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This was quite a challenge in and of itself!

The prompts were interesting, but the entries were few. One reviewer agreed to review the entries and fell sick. Eventually the lovely Joy Lennick came to our rescue and all our entrants have received her feedback and are very grateful for it. Thank you Joy…

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Joy Lennick

“Born in Essex at an early age…evacuated three times during World War 11. Separation from  parents (to Wales) was softened by reading Hans Christian Anderson and The Brothers Grimm stories, etc., by candle-light. The reading bug encouraged writing…Happily married 64 years; three great sons. Retired to Spain 17 years.
Writing-wise: I’m an eclectic writer – keep a diary and have written many poems and short stories (several published in various anthologies); ran a poetry group in the UK and had ‘Celtic Cameos and other poems’ published. Won the lst International Short Story Competition in 2005 in Torrevieja, Spain. (My first two factual books were published by Kogan Page Ltd., of London in 1984/5) There was a wide gap while husband and I ran a few businesses and brought up the lads. Had ‘My Gentle War’ – a memoir – published by WordPlay Publishing; re-published by QGS Publishing last year. Wrote ‘Hurricane Halsey’ from the log books of an epileptic seaman adventurer; then ‘The Catalyst’ – my only novel – based on an actual terrorist train bombing in  London in 2005. Last year, I adapted a book for a friend: written by his grandfather Frederick Knight.’From the Prairie to Passchendaele.’ One of 12 children, born in the late 1800’s he migrated from Kent, UK to Canada, aged 17, became a farmer, before the First World War claimed him. He was nearly killed and lost his right arm. He retrained and prospered; returning to the UK. Suffering from Parkinson’s disease, aged 83, he typed the m/s of his book with a head device. A brave man indeed! Last year I also edited and typed my husband’s memoir ‘A Life Worth Living’ and am about to have ‘The Moon is Wearing a Tutu’ published by QGS Publishing. It’s a modest, (hopefully) humorous collection of silly poems, limericks and jokes (many by my husband) perfect (?!) as Christmas stocking fillers…..I Chair the writing group ‘Writers’ Ink.’
Books available from Amazon, Kindle and CreateSpace and a few lesser known sites. My website address is: https://www.joylennick.wordpress.com/
Her books include:The Catalyst  and My Gentle War, among others tha can be found on her website.
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The prompts:
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Prompt 1 – Where do you live in this picture, and why don’t you want to live on the other side of the water?

Prompt 2 – Write a story about a place where the landscape changes daily.

Prompt 3 – “It’s what I do in the middle of the night.”

In Wonderland

by Shalini Vaghjee

Prompt 2 – Write a story about a place where the landscape changes daily.

The big day finally arrived, that day which all little girls dream of: when their charming prince will take them to their dream world. Finally, after a few days of great celebrations, we were married. And as the culture or law or ritual would want it, I had to leave my parents house to start a new life in my husband’s mansion which was quite far in the countryside. As we drove, I felt apprehensive; I don’t know if I was ready for this new life. I felt homesick. How will I cope in this strange house, with strange people? My heart pounded as these thoughts rushed through my brain.

I was lost in my mind when the driver stopped the car and said: “here you are! Enjoy your new place and your new life” I lifted my eyes and to my utter surprise, in front of us was a rather old wooden house which I often dreamt as a child, or maybe I had seen in movies. I hurried outside to breathe in the summer air and the sound of birds as well as the tinkling of wind chimes nearly took my breath away. I felt a new gush of excitement rushing through my veins. It was nearly dawn and we unpacked only a few important stuffs. We were so exhausted after many days of wedding arrangements and celebrations that we were off to bed. But now with mixed feelings…

After only a few minutes, which actually were a few hours, I woke up by the sound of water dripping. Oh, another broken tap, I thought! And then I realized, oh this is a new house, so I need to look for the taps. I started my search: on the first floor bathroom and sink: no broken tap. Then I came downstairs: in the kitchen, bathroom and every possible corner, I looked for the sound of water dripping. In vain, I went outside. Using a torch to see where the soil would be wet, I searched and searched. Now, that was a huge garden… And suddenly, I heard the sound becoming louder and louder… Got it! I thought… And I moved in that direction. But the sound seemed further away… I stopped and looked up. The view was breathtaking… The full moon was glowing with its millions rays, illuminating the whole garden and there the sound was… A white waterfall! I was stunned… I don’t know how long I stood there but I finally went into my room… And opening the curtains, I was delighted that my room faced this awesome view and as I watched it again, I dozed off…

As I woke up the next morning, I smiled at the magnificent view of the night’s eve and wished for a bright sunrise near the waterfall. To my amusement, in front of my eyes, extended an array of lush green trees – ebony, bamboo and even fruit trees like mango and litchi. It was a leafy paradise.  My ears perked up at the whistling sound of the bamboo leaves. These trees lined the banks of a magnificent river whose water sparkled with the first rays of sunshine. Then, suddenly the sky was overcast, and at times it drizzled making the paths muddy. A large crowd had gathered under an old banyan tree, and a few people were singing. These occasional drizzles created puddles of water in places… I tried to listen to what they were singing… It was such a sweet melodious music and I dozed off with this divine music…

Waking up, I tried to listen again to that music… But to my surprise, I found a huge white canvas as if waiting for the artist’s colors. I felt a sudden chill inside my bones and this is when I realized that huge snowy mountains were erected in front of my window… A gentle hush cloaked the land and the empty skies were silent. I turned around and saw the fire glazing in my room. As my body shivered, the radiant light of the fire warmed me up. It was a ghostly cold night and I did not want it anymore. By now, I knew that the moment I close my eyes, I will be further surprised.

Why not? My prince charming had brought me to an enchanting world. He knew that was what I always wanted. I was thrilled about it now. And to my delight, there lay in front of my eyes the most stunning view I could ever imagine.  A strange and densely forested form of volcanic mountains over which run clear streams of sweet water was surrounded by dazzling white sand beaches, a spectacular coral reef and sparkling turquoise water. The coral reef enclosed a turquoise lagoon which was busy with people snorkeling and enjoying other water sports. On the white sand beaches, palm and fir trees stood majestically. Throughout the island were sugar-cane fields with their silvery-purple plumed tops waving in the balmy tropical breeze.  Deep blue skies and clean, fresh air were the crowning glories of this little spot of heaven. I opened my lungs and relished such pure fresh air… I knew that I needed it most…

The next morning I woke up with a bright sunrise revealing an intriguing area of sand dunes comprising sand of seven distinct colors (approximately red, brown, violet, green, blue, purple and yellow). It looked ancient, as if, over the years, rains had carved beautiful patterns into the hillside, creating an effect of earthen meringue. At first I noticed shadows on the hills, creating the illusion of different colors, but soon I realized that the colors were real and the shadows were the illusion. I ran my fingers through the colorful sand, trying to mix them. To my amazement, the colors separated from each other as each tried to desperately retain their stubborn personality. These rolling dunes of multi-colored lunar-like landscape were definitely spectacular. As I relished such beauty, I dozed off.

What happened next was even more exhilarating. The sound of waves and water breaking at a coral reef woke me up. I looked out just to be amazed to find myself in the middle of the sea. Oh yes, it was like a chalet in the water. I opened the door and went in the balcony. The bright sun was shining happily and I watched the waves and even saw a few moorish idol swimming just next to me. These beautiful fish with a distinct zebra stripes, yellow fins and tail are believed to bring happiness and I knew that they had come for me… I let myself float away as our house danced on the waves. It was splendid…

That night revealed the most spectacular array of stars in the sky. No telescope was needed and yet, the dark night sky was completely illuminated and bright.

I did not know where we reached but the next thing I saw was a large spread of sand dunes, a few brown shrubs and some camels. We were in a desert and I could feel the wave of scorching heat striking and burning my skin at the same time. I read about deserts at school and today I was experiencing the torrid heat which nomads had lived through. How did they survive? I wondered…. Suddenly I saw myself on the back of a camel and we were riding towards a group of other camels. From the top, I felt my body was roasting but the patience and endurance of the camels overwhelmed me. How could these animals be living in such harsh conditions? No complaining, no irritation, and very patiently they moved. I hugged the camel and whispered in his ears: you are awesome! I even saw a grin on his face…

As I was enjoying the ride, I felt happy to be in this wonderland and I could not wait to witness the next mysterious yet magical landscape. I was finally in my enchanting world, the place called home, the best place ever.

— End–

Nim

by Noor Nass

Prompt 2: Write a story about a place where the landscape changes daily.

She turned her back from the big window at floor sixth. The glass was stained with blue segment. It was XXXX meter high from ground level. She made the penetrated sunset noon from the glass window reflect the last rays of the day. She remained at the floor in an office made from marble fitting. The room had a white ceiling with downlights made by yellow Philips electricity. The dim surrounding reflected from the ground office on floor sixth by the light exposure. It felt like a library after sunset that had so much stories that was archived for each white-collar officer with secrets. Some of these officers would hide it away from the new intern. Including, hiding it from previous secretaries without the Boss. Nim was not that tall, medium height for her country men and women. With long shoulder black hair and yogurt skin. She thought to herself that she has been lost in wonderland for too long. The days would turn into nights and the nights would turn into days. The days would overlap and begin to remind her of what she missed in him. Dust has been what she ate without his presence or even a hint of his shadow. The logic would not come through; the phone calls she conducted for her meetings with her other coworkers would not make sense. A friend of her boss would come talking to her about the accounts that she was always so good at it and so fast with identifying and following up with him. But not this time and not after he left. Elle was very tall came from Persian English descended. He would talk and talk and she tried to hold what he said to her but nothing would come through. She was more in love with Elle’s wife that was from Levant origin. Being in love with him to see love then opening her mouth to something else then love was love by itself. Perhaps that would reflect of Williams sudden take off without goodbye, she thought to herself. For even a phone call he wouldn’t break his finger for NIm – to his very own personalized Coordinator. Could it be? coming to it. Nim stood in that office that afternoon reoccurring all the events and all the conversations. She thought of crossing the bridge for answers to the other side of the second building. She paused for a while wondering to herself that she should cross it or wait for escort to grab her. It was few days before waiting stopped sounding like the word waiting. Perhaps even feeling the weight of the weight but more like a transformation to the things undone. She couldn’t stand doing nothing she was being transferred into this helpless creature that would sound like a zombie more than a woman that was taken. Now, William was tall and slender in physique had no mustache and was white in skin that was well groomed. Her Boss Catherine was a red head with green eyes also very tall but filled with joy. She grabbed the phone after few weeks from the enlightenment that hit her tiny officer Nim in denial. She requested Nim to escort the secretary to her office. Nim spoke to Catherine about the technological advancement that was responded back for the new communication arrangements, the dig of the past. She was transferred with shouts of being a victim but not a lover as she had to travel back with the new arrangements and ignore the fact that she was left at the altar. Who wants to live like a victim Nim wondered that’s not a way of life she would respond with a shout back to Catherine. That’s not my life or my wife, or even a husband. That was not the years that Nim sacrificed in lucid dreams only to be understood by the fact that William can awake it and take off with it. At that instance Catherine wouldn’t handle it anymore. The shouts, the screams of a big brother figure in demand. She needed her to make the decision herself but not before she met RSO. Now RSO was not like any regional security office that placed the lock on the door and cameras near the car park. Instead they wanted that human security of what would happen if they handed Nim weaponry devices for her protection. Catherine thought it was too much for a girl of banking background creating financial analysis for the bilateral relationships in the gulf. But it was necessary to break things down then mend it, if it prevails. She met Sonia. Sonia was about the size of Nim but triple the apetite with daily workouts. She was introduced by Catherine and Michael. Michael looked Roman and not Irish double the size of Sonia but very blonde with white ways. He told her to sit down and get comfortable. Michael walked in the room after four to five minutes of silence after putting Nim on alone in the room. Nim looked at the pitch-black room then she opened her eyes wide and descended to the life of her sinful nature. It seemed to her that room had a jacket suit hanged on the hanger. Black mug with writings on it on the table something even for the usual daily shifts from a sports athlete for security concerns on the premises. to Sonia’s suit for his now and then meetings for briefing on negotiations. Yet he still did not enter the room. Instead, she kept her waiting in thought after the pattern shifted from William to Catherine to Michael. Michael with Sonia entered on Jewish grounded notion, the other one entered with Roman grounded notion. It seems to me that I gave myself to the pathos and ethos and …. of Segments Freud mind set when she saw this. She was shamed and had to hide it with all the wrong things. I had Sonia mesmerized with the fact that Nim was shy from it. Perhaps, that they were in her face about it but very in acceptance. Then she descended more to a world that Michael made at the Base. But without the wife or the trifle. She became white in the face, memorized in love and respected for it. Sonia began with logical questions according to the mass problems. She was helpful in breaking it down to direct contact, then allowing a pause to rejuvenate. The psychological assessment did not halleluiah with the expected results. Neither, did it complements the future, since it was lacking evidence. Including, the science in it. Sonia said nothing but vibrated the prerequisite for some day of tentacles. Nim had no one to testify for her in the name Christ, but only in the name of history that was abandoned. Which, did not shout her name or had a spoken of destiny. Instead of feeling sorry to herself, Catherine thought to Nim. Catherine advice was that Nim should focus on the present that was filled with un-tensed events. But to Nim it seemed like she entered the past to recall the objects capturing each notion to where it belongs from England to the Netherlands. Hoping that her mobster thief would let go. How gorgeous William was but what a mobster by all means that killed the ambiance to the attention of the team’s future. She was a Banker by every dimeter she walked on. It did not compliment Nim at all, because they all left. Sobbing with disgrace after being left at the alter like a runaway bride she couldn’t handle the truth that he couldn’t handle the ducks. if only there was a bridge for Nim and William that the mess of the mass would be the perfection of a respected, white revolution. Sonia could not say more or agree to disagree or agree to agree to disagree. Instead she thought that Nim forgot what was given, before William took off without a word. Sonia though that her very own security presence should be an archive enough to tap into the questions that she dared not to dip in. They were very close to each other to the extinct of sniffing cheese and having meals together. that is what Sonia and Michael really thought. But that was not all of her they added as they shared notes together. When Michael added to the lot of assessment about her network and encounters she mentioned one that got close to her by the name of Shani. Michael asked her what was the nature of the relationship. She remained silent for a while and told him that she can only recall his Evernote applications on PC and cellule. Since it diminished the past and played with Nim in the present. They spoke about all kind of matters of woman empowerment and dignified respect not to mention the financial risks. Michael had enough. Sonia did not disagree. The situation was the ending for the interview in the room. Michael concluded in his assessment that the end of the middle east partnership initiative should take immediate effect and close the books. Psychologically Nim was sent on a thread if not less than a thread back to creation. As she got out of the room for the termination to take immediate effect she went back to search for evidence. She existed the secured door and went outside the room into the square waiting room outside. She walked back to the other side of the building into the office room, she passed the tables of the staff to each of their own world with their own rule. Non of it spoke of William except for his business deals that perished when he left. Nim decided to take things into her hands, touch it, smell it, and sense it. Just to restore what was left of the sliced organ that they call a heart. After searching the office upside down trying to communicate with whatever smelled like him on the table, on the chair, the pens that were not there, the papers that were gone and the phone that began looking like plastic. Nothing would make sense. She went to the very end of the office hallway walking between the diced walls into the slaves’ worship zone. And the explanation would be the non-logical socio desire of nonsense. Whenever Nim would ask, she would get a respond of a gossiped goose instead of the top of the pops magazine for political acceptance. She thought to herself it was a chaotic act, anyways. Nothing would prevail. She asked Sonia and Michael in the small office restaurant at level Seven on a bowel of salad and night of heavy duty weight lifting. obviously of security concerns to terminate the presence of her contract until things clear out. She was unable to identify the presence of William. Let alone surf above her sinful nature to a righteous concern, she was in pain and she had to see why. It was not the wise decision neither was it her but from the language used on her she thought it was enough to complete her Bachelors education with proper social recognition based on personal views. Her conclusion was this that life took its toll of six years in disgrace but she lived it up to the best. Nim was the lonesome knight in denial, a dark ranger for the stand of the sword in a rock without her prince. Dust to dust for life did not blossom with flowers in spring, the days turned to weeks the weeks turned to months the months turned to years and the years forgot it was years and the season turned into quarters and the quarters forgot the days and the days forgot the day. When day turned to the night the night forgot it was late. After all is said the tiger eye watches the red sunrise as Nim said her goodbyes “Farwell her lover, Farwell her friend, you have been the one for her. She was filled in Williams presence, however empty handed but alive in his hands.” Nothing will quench that thirst, and nothing will quench it, either. She left the building pretending he was on foreign grounds.

— End–

“It’s what I do in the middle of the night.”

By Preeti Rana

Between dusk and dawn. It is what I do then.

I can’t return to the day. It held back when the light started to fail. So, I am alone here, in the middle of the night. The darkness is still and unmoving. I have instinct and a fickle moon for direction.

Direction.

Stopping at the textured silhouette of a tree I remember my brother saying all directions were the same. Measured only by association, he had explained.

The Person-I-Love, misquoting Lewis Carroll, had been cruel about my directionless life. If you don’t know where you are going, any road will take you there.

There isn’t really

Anywhere to return

Or somewhere to go still

But nothing here stays

That was all me, to myself.

The day gone, the night stalling, I am restless. It’s a night the rain left soggy. We aren’t meant to be still, he had continued. My brother. He held a ringside view of the cosmos from his café window. At 600 kms per second, nothing is still. I remember him chuckling, looking at the lake he loved. I loved him. He extended my poetry. Drew fine silk from it. Weaved it into code and quantum physics. We say the same thing in different ways he would say in his review. His face creasing into fine lines and a smile. Then the rumble of laughter that shook his shoulders and his chin would lower deeper into the smile. I knew him by heart He did more to my feverish, impatient scribbling than anyone. He placed it in the position of a distant, mysterious star. I was fine with that.

Distance.

I liked distance. Kept it. With everyone. Even reason. Yet here I am in the middle of covering distance. I will consume it till I stand toe to toe. With the Person-I-Love. I seem to have lost the moon. And track of time.

Time.

Time is such a concept. One of our finest notions. So fantastically layered it has become the spine of our existence.

A lifetime without him-the Person-I-Love seems equal to the two years with him. never lived before meeting him. Not this way.

He had made me weary. I changed in a multitude of ways. They seeped into my

being. I see how pain stains. I remember storming into the café and thrusting my latest under my brother’s nose. I was hurting afresh then. And my brother was trying to save me.

Reaching Before time Sometimes I wait For reason To catch up Join my flight It does on occasion Rotates my view Shows me falling From its virtuous height I fly still

in a wondrous Y Pitying Reason’s plight

He had looked up. His full smile meeting my crooked one. My eyes had filled. It happens to the best of us when facing understanding. I had needed to sit down. And some Coffee, please.

Dad died a year after I fell in love. It was unexpected. Not dad dying but the falling. I was in the middle of it. Dad died like a beached whale. I saw life ebb from his eyes. When they flickered towards me, his eyes would glow, telling. No one has ever looked at me like that. Except my brother.

That’s where my father was when I last saw him. At the edge of something. In the middle of something. That’s where we are at death.

I was sent off on an errand. To the next city. Across a sea. He and my brother had conspired. I never saw him without his body that betrayed him.

He left me in the middle. With very little left. Or right. Dad took my childhood with him. It was in his safekeep. It had roots that nourished me.

The second year of loving was all about death. Death of illusions, of myself as I knew myself to be, of love itself. I didn’t meet my brother. He would stop the dying. wanted to die. Rid myself of all these perishable facets to my thinking. I wanted them to die.

But it was my brother who died. He tried to reach me. Then he let me be. Found someone else sitting at his window when I returned. A family of three. The anthology of poems dedicated to him was picked up and kept on the chef’s shelf as I walked away.

I needed the Person-I-love. He too had left without saying goodbye. It felt like I didn’t exist anymore. I loved him beyond reason. I need to reach there.

Love

My brother and I often spoke about it. I said love was a flow of a river. He said it should be placid, deep as an underwater-spring lake. With bulrushes and ducks. He said flow is directional, one way. Yes It was, I argued. What is returned in the name of love is gratitude at best. Love began from snow-capped mountain peaks. Without reason. But it had to be about free will.

Free will

He was always reading or with his audio books. The first volume of Pullman’s His Dark Material lay open at our last conversation. He took off his earphones to listen to me. The sun had tinted the sky pink outside his window. My brother looked a beautiful autumn. He was wearing his old brown sweater with the intricate pattern knitted by his love. He wore it on days he found tough.

I had turned our conversation to his book. It would become about me soon enough. He said it described a world he could visualise.

“Then it’s like yours. You only visualise what you know.” That was me, probing. He said yes. His way was always of gentle agreement. Even when he disagreed.

“That’s proof isn’t it.” I had leaned forward, eagerly. “That we know more than we know. And it’s really about catching up. Not gaining ground. That’s why we can never choose any other way.”

“Our free will is the constant. It releases variables. Every choice, every part played is to the rhythm of our heart. Like the Mandelbrot set!”

Bingo! he had smiled his smile. He taught me what little I knew about fractals.

Every change is a choice he said. Then muttered something to himself. “What was that?” I asked as I gathered my bag, phone, my scattered thoughts and pages. “We can always choose again.”

I wasn’t sure what he meant. As I stared he said, “make that my epitaph, willya.” I never fully understood. He had held my hand in a tight grip, “Let me pass away without significance.”

Significance

I am walking again. It’s the middle of the night. Two men had left me. One chose death and the other a life without me. I haven’t stopped walking since I left the cafe. I have reached his street, The Person-I -Love. His house resembles him in its

silence. All the curtains are drawn. There is a yellow glow in the new room

upstairs. I never visited. He had kept me firmly on my side of the story. I am a doorbell away from ruining the quiet of the house. His family would see anew in the shadow I would cast when the door opens. From across the street under the flickering lamppost I watch his window. I am tired.

My father taps me on my shoulder. Reminds me to submit my work on time. It’s due next week. My brother tells me to choose again. Love. I will cross the street. Destroy him. And then destroy myself.

Time. I will move on. two years can be pressed between pages of my memory. I will live for more.

Distance.

I will cross the street. To the bus stop. The early bus will be here in a while. Take me back to the café. In time for the funeral. I will read out a new poem . In the middle of the night, I choose again.

Death

I am often by the lake. Your café window still holds the bulrushes and ducks. And my reflections. The flow of living and loving settles as always at our table, into a calm. On nocturnal walks to the pond’s edge, some days, I see the bed of stars. So clear and still is the water. There are corals too I imagine, of our pain, fed by sunshine.

Carrying our worlds within worlds within worlds, brother, I continue to write for you.

Telling stories that a moment holds even as we live all those moments for a story.

–End–

 

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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-

The challenge for September, was to create a thriller based in Bahrain with a word count of 800 to 1200 words. We encouraged lots of atmosphere, shadows and whispers, screams and deadly silences and that good old staple – the chase!

Our judge was the well known writer Paul D Brazill. He is the author of the black comedies Guns Of Brixton and Gumshoe, as well as Roman Dalton- Werewolf PI and The Noir World Of Luke Case, a noir romp which takes place in various cities throughout Europe – Warsaw, Madrid, Granada, Toulouse & Cambridge. His stories have been published in various magazines and anthologies, including The Mammoth Book Of Best British Crime 8 and 10 – alongside the likes of Lee Child, Ian Rankin and Neil Gaiman.

Paul’s overall comments were very encouraging. He said, the entries were, “A particularly good selection of stories. All the writers followed the guidelines and used the word count really well. I felt that all the stories would only benefit from being longer.” This is such an endorsement for our writers and as I’ve been saying a unique opportunity to get feedback at this level.

All the entrants received a general overall comment which was both encouraging and helpful.

In First Place we have Rebecca Young

THE STALKER

Congratulations! Rebecca you are a second time winner!

We’re holding the story back as Rebecca is working on it, to hopefully send it in to one of the magazines that Paul has suggested.

In Second Place we have Adnan Al-Baroudi

Congratulations Adnan! This is a first-time entry and you’ve done very well, we look forward to other stories.

THE CHILDREN ARE CRYING

“You must hurry, Markus.” The distant voice called from behind the walls. “The children are crying, and the flood waters continue to rise.”

This voice – this mysterious entity has been speaking to me ever since I entered this god-forsaken tomb. I should’ve stayed at the campsite. I should’ve never come here. I’ve had a terrible feeling about this place ever since I arrived here, and truth be told, I was given warnings aplenty, but the strange invitation letter from my old friend Commodore Theodore Barnabus, who was extremely adamant on inviting me here without giving away any details about the purpose of the invitation intrigued me.

There was something else beyond natural that was residing beneath the earth that they were beginning to discover, and they seemed quite convinced that it was behind a series of unfortunate episodes that had put a kink into some of their operations. Theodore explained that the colonists did not want to openly admit it, but he could read the concerned looks they quietly exchanged with each other and understood as well as they did that they must have stirred a dormant evil. I was only an archeologist and doctor of human psychology, so why else invite me?

This was supposed to be a brief visit. My study was supposed to proceed back in my mansion in Luxembourg. The only instruments I brought with me was equipment to measure small samples of rock and soil, a recorder, a dated map of the island and some assorted reads about the history and relevant commentary on this region. However, the exit is sealed. I am now isolated from my camp inside the earthly caverns beneath the soil and all I’m left with is my journal and this useless lantern that doesn’t illuminate anything but my trembling hand. The air here is dank, and I’m reminded of the scent of death everywhere I turn. There are carvings down here in an ancient hieroglyphic language I do not recognize, and chillingly detailed symbols too graphic for me to describe. Whatever made these was a sinister being, and I am left to wonder if the voice speaking to me somehow bares some answers to a lot of these … inscribed memories.

There is a history here lying dormant. I’ve seen my fair share of paranormal activities in the past. The caves of North Africa come to mind; the forests of Manchuria, and that one incident in the Southern Islands of Indonesia – but this place feels completely different.

I did some of my investigation as soon as I arrived on the shores of Manama. The fort construction was proceeding on schedule, and other than the occasional dissent everything was progressing with absolute normalcy. That was until one night when the tide moved in a little closer than people had anticipated, and with it an ancient stone seal beneath the sand collapsed only  a few miles from the fort’s location, what nobody realized was that the doorway behind this seal belonged to a large burial mound that had been buried beneath the sand for over four thousand years. No one had noticed it before. No one cared to ask. No one dared to approach it, and so it was ignored.

Until some weeks went by and night fell over the labor camps near the construction site people reported a loud and terrifying scream. The scream sounded like a child. And this was strange, because there are no children in the camp. The next morning a labor worker went missing.

This cycle repeated itself every single day afterwards, while other accidents began to arise. One incident saw three laborers dead of dreadful incinerations following a fire the night before. In another incident two soldiers were found drowned off shore with their feet chained to a heavy weight, once again there was no explanation for it. Work was getting disrupted due to what people described were strange ghost sightings, and it wasn’t long before things began to turn very sour. These sightings escalated to the point when laborers reported a gunshot, and the soldier in question was found the next morning huddling in a corner and quivering in terror over the limp corpse of his comrade. When asked what had happened he offered no sensible explanation.

The soldier was executed, as per protocol, but I was finally allowed to view the reports and was chilled at what he described. He simply said: “I did it for the children. He needed me to save the children.” And when asked who was ‘he’ the soldier only said: “A voice.”

Command eventually had to issue strict orders to restore some measure of order, among them were that there would be no mention of ghosts, and any such mention would result in harsh punishment. This of course did little to perturb chaos, because the very same day those orders were barked out almost twenty laborers that night had suffocated in their beds.

I’m left to wonder if perhaps it was this same voice the soldier mentioned that was accompanying me through these dark tunnels. He had a sound that I could only describe as alarmingly mechanical, and lacking any morsel of remorse, and yet there was an urgent weight to his tone. Each time he called me by name I felt as though I was listening to an old friend, as though he was expecting me.

I had barely slept the first night in the small camp I established beside the burial mounds before I heard the scream of a small child. I woke to feel the familiar crawls prickling up my spine and recognized that there would be no sleep tonight. Gathering what courage I could muster, I stepped out from my camp armed only with a lantern. In the silent approach to the burial mound my boots crunched over the sand and the distant sea crashed against the shore.

“You should hurry, Markus,” the voice invited me. “The children are crying.”

In Third Place we have Maeve Skinner

Congratulations Maeve! This is a first-time entry and you’ve done very well, we look forward to other stories.

MISSING

Ben was playing hide and seek in the food aisles of Al Osra.

I was in a hurry. ‘Bennnn, Mummy has to go – now,’ I called again.

Still no sign of his little body racing to hurl himself against my legs. The assistants hadn’t seen him for a few moments. My frustration replaced by a flutter of realization. He wasn’t in the shop. Glanced towards the car park and saw him. He held the hand of a woman I’d never seen before, walking away from the store.

‘What are you doing with my son!’ I shouted at the stranger and swept Ben into my arms. ‘Buwds’, he pointed towards the aviary.

‘Where were you taking him?’ I shouted at the stranger.

‘What’s the problem,’ she looked surprised.  ‘I was leaving the store when this beautiful boy appeared at my side. He pointed outside, I assumed he was following his mother. He pulled me towards the aviary. Why did you leave your son to wander off alone?’

I glared. Embarrassed. ‘I apologize. Thank you for looking after my son.’ I turned to leave.

She peered closely. ‘Are you Ruth Martin?’

‘Yes. But we haven’t met…’

‘We have. Almost three years ago when our babies were born in Awali Hospital. I’m Anna McCann. Don’t you remember me? We were in the same antenatal class but we moved to Dubai shortly after.’

‘No, I’m sorry.’ I studied her. Nondescript features, doughy complexion, tired eyes and lank, loose hair.

‘So many of that group left Bahrain after you’d had your babies. What did you have?

‘A boy, his name was Anthony.’

Was! The word hung between us. The look in her eye was disturbing.

‘He died a year ago, on his second birthday. He would have been three on 22nd.  Like Ben.’

‘I’m so sorry…’

‘It’s alright.  I go through this more times than you can imagine. I usually deny having a child. But when Ben appeared ….’

Fortunately Ben chose that moment to break the tension.  ‘Go car, Mummy,’ he tugged my arm. His face flushed with heat.

‘Sorry Anna, I have to go.’ Damn. My third Sorry to this disturbing woman.

‘We must meet up. We’ve recently moved to Amwaj and I don’t know many people. Give me your number and I’ll give you a missed call. Perhaps we could meet for coffee.’

Reluctantly I reeled off my number, tempted to give a wrong digit but Amwaj was too small. I’d bump into her anyway.

I put Ben into his baby seat and reversed out.  Anna stood unmoving, watching us. I waved. She didn’t wave back.

The first call came three days later. ‘Please come to tea and biscuits with Ben.’  Against my will I agreed. I felt sorry for her. Guilt I suppose.

Anna lived in Zawia 1, overlooking the Lagoon.

‘This is Anthony’s room. I’ve kept it as it would be, if he was alive.’

My blood ran cold as she showed me the car shaped bed. Bookshelves filled with neatly stacked books and games. A child’s desk and chair. A cupboard filled with clothes to fit Ben’s size. She must have brought all this stuff recently.

‘I cant accept that he’s gone,’ she explained. ‘An accident in a building site. He wandered off and entered an empty building and fell down a lift shaft.’

Too terrible to contemplate.  Anna had a breakdown and was still under medication.

Anna continued to find excuses to meet . I agreed, even inviting her to our house on Tala.  Her sadness hung like a shroud fuelling my unwarranted guilt.  She clung to Ben, tempting him with gifts from Anthony’s hoard. He wriggled away, guided by a sixth sense.

Anna became my Stalker: At the supermarket. Out walking. On the beach. ‘Just passing by.’

Things reached a climax. One day I returned to the house and found her in Ben’s bedroom. Sitting on his bed reading from one of ‘Anthony’s’ books.

‘What are you doing here?’ I yelled hysterically.

‘I rang the doorbell but no answer.  Saw Ben crying at the window. I pushed the door and Darling Ben let me in. He handed me one of Anthony’s books – how could I refuse?’

‘That’s a lie!’ I shouted. I called for Carmel, my housegirl. ‘Did you hear the doorbell. Did you let this woman in?’

‘No Ma’am. I was outside hanging washing, door not locked. I didn’t see lady.’

I was furious. ‘Ben doesn’t like anyone to read to him except for John and me.’

‘Perhaps he likes my voice,’ she said unsmiling. ‘Anthony loved me reading to him. I’ve brought more of his books for Ben. He was really enjoying this story, weren’t you my darling.’ A shiver ran up my spine as she cuddled my son and kissed his head.

‘Get out. Don’t ever come into my house again.’ Quick as a flash, Anna gave Ben another kiss. I’ll see you again,’ she whispered and left.

What happened to Anthony? I checked the web for Emirati newspapers of a year ago. There it was.  Mystery of English toddler found dead on building site.  Workmen had seen a woman and child on a balcony. The child standing on the edge. The woman seemed to reach for him but he fell to his death.  She was arrested but released into psychiatric care. An icy hand clutched my heart.

The day before Ben’s 3rd birthday I had a splitting headache. I dozed in bed, Ben playing in his room nearby. Carmel ironing in the kitchen. I heard Ben giggle. Smiled to myself; such a happy child.  Then silence. Too quiet. I jumped up;  Ben’s room was empty.

‘Where is he Carmel?’

‘Didn’t see him Ma’am.’

Heard shouting from crowd gathered at building site across wasteground. Yelling and pointing upwards. Small figure standing in open lift, six floors up. It was Ben. ‘How did he get there?’  Then I saw Anna behind him.

My winged feet raced across the sand. I screamed helplessly.  The foreman assessed the situation. Sent a group up the stairs, stationing one at each floor where the lift stopped.  The crane driver dispatched a worker to perch on the end of the wire and slowly manoeuvred it to swing towards the lift.

‘Mummeee, Mummeee,’ Ben crying for me. Heartbroken, I stood frozen and helpless.  Watched in horror as Anna, arm outstretched, stepped nearer to Ben. As she closed in, Ben stepped forward, towards the edge.

‘Come to me!’ Anna’s shriek floated down.  She pressed a button and the lift shook and moved higher. A collective roar rose from the crowd.

‘He’s mine,’ her screams echoed around the empty building. The cab driver re-positioned his crane. The wire now hung close to Ben. His fearful cries tore me to shreds.  A young man stood up on his precarious perch. His arm swept out and grabbed my son to safety.

An inhuman howl of anguish rent the air:  ‘Anthony why didn’t you come to me when I called,’ Anna screeched as her body spiralled down to her death.

November 2017
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