooked grin for a smile and as he spoke I could see his guts through his mouth. I asked him about the town, his reply was “welcome to hell”. My heart began to beat as he described how the foggy and misty road was the entrance to hell and that I had passed out at the side of the road in a horrific car accident. How could he have known about the road accident? Panic crept into my chest….you are dreaming…I try to assure myself and manage to cling on to that futile hope.

I whisper to myself…… am I really dead? My heart pounded furiously.

Where am I?

I eyed the portraits which were from the ceiling to floor, wall to wall; of people I knew, like my granddad and neighbours who had passed away long ago. I wondered why their portraits were here in this mysterious burnt out town. All of a sudden when the clock struck 12 midnight (that’s what I sensed), I heard someone whisper my name and then, simultaneously, all the portraits on the wall came alive. To my horror they were all disfigured faces staring at me, trying to touch me I turned to run out of the building to escape but the door was no more there, the creatures tried to claw into me, I futilely tried to escape, but my knees buckled the creatures were upon me, they said “it’s time to say goodbye” , I was choking in agony , blood oozing from my eyes, when I woke up screaming in cold sweat and my grandma holding me, whispering …it is only a dream, you are safe now.

A Life in Darkness

by Noor Nass

The dark as an adjective means with no light. The word dark as a noun means the absence of light in place. When the almighty created the earth, the earth was nothing but pitched black to the deep. The blackness to the creator was like a white page to the writer. There was nothing in that darkness not even a letter or a vowel in place. Like a blank paper ready to be written on, it was waiting to draw something.

To get the writer to be in character then he must write. Just like the creator used darkness and made light for things to be found and became a creator. Therefore, the writer must write to find the written word and be a writer.

Let that word be a story of darkness that took over my life, since I can recall. And, to find the light I had to walk the same path that I rejected over and over again.

I grew up with a 10% functional mother when I was a child. And, just because darkness took over her life.

She did not see life the way her children did or the way her husband did. As much as she was in darkness, the reality of the life we view today only made sense with a few words to her. Like “I am your mother” and “G’d is going to curse you and revenge me”. I lived with that threat constantly.

Growing up in the uptown of the East of the Island, when I was in second grade she hit me up harshly for telling her that I studied and got a 60% pass on one my subjects. She took the degree and shoved it in my face and kept on verbally repeating where is the study you studied. Then the verbal humiliation became physical, she took her heavy hands and slammed it on my 35 KG body.

First, she aimed to my arms, then she took her hands and slammed me on top of my legs- the thighs. And, last to the side way of my body. I was so bruised that you can see the purple effect on my skin.

I went running to my room locking the door behind me. I was saved by her big body that couldn’t keep up with me running around the room escaping her lashes, or my fate would have been worse.

My dad came back from work and found me that night crying myself to sleep and asked me what went wrong. And, I told him the story with showing the scars from the effects of the slams. We could tell, me, my dad, and my family that something was not right with this woman. As a child, I would be forgotten a few times after school due to her long naps and delusional state in the other world.

My mother wouldn’t work. Although she came from a well-off family that owned their own restaurant, and sent all brothers to western educational colleges. And, her sisters sent all their children to private schools for a British education. They would only allow a marriage to happen with their blessings to their offspring’s and siblings. Such as if the Man was not taught, did not work and did not pray five times a day, then it’s pointless to ask. In other words, a rocket science with no moon.

On the other hand, she dedicated herself to raise the children up instead of perusing a college degree. And as we grew older she perused a diploma degree in children’s education. Which, of course I can only remember her when it came time for food or visiting the evil castle of her sisters.

I tried to be a good child by listening to her but nothing she said would benefit me socially, emotionally, educationally, or physically. Her approach was always to serve her and to please her or I will be cursed because mothers hold the keys to heaven and I don’t.

of course, a lot of my friends do not get why I did not spend time with my mother or why I was so mean about it. Perhaps, what I could not understand about her mental situation made me in so much darkness.

Most people would go with just the feeling to be with a parent, I had to go with sympathy, apathy, guilt, forced kindness, obligations and duty. Her situation was difficult and because of social taboos her sisters and her would say there was nothing wrong. To the extent that they believed their own lies. Which is not a bad way of living but the planets will still not grow in my garden and that’s why it was a problem for me.

When I can see her speak to herself in the other world, fantasizing a different husband while she is in a marriage. Every family opportunity was invested on fighting with my father for torturing her to be on medication that are not working.

Then, it will move for his delusional understanding of the working environment, then it will move about how he should not talk about her Lebanese family. The woman used to make up fights and make up gossips that never happened. She cuts out family ties because she insists that my Aunt spoke behind her back when my aunt was in middle school. I was cursed with living with the devil’s creation, it was darkness like hell on earth.

On top of it we were brought up in a modern, Arabic setting where we relied on our parents to set the path for a good block to start our future. Unfortunately, due to the darkness we were in – it was impossible to see the light at the end of tunnel. Except if I meet someone, which I did.

Like an optimist I failed to see the challenges that came with the marriage or some people would say delusions, others would say like a good wife. But that life that made me experience my life for the first time and not force my parent’s life on me lasted until it lasted.

My Armageddon happened, my unexpected happened, and my worst nightmares happened. Like the air breeze stopped blowing my direction and began to mean a different meaning.

The meaning of my husband has altered, the best friend and my rock. That cutty hitting on me in the office while I thought he was separated turned against me. the idea of work, turned into a science experiment in my head. Should I salute the girl that was praying for something along those lines to happen, because I over smiled to everyone.

Mania gave me the feeling of euphoria like an apple falling to the ground at collision with the earth sounded like gravity to me and altered my reality. Like a different parallel world. Except this parallel world felt like a computer scientist that moved as fast as the speed of light to manage my information data.

My life was bummed, it was not like nothing was said and nothing was heard. I ran with my music. like a disease of the mind that held me- there was no place for comfort. Like a thief in the middle of the night that came and grabbed me and my family. To each member their own path. The city of light did not grab us, but religion did. And, it taught us one truth that in the end of darkness there were the pits of hell waiting for the time of our grave. Where it called on us.

To enjoy life, each escaped to their own madness. Except mine became officially true with a pen and a paper. It was dark with no hope. Only to empty my pockets more and ignore my heart, and fill in the pockets of that gold stamp of thee educated person with the convenience of their comfort. No one gave me comfort and no one gave me light, if they tried to pass on the light they would only burn me with it. That included anything I tried to build with that burned light.

I ran for six years in and out of mental institutes, they were painful, harsh and unrealistic. The symptoms of mania would get worse. I would not want to live because I would stop feeling. I would gain weight and be paralyzed .. not to mention sleep all the time. It was obvious it was not working and the more time you gave it. The mental institute would point out how stable I looked. Not to see their own blood on their hands. Like an elephant who was given stabilizers with no purpose to attend to.

The words of wisdom of the world order would not make sense anymore. Except the almighty gave me some truths that the light in my heart kept on fading away as the years passed on and the poisonous torture continued. I found some examples of life and versus helpful and they were: “Ask, and it shell be given to you; seek and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you. For everyone that asketh recives; and that seeketh, findeth; and to him that knocketh it shall be opened.” And, in my world it was “those that peruse will find.” But in reality, I knew from numerous examples in anything someone sets his hearts to shall find the desired outcome. In other words, light decided to shine on my state of darkness. It came as a lovely video stating the new technological evidence of micro-nutrition’s effecting mental health. I couldn’t believe what I heard.

It meant I can walk, talk and look like me. And not like an instrument for the devils and demons. Maybe, with Angels and a G’d.

It was the fifth month being on the doctors advise and no mother or father or a lover shed a tear for what I was feeling. I was in so much physical and emotional pain. I spoke to my father and he placed an order for the micro-nutrition bottle. Of course, being skeptic about the validity of it working. Like dreading the fact that I might come to life again. My order came two weeks after the initial request. I took the bottle from him and went back home. Every day as soon as I wake up I would take some vitamins, and at noon time I would take one again. After four days to one week I felt better. However, It was until I dropped the psychotic crazy drugs that the micro nutrition kicked in the stranger effects. There were hardly any voices, my chemicals felt relaxed and I did not sway with my emotions. As far as everyone is concerned I was experimenting what everyone feels in their daily experience of living on this earth. However, it was until my mind survived over and over the days ahead that I realized that it actually worked. That micro nutrition was able to give my chemicals a natural creation of serotonin to my body that would take me away from my parallel reality. It was not hiding the wounds but it was creating the natural substances of my own tissue. Like my own white blood cells. I finally found the light in my darkness. To remain there would have kept me in darkness; which was painful, would not shut up, would stop, would not rest and with no purpose that is visible in reality or outside of reality. I was scared and all on my own, with no justification but condemnation. It was Dark and I was scared.

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

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

Martin G. Parker

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

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

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

And so without further ado… here are our entries

The Rain Wouldn’t Stop

By Preeti Rana

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I didn’t plan to be a superhero

By Rifat Najam

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

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

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

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

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

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

Superhero

By Michael Rollins

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

*

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

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

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

*

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

*

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

‘Why wasn’t it me?’

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

*

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

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

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

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

But how?

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘I’m minding my own business.’

It was clear that Paradise had a problem…

*

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

*

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

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

And that was it; that was the simple answer.

*

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

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

‘Why, Maya?’

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

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

A superhero by a campfire in the rain

by Dr Manish Tayal

(EDITOR’S NOTE: This was sent separately and wasn’t part of the challenge, however, inspired by all the writing prompts, one of our new members, Dr Manish Tayal, decided to write the following story based on all of them)

I didn’t plan to be a superhero, but all of that changed when I got bitten by a familiar, restless yearning.

Growing up on the beaches near Karachi, I’d been raised on warnings of the dangers that lay across the black waters, the kaalaa paani. But I’d always had a rebellious streak, and I’d taken to visiting the old man who lived alone in the woods and listening in awe to his stories. I still remember the day he’d arrived in the village, freshly electrified and inspired from his travels and all he’d seen; and I remember how he’d tried to show and tell us, and how he’d been cut off mid-flow, his excitement turning to confusion, then disappointed understanding, and finally sorrowful acceptance, as my fellow villagers had cast him out. Impure, sullied by crossing those forbidden oceans to the distant, unclean worlds beyond, he could not be allowed into the village, lest his presence pollute innocent minds. Young minds like mine: eager for the promise of excitement, adventure and more.

The old man had long passed away, and the harsh realities of life pushed thoughts of distant, forbidden adventures far from my mind, as I grew and matured into a young farmhand, learning from my father the tools and techniques of our most noble of trades, producing food (and money) from the land of our master, the zamindar. Even though I’d never met him, and he knew nothing of my existence, I was loyal to my master, who provided for me and saw that I was fairly rewarded with my share of the fruits of my labour. And so, when the recruiters came to our village, singing songs of riches, glory and opportunity, I too joined my friends in ridiculing their extravagant promises. In our small world, we knew little of the great war building in faraway lands, but we knew that the tales those crazy fools spun had nothing to do with us.

Four months had passed since we’d lost my father to sickness. My mother wept as the zamindar’s men carried on talking to her, but I’d heard nothing more after their first few words, the rest of the conversation drowned out by the singing in my head, so loud was the memory of the recruiters’ songs, which until then, I hadn’t even realised I’d listened to, let alone remembered.

Bharti ho jaa ve
Baahar khade rangroot!
Aethe khaavein sukki hoyi roti
Othe khaavein fruit!
Aethe paavein phate hoye leere
Othe paavein suit!
Aethe paavein tutti hoyi jhutti
Othe paavein boot!

Join up, join up
The recruiters are outside!
Here you’ll eat dried roti
There you’ll eat fruit!
Here you’ll wear torn tatters
There you’ll wear a suit!
Here you’ll wear broken, worn-out shoes
There you’ll wear boots!

The zamindar had not been so oblivious after all. He knew me to be a loyal, hard-working, strong young man, struggling to provide for a mother, two sisters and a new wife. When the recruiters came to him, requesting ‘volunteers’, he knew he could trade me in return for not giving up his own sons. After the men left, my mother spat curses on the zamindar and his family, swearing that she’d never let me go, but she knew we had no choice – earn the displeasure of our master, or have the family comfortably provided for directly by the King-Emperor himself. Besides, that old yearning had started to return from the depths of my conscious, where it had laid buried for so many years, and I again wanted to cross the kaalaa paani and see for myself the lands the old man had told me about as a child. Within days, I was bidding my wife farewell, the taste of her tears as I kissed her cheek reflecting the cocktail of emotions within me: the bitterness of parting and cold fear of the unknown mixing with a bubbling excitement of adventure and the sweet, intoxicating taste of freedom.

I’d been to sea before of course, going fishing in my friends’ boats. But this was wholly different, an entire floating village housed in steel. So many young men from all over India, all with different stories: the woodcutter Mir Ali, enticed by the money, riches and fame; Gobind Singh, a proud Garhwali, who’d recently joined the Army, just like his father and grandfather, and generations beyond; Kartar Singh, a farmer like me, who at the recruiters’ call, had instantly set off to faithfully serve the King-Emperor. Old hands, like Ram Singh, who’d fought in North-West Frontier, Waziristan and elsewhere, recounted war stories, alternately thrilling us with tales of their adventures and terrifying us with accounts of grave horrors. But the long journey took its toll, and we were all glad to finally reach the shores of Europe. As we arrived in Marseilles, we were shocked at the unexpected heroes’ reception: smart ladies with creamy soft, pale skin and the sweet scent of roses, waved to us as we marched past, one running out to hug me, another pinning a flower to Kartar Singh’s chest; pink, bouncing children marched along with us, towels wrapped around their heads as turbans, babbling away to us in their unfamiliar tongue; and sturdy, bearded, red-faced men shook our hands and patted our backs, tears in their eyes.

Marseilles felt like a whole world away, and home was but a memory. The rain wouldn’t stop, the knee-deep water in the trenches soaking through everything, bringing with it a bitter cold that removed all feeling from my feet and made it difficult to keep a safe grip on my rifle. I held each hand in turn in my armpit, and as I did so, I felt for the reassuring hard metal of my bayonet – already, it had saved my life more than once, just the previous day sinking into a young German soldier, no older than me, who’d tried with his troop to storm our position. As he’d fallen, in horror I’d recognised his face and the memory still made me shudder. Just three weeks earlier, against orders, our troop commander, Captain Matthew sahib had laid down his rifle and walked out into No Man’s Land, to meet with the Germans. After some time, he’d called to us to join him, and in a mix of English, broken Hindi and stuttering German, he’d introduced and brought together those who’d spent months trying to kill each other, and would do so again once the day was out. But for those precious few hours, we all shared and celebrated together, exchanging personal trinkets and cigarettes – sahib tried later to explain to us about his festival of ‘Christmas’, but I only cared that for a few moments, I’d laughed and found warmth in the company of others. A deep, gruff voice cut through my reflections, as another soldier arrived to take my place in the trench. I hadn’t eaten or slept since the previous day’s attack, and suddenly realised how much I needed both.

As I walked back to the lines, I saw some of my friends already there. The langris, the cooks, had found some fresh vegetables in a nearby market that day, and had cooked them up to go with our standard diet of dahl, rice, roti, meat and potato. And so we huddled together to share stories, eat, and enjoy the company of the closest friends we’d ever know, and as we talked and ate, we forgot all about the cutting rain, the falling bombs and the homesickness, and we planned and bragged of the bravery and victories the following day would bring, until we honestly believed that our small troop would bring down the entire German Army, single-handedly winning the war for the King-Emperor.

I didn’t plan to be a superhero, but just in that moment, sat around a campfire, in pouring rain, with a bunch of men just like me yet each so completely different, I truly felt like one.

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

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

Our Reviewer – Lynda Tavakoli

Lynda Tavakoli copy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

FRUIT AND NUT

By Nilanjana Bose

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

Forward.

Back.

Forward.

Back.

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What happened, dadabhai?”

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

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

– End –

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

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

A RHYME AND A REASON

By Rohini Sunderam

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

****

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

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

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

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

“His name?” Ray prompted.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

****

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

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

Poor little Donny whimpered as he said,

“One, two, free, four, five.

Onth I caught a fith alive.

Thix, Theven, eight, nine, ten.

Then I let it go again.

Why did you let it go?

Because it bit my finger tho.

Which finger did it bite?

This little finger on my righth.”

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

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

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

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

– End –

CLOCK DOWN

By Vijay Boloor 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“But what happened to Misha?” Mariam interrupted.

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

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

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

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

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

II

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“When did this happen” queried Speedy.

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

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

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

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

Yeah everybody remembered Mickey’s brother in law Zack.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Down! Down!” Chorused the mice gang.

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

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

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

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

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

“Right boss” squeaked Tiny…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hickory Dickory Dock

The mouse ran up the clock

The clock struck one

And the mouse came down

 Hickory dickory dock.

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

And

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

Hickory Dickory Dock

The Rocky ran up the clock

The Mice struck one

And the Clock crashed down

 Hickory Dickory dock.

– End –

9D7A2263Esther Newton

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

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

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

and her blog here

https://esthernewtonblog.wordpress.com

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

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

The January Challenge

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

Here are the prompts:

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

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

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

And here are the stories in no particular order.

The Room

By Glen Stansfield

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Tanya? What the…?”

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

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

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

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

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

“John…I…”

“Me too.”

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

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

– End –

Harold Remembers

By Rohini Sunderam

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

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

My parents and I have been incommunicado ever since.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

One more push on the door.

My back cracked, but I held on.

James fired again. The rioters turned back.

Arabella keeps me in her bedroom now.

She has a new recliner in the lounge.

– End –

Harold meets a stranger

By Nilanjana Bose

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

– End –

The Habit

By Noor AlNoaimi

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Perhaps there was a story there, indeed.

  • – END-

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 —

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!

inthegrowler

J. H. Bográn

Our judge for the fifth writing challenge of the year was born and raised in Honduras and is the son of a journalist. He ironically prefers to write fiction rather than fact. José’s genre of choice is thrillers, but he likes to throw in a twist of romance into the mix. His works include novels and short stories in both English and Spanish. He’s a member of the Short Fiction Writers Guild and the International Thriller Writers where he also serves as the Thriller Roundtable Coordinator and contributor editor their official e-zine The Big Thrill.

His debut novel TREASURE HUNT, which The Celebrity Café hails as an intriguing novel that provides interesting insight of architecture and the life of a fictional thief, has also been selected as the Top Ten in Preditors & Editor’s Reader Poll.

FIREFALL, his second novel, was recently released by Rebel ePublishers and it is slowly, but steadily, earning starred reviews.

Website at: http://www.jhbogran.com

Facebook profile: http://www.facebook.com/jhbogran

Facebook author page: http://on.fb.me/ZJwEq0

Goodreads: http://www.goodreads.com/author/show/4307673.J_H_Bogran

Twitter: @JHBogran

ShortFictionWriters guild link: http://shortfictionwritersguild.wordpress.com/

The Challenge:

You are at the neighborhood garage sale, looking for nothing in particular. Something inside an old, wooden box catches your eye. The old woman who is running the sale comes over to say something about the object. What is it? What did she say and why? The word limit was 2000 words.

José Bogran’s winners for the month are as follows!

“Given the parameters you gave me I made judgement based on the use of the prompt, but also how to the story arc progressed, character development, as well as complication of the plot. I love complicated plots! Here is my list of winners.”

In First Place we have Rebecca Young

The Garage Sale

Being a yard sale queen required dedication. Sara religiously bought the local paper every Thursday afternoon and went through the listings. She could tell based on the classified ads which sales would yield the most treasures. “Estate sale” usually meant a good sale, but was always a bit sad. “Moving sale: Everything must go!” was promising. “Exercise equipment” was a bad sign as was “Men’s and women’s clothing”. These usually meant a depressed “cleaning-out-the-closets” and “giving-up-on-resolutions” affairs. The items would be dated, but not in a vintage way, just an old, shabby way, and prices would probably be too high for used. Everyone thinks their garbage is precious. In a small community, like theirs, all the yard sale devotees got to know each other pretty quickly. The McLaren brothers were always on the lookout for stuff like antique farm implements, old tools, model cars and planes and the rare gems: pedal tractors. The Hernandez family collected good quality baby clothing for an unending slew of expectant relations. “Cat sweater Mary” went for antique canning jars and just about any kind of collectible figurine which she resold on eBay.

Sara didn’t yard sell out of necessity or for the money which could be made reselling items. She, like all yard salers, really, did it for the possibility. Because there was really no telling what you might find. It was like being a treasure hunter, an archeologist.

Sara never had anything in particular she was looking for, but could sift the wheat from the chaff pretty quickly. She knew she had scored some fantastic finds over the years. Like a brand new Kate Spade bag for $10, an antique pedestal gumball machine, tin lunchboxes and nice clothes to outfit her whole family.

But Sara’s kryptonite was worthless sentimental memorabilia. The other professional yard salers shook their heads as they saw her snatch up photo album after photo album. Why would anyone want another family’s snapshots from “Thanksgiving, 1974” when even the subjects of the photos didn’t want them? Sara’s husband, Mike, also thought it was bizarre, but thought it might stem from Sara having no family of her own to speak of. After pouring over each new treasure for a day or two, Sara put these items in her craft room, on a shelf, where they sat. Armed with her map in the passenger’s seat, Sara set off. She was on her way to her second sale of the day, the first being a total bust, when she spotted the Holy Grail: the unadvertised yard sale. She signaled, pulled over and parked. Sara took a minute to scope it out from the car. It looked promising. She vaguely knew the seller, Mrs. Graham, an active older woman with a beautifully kept yard.

Sara strolled over, waving to Mrs. Graham. She walked slowly by the sheets and card tables set out on the lawn, gazing over the items. Mostly junk. Bowling shoes, a set of snow tires, ancient Tupperware, out-of-date clothes, a rowing machine, quilting frames and batting, crystal candy dishes, cheap figurines, As-Seen-On-TV gadgets and a box of crime thrillers and Harliquin romance novels. Sara did pick up a pack of 10 embossed Thank You cards that were marked 25 cents. She moved towards the garage. Mrs. Graham sat behind another card table, set right inside the garage door. A few more tables and some built in counters in the garage were covered with items tagged for sale.

“Nice to see you. Please take a look,” invited the old woman.

“Thank you. Has business been good?”

“You’re my first customer of the day,” said Mrs. Graham.

Sara wandered into the garage. In her experience, sellers kept their most valuable items close by or tucked away, so chances were good there were some treasures here. Lots of tools. They looked to be good quality. If she ran into them later, Sara would tip off the McLarens. There was an ancient chest freezer, an army tent, some Christmas décor and a trove of old Avon perfume bottles.

Then Sara spotted an art deco style Lane cedar chest. It was grimy, but could look gorgeous cleaned up. “Do you have a key for the chest?” she asked Mrs. Graham, who was watching Sara idly.

“No, but I think if you just press the lock in and lift up, it will open. It was my cousin Rose’s. She left it to me when she passed away a few years ago, but I have one just like it. Our grandfather bought them for us before we got married.”

“Could I take a look inside?”

“Why sure, I suppose,” said Mrs. Graham. “I can’t remember what is in there.” The older woman turned her chair to better view the proceedings.

Sara pushed in the lock, which resisted at first, but then she felt it give way. Her heart was pounding as she pried the heavy lid up. The trunk had a green felt lined insert with some old letters. There were some brown dried roses that looked like they would turn to dust if touched. Below the insert was a quilt, handmade, but ordinary. Sara lifted the quilt up gingerly. From underneath, a doll winked up at her. “Lo-lo!” Sara breathed.

The doll was beautiful, about 18 inches, porcelain face, arms and feet in a cloth body. She had silky dark brown hair, sparkling brown eyes and dimples. She wore a beautiful pink dress, bloomers peaking out underneath, white stockings and soft kid-leather shoes.

The doll was remarkable, but the most remarkable part was that Sara knew her instantly. She looked back in the trunk, searching for the white and pink trimmed hat she knew she would find. And there it was. “Just an old quilt and the doll?” asked Mrs. Graham.

“Yes. Oh and some letters too,” Sara turned, holding the doll. “It’s funny, I remember playing with a doll just like this when I was younger. But I don’t think she was mine.”

Mrs. Graham smiled. “I remember when Rose got that doll. It was for her eighth birthday I think. I thought she was so spoiled. I suppose her daughter must have played with her; that is probably when she got damaged. Claire never was very careful.”

Chills ran up and down Sara’s spine. She looked down at the doll, knowing she would see the right thumb was missing. “Her daughter’s name was Claire you said? Do you have a picture of Claire or your cousin?” Sara asked.

“Why, I guess so. Can you hold down the fort for a minute?” Mrs. Graham asked.

“Yes,” said Sara, looking up to note that there was one other customer now. An older man, who was intently reading the back cover of one of the romance novels. Mrs. Graham returned shortly with a cream colored album. She sat back down and started flipping through the pages. “I think this is the right one. Hmm. Here is one with Rose, but it isn’t very good. Oh, here we are.”

Sara looked and there was a faded shot of a woman and a teenage girl. She thought the woman could be a slightly older or more care-worn version of herself. They had the same nose, the same eyes. The teenage girl was beautiful, with long, thick hair and high cheekbones, but she looked unhappy.

“Is that Claire?” asked Sara, pointing to the girl.

“Yes, she must have been about fifteen or sixteen then. Right before she ran away from home.”

“She ran away? Did she ever come back?” asked Sara.

“She would turn up every few years. I think she had a child, but I can’t remember if it was a girl or boy even. It broke Rose’s heart. She’d show up for a week, and then be gone for a few years. Then eventually she disappeared for good. Rose always hoped Claire would come back one last time but I don’t think she ever did.”

“I know this is going to sound crazy, but I think Claire might be my mother. I was left in a park when I was five years old, but I have memories of playing with a doll just like this. I called her Lo-lo. Same missing thumbs.”

Mrs. Graham turned pale. The album in her hands trembled slightly. “My cousin called her doll Lola.” She studied Sara. “You do look like her. Rose, not Claire.”

“Could it be possible?” asked Sara, cradling the doll. “Yes,” said Mrs. Graham. “It could be. Please, sit down and we’ll chat.”

In Second Place: Simi Kamboj

A Bohemian Tale

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

In Third Place: Adnan Al-Baroudi

The Fate of Hikori

Middle aged, tall and stubble bearded Nathan traced the footpath along a set of detached houses. His forbearing eyes fell upon a small crowd mingling around plastic tables, shoddy stalls and strewn appliances; the garage sale his fellow anthropologists directed him to.

“Good morning.” Nathan softly spoke in a voice gruff and jittery. The stout, chubby cheeked old woman of East Asian descent in a flowery patterned white shirt and comfortable white knee-length shorts shifted her gaze up to the man towering over her. “I’m looking for any old valuable items you might have, family relics preferably.”

And then, it caught his eye. He knew he would have a very small window of time to go through all her packed boxes aligned in the back of the garage, but Nathan was a man accustomed to trusting his guts, and his guts told him there had to be some answers residing back there.

If Nathan ever had to make a career as a household thief, he wouldn’t get far as an organized one. The loud rips continued to echo inside the garage followed by violent clangs and noisy shuffles while he hastily sorted through regular household assortments. Eventually pupils widened excitedly. Rolled beneath old dusty blankets were a set of rugged scrolls.

Nathan, breathing heavily and wrestling with his nerves, kept the scrolls concealed as he crept into her traditionally decorated house. He found the small dimly lit toilet room and as slowly and gently as he could, he began to roll open the first scroll.

He nervously cleared his throat, stole a quick glance through the small crack in the door and proceeded to study the manuscript. The oil colors and dried ink was as fresh and preserved as though it was penned yesterday, drafted neatly with careful and affectionate attention. It was an outline of a middle aged Japanese man, bearing the confident eyes of a sophisticated gentleman in that period, with a solid brow and stern features. He bore a traditional Japanese goatee, greyed with age, as was his brushed back shoulder length hair. The portrait also contained a print on the corner that read: The ambassador of his lord, The Shogun, 1867.

Another scroll also penned by the same ink and familiar brush strokes contained a dazzlingly detailed portrait of a woman. Her young features wore a subtle smirk, and her brow was cynically uplifted accentuating the penetrating gaze of her eyes. She brushed her black hair back and tied it into a flowery bun, locked in place with a golden ornament of a bird of prey. The high collar of her garment was silk and colorful. The artist spent an obsessively long time on her character. This one had a rather significant print on it that read: The Queen, 1867.

He then unrolled the final and more ornate scroll and recognized the ink used that matched that of all the sketches he’d seen. The hand writing was cultured and stylish. It was undoubtedly that of a talented artist. Nathan began to read the words contained.

It is with a heavy heart my lord that I must convey to you this letter. I am afraid there is no soaring swallow that may sweeten this song. I will not be returning to Kyoto. The terrors I have witnessed bestowed upon the people of this land are beyond anything I have seen conceivable by a natural being of this world. The lush grass and hanging orchids here presents the onlooker with an evergreen spring, but behind the veil resides an outrageous demon. And I am now a prisoner of said demon.

My lord, I carried out my mission as instructed. The rumors were true. It is as we feared. The Hikori Clan has been wiped out. I took the opportunity upon my arrival to speak with the inn keepers and villagers, and although they indulged some of my questions I could not get all the answers. Harbored beneath their tired eyes and polite smiles I sensed a mystery untold. I also felt that I was being watched, assessed. My entire presence there felt rehearsed. I was directed to places subliminally from the moment I arrived. I cannot describe the feeling. It is as if I had walked on to a Nogaku stage and a spirit had been sitting over my shoulders manipulating the entire play.

I did however manage to piece together parts of this intricate puzzle surrounding this self-proclaimed queen and the disappearance of Hikori Nagatomo and his family. It began with an orphaned girl at an early age; adopted into the ruling clan. She was tended and loved by The Daemyo. The noble warlord ensured she got the best education, the most grueling of martial training and to witness firsthand his day to day handling of affairs. It is a curious thing. This ruler had already many a sons and daughters, and yet it was as though she had taken center stage in his life.

One morning many years later the people of this town woke up to discover that the ruling family had been murdered in their sleep, save one; the frail and sickly uncle of The Daemyo. Typically that would have meant he was the inherent ruler, however, that is not how it went. In a public statement only hours after the incident he transferred clan rule over to the adopted sixteen year old girl. She was to inherit the land, the palace and the loyalty of every Samurai in the land.

No one questioned the order; all quietly obeyed.

And so, as swift as a crisp cold wind beneath a shadow swept moon her reign of terror fell upon the people. She proclaimed herself queen and established a legion of Royal Guards, mighty masked warriors who adored her and have dedicated their lives to protect her until their very last breath. No one is allowed to see her except a select few women who form her personal aide and council, even the general of her army visits only on rare occasions.

The fate of the Daemyo’s uncle remains a mystery. Some say he too was murdered shortly after, others say he became her prisoner. Personally, I like to believe he was wise enough to leave.

I was finally granted an audience with her majesty and presented myself to her as an envoy along with Captain Pierre, a foreign veteran and part of the French Military Mission to Japan. However, I felt early on that she saw through our disguises. I have never met a more fascinating woman. The brief conversation we shared reflected a lot of intelligence. She wore a soft smile under a ridiculing gaze, and harbored an assertive voice behind a veil of politeness. And yet, beneath her calculating watch and beauty there was a brewing storm inside. In her eyes I could see the notions of madness. Their unmistakable attempt to tidy her appearance failed to conceal the loose locks of hair and the account of sleepless nights under her pupils. Despite all that however, I had no hold on the direction of our talks. I know my lord that I was sent to evaluate her… spy on her, but I couldn’t help but get the feeling that she was evaluating us. There was no deterring the notion that she is not a woman to be trifled with. She was quick to turn our ‘intelligent conversations’ into a terrible mind game. I began to discover that my thoughts were being manipulated. She was gradually transforming me into one of her subjects. My every attempt to get any information from her turned against me. A fish caught in a current my lord is doomed to embrace the waterfall. And hers is a mighty current indeed.

Heed this warning, my lord. Japan is facing a threat like none the world has ever seen. We should never cross the queen. If it is access through her territory we seek, we should pay any tributes she requires. If we can avoid it then we must do at all costs, lest we instill her wrath and lead to our ruin. This realm is lost. It is too late for me.

Two eyes in the long grass; the light buried in darkness; the fate of a land vanished.

“You’ve been hiding all this time.” Nathan confronted the stout old woman in her doorway. Her chubby wrinkled cheeks tilted timidly into a smile.

“Is’a long story, ye’a?” With her slanting eyes on him the smile gently faded, “Ve’y long ago, is’a bad hist’ery.”

“How much do you know?” Nathan persisted as she journeyed back into her tea room. “Where is she buried? Where is her palace?”

“Angry man take a tea.” She mumbled. “Still the mind, eas’a the soul.”

“Hikori.”

This time she paused, then slowly turned to face him.

“Your great ancestor was the uncle to The Daemyo, wasn’t he?”

“Hai.” She whispered with a solemn nod. Finally, he would get his answers.

How can I, who have seen so many summers, sunsets and sunrises, laughter and tears pick one memory from my kaleidoscopic life to write about? I pick one and the kaleidoscope turns bringing together different shards of glass, creating a new memory altogether, not the one I first sat down to write about. But I must hold this magical mutability still or else it will all break down and like this “too solid flesh may melt and thaw and resolve itself into a dew.”

So, abandoning Mr. Shakespeare, I address this daunting task of sifting through a life of chaff to find some seeds to share, to plant and hopefully to grow. Forgive me, if every now and then the kaleidoscope takes over and we go haring off down a path an uncooperative neuron may choose to chase because a word, a change in the light, or a forgotten taste awakens yet another memory.

Well then, here goes: Me sitting with a freshly sharpened pencil in my hands, a clean half white half red eraser on the table next to me and in front of me the empty, open page of my exercise book. The task – homework. Fortunately for me, it’s English homework and the pleasant assignment is to describe a rainy day. Now, I love the rain. Not an insipid drizzle but a good thundering monsoon rain. Angry black clouds clashing their heavenly cymbals with a chorus of smaller kettledrums setting up a regular percussion, interspersed with brilliant flashes of lightning. But this is April in Delhi, north India where the heat is setting up a practice run for some serious scorching yet to come in May and June. So it’s pretty hard to get in the mood to describe a rainy day. At the time I was eleven years old and didn’t have as many memories as I do today to draw on. So, in order to recreate the image I set my chin on my hands to imagine this wonderful scene.

I close my eyes and picture the coming of the storm. In my mind’s eye I can feel the little wisps of wind as they carry the message to the tops of the trees. Next I see the gradual darkening of the sky, the strange other-worldly light that portends this grand theatre of the heavens. I can actually see that first enormous flash of lightning as it rips the curtain of clouds with its brilliant white sword to announce the arrival in all its majesty and God-like grandeur, the hero of the show: Thunder. I can almost hear this amazing loud noise and in the sweltering heat of an April afternoon in Delhi I shiver until I actually feel a resounding clap on my back. This is all too real and I shake my head as I awaken from this daydream.

What greets me is some real thunder. My mother, who at that moment appeared to me as a screaming banshee. Wild eyes. Flaming tongue. “You’ve been sitting here for half an hour supposedly doing your homework and you haven’t written a word!”

I look down and sure enough, there it is, that pristine sheet of paper in my exercise book, untouched, unmarked. It is then that the page shows its first few drops of rain – my tears.

September 2017
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