In The Bleak Midwinter

(I am afraid this little story may feature the same Janice who hurled a number of jelly trifles at the music mistress in ‘Might As Well Be Hung For A Sheep’)

This story doesn’t take place in Midwinter, bleak or otherwise. Imagine late May and a long time ago. All will become clear.

She is at school. Whatever the type of gym – hockey, netball, tennis, athletics – all those torments – they get changed in the same cloakroom, in an ancient and mostly forgotten area of the school called Crimea because Florence Nightingale once nursed soldiers there, according to the headmistress. The paint is chipped and the floors are dampish concrete; the lighting isn’t up to much, the windows are high and small. All around the room are wooden benches, for sitting on whilst doing up plimsolls, and above the benches, coat hooks. The cloakroom smells of sweat, menstruation and those sticky-sweet roll-on deodorants girls favoured in the sixties.

She has forgotten her gym bag and so she can’t do gym, which means that Miss Potter will punish her. In fact, it is her mother who has forgotten it. The bag would normally by the front door, containing a pale blue ironed gym shirt, darker blue skirt-shorts, socks and plimsolls, but her mother is working up to, or possibly spiralling down from, one of her nervous breakdowns.

She is a good girl, or at least a fearful one. Her father has shouted, slapped, walloped and goaded into her a fear of all authority figures. Miss Potter is teensy-tiny whereas Janice is tall, like the shouting, slapping and walloping father – but she fears Miss Potter, who is grizzle-haired, gruffly-spoken and probably a lesbian. Miss Potter will take it as read that any gym bag forgotten had been forgotten on purpose, especially if the girl in question hates all sports, which Miss Potter knows to be the case here.

Her punishment this time is to be an unusual one. Quite often punishments involve walking round and round the sports field, still in your uniform, whilst the others are playing. You just walk round, and round for fifty minutes or so, and Potter keeps her eye on you. Another of her duties is to be in charge of the sick room and this is basically the same punishment you get for period pain – a glass of cloudy gingery stuff (briskly whisked with a glass rod, like they have in the science lab) and walking round and round the sports field, whether pouring with rain or not.

Maybe Potter is in a creative mood. “You will stay here,” she says, “and learn a hymn by heart. I will hear you recite it when I get back, and I expect you to be word perfect.” And she produces a copy of the school hymn book.

“Which hymn, Miss Potter?”

“Any hymn you choose, Janice, as long as it contains at least four verses.”

In the now-empty changing room Janice chooses In The Bleak Mid-Winter because she loves it. She offers up a little prayer of thanks to the God she already half-disbelieves in. In The Bleak Mid-Winter is not just one of those dirges penned by a Victorian vicar but a proper poem, by someone called Christina Georgina Rossetti. The name is a sonnet in itself.

She already knows the first two verses from chapel.

Snow had fallen, snow on snow, snow on snow… There is something revolutionary about that line, something so pure and bright and absolutely certain of itself. This Christina is a woman who has walked in snow, who has seen the water standing hard as iron, listened to the frosty wind making moan. Janice never had any problem memorising words, and words like this –how could they fail to stick?

The hardest part is doing the reciting when Miss Potter comes back. She takes the hymn book from the girl and waits. Janice recalls how the other kids used to read in her infant school class –a kind of staccato drone, with stumbles and mispronunciation. She tries to imitate that, without laying it on too thick. Potter mustn’t catch on that she has just spent one of the happiest fifty minutes of her life being punished.

But of course, she can’t keep it up. Angels and Archangels are just too much for her. Awe creeps into her voice, the hint of a sob, even.

At What can I give him, – Give my heart she sighs, knowing the game is up.

“Next time,” says Miss Potter, “algebra.”

(flash fiction: 756 words)

Under The Black Flag

Coffee spoons aren’t the only thing you can measure out your life with: there’s shopping trolleys, for instance.

I had a lot of men, but only two that mattered. The first I called my anchor, the second became my sail. I suppose I was a romantic, for I pictured my life as a voyage in a paper boat across an endless ocean. Or I might have the boat itself: one of those origami things my grandfather failed to teach me. I was either bowling along in a stiff breeze, becalmed in some weed-infested sea-within-a-sea, or sinking.

My anchor was a controlling kind of man. In those days a controlling man was a manly man, as long as he didn’t actually break your arm or black your eye. I loved my manly man, but he would keep taking things out of the shopping trolley. I would put something in and he would take it right back out again.

We went food shopping on Thursdays, in his car. At first this was a novelty. My mother had been in charge of the shopping and I’d never been to a supermarket before. Up and down the aisles we went, he with purpose, I with increasing gloom. I would see something I thought we needed; coffee, perhaps, or cheese. He would frown down at it and, without comment, put it back on the shelf. It wasn’t long before I stopped putting things in the basket.

I remained in charge of pushing the trolley, but I didn’t even do that right. I sensed he felt I was dawdling and daydreaming, which I was, mostly of not being married. I steered it crooked. “Goodness knows what sort of driver you’ll make if you ever manage to pass the test.”

We rented a third-floor flat; a grubby, shabby collection of rooms with a hole in the kitchen wall that you could have fallen through if you tried hard enough. Sometimes I wanted to try. We shovelled up the carpet and its rotten underlay. There was a scattering of tiny, multicoloured sweets mixed in with it, I remember. He shoved the mouse-infested furniture down one end and covered it in blankets. I grew a tomato plant in a pot on the balcony but I had planted the seed in August, which was far too late. The tomatoes stuck at green.

An Aquarian and a Virgo: an unpromising combination.

I was twenty-one and he was thirty.

My sail came along later, and for his sake I cut loose from my anchor. At intervals I wished I hadn’t because the sail, inevitably, was to turn out badly too. He and I were so alike, like mirror images: an Aquarian and an Aquarian, a disastrous collision of star signs. We lived in a place on the seafront – back to rented. The salt spray quickly started to rust my third-hand car.

We also went the supermarket for our groceries, but not necessarily on Thursdays, just when we got round to thinking about it. We had a trolley each and sailed up and down the aisle, side by side, in the whoosh of a following wind. I was not accustomed to fun. I had never scooted a trolley before, or allowed myself to giggle in the company of a man. People gave us looks but it was exhilarating, being young at last.

I was thirty-nine and he was forty.

Apparently I should have found myself an Aries, a Gemini, a Libra or a Sagittarius. It’s too late now.

Now I am so old that I cannot tell you how old I am. If I visit the supermarket at all, I go alone. Mostly I order stuff online and it gets delivered after dark by a man in a uniform who’s anxious to get home to his family. When I do go, I’m grateful for the trolley to lean on. Some days this hip’s so bad, it saves me limping.

I navigate the person-littered aisles with quiet skill, being a much better driver than my anchor once predicted. I place in my trolley what I choose to place in it, but I can’t afford much. I don’t attempt the sailing thing because I can’t. I wouldn’t even if I could because they might lock me away somewhere. Old women are always being locked away; fed with plastic spoons, showered by strangers, slid from bed to chair and back again on a board.

Sail under a black flag, that’s my motto. Don’t let the buggers catch you.

(flash fiction: 753 words)

Chemical Flight

In the old days, it would seem – though of course nothing on EduChannel is to be consumed without a pinch of salt – there were many ways in which a person could exit the life biological. Only the other day I was reading of a woman in mediaeval “times” who, finding herself without food or income, threw herself from a high cliff. Such places were popular. Star-crossed lovers jumped to their death, entwined in each other’s arms: romantic, and nowadays quite impossible. Our integrated bio-sensors do not give us that choice.

In the old days, so they say, there was something called the French Foreign Legion. Young men with broken hearts would run away to join this military band, and a combination of fierce discipline and the harshest of desert suns would cauterise their memories of Daisy, or Pearl, or whoever.

Once upon a time, so they say, a person unable to stomach his or her existence – cruel past, poor education, lack of opportunity – could ‘escape’ after a fashion by injecting themselves with the most unbelievably primitive and fatally addictive drugs such as heroin, or by consuming large quantities of liquids collectively known as ‘alcohol’, which would eventually destroy the liver. Nowadays, of course, even if these ‘alcohol’ substances could be accessed, a liver would not permit itself to be compromised.

A person in prison could starve themselves to death, though force-feeding was sometimes employed by the authorities to counteract this. A person could throw themselves in front of a mode of transport known as a ‘train’, or drive something known as a ‘car’ at 100 mph with their eyes tightly shut, in a thunderstorm. A person could brandish a gun in a public space, or brandish a Samurai sword at a police officer, with the clear expectation of being gunned down. ‘Death by cop’, that was called.

So many appalling choices, but now only one: chemical flight (ChemFli).

ChemFli, as most of you will know, was a by-product of the Time Race of Cen22. Difficult to credit it now, but in that region of the time ‘experience’ scientists assumed that time was linear, as experienced by that most deceptive of organs, the human brain. People actually thought in term of Past, Present and Future. They assumed that if only the right craft could be invented – a “time machine” – H G Wells wrote a novella (a smallish-sized fictional offering) on this subject in late Cen19 – such a contraption could ‘take them back’ to earlier times or even ‘take them forward’ to times which had not yet occurred. Of interest also might be series of films collectively entitled Back to the Future in which a mad professor type drives a car-transport ‘backwards’ in time from 1985 to 1955, and subsequently ‘forward’ into the ‘future’.

A prototype of such a machine was eventually developed by the IndoChinese Alliance in early Cen22. The world held its breath as scientists attempted to launch it into a figure-of-eight test orbit – from the Present ‘out’ to the Past, back through the Present, ‘out’ into the Future and to the Present again. Thankfully the flight was unmanned: it is now known that any living creature on board would have been mentally ‘scrambled’ by the experience. Instead, the craft was packed with the most up-to-date technology designed to register exactly where – or ‘when’ the craft disappeared to.

What happened was – apparently – nothing. The machine made a lot of noise, but – apparently – remained on the launch pad. However, the project was by no means the disaster it first seemed. Much data had been recorded during the ‘flight’. This data, when analysed – a task which in itself took several years – demonstrated that Past, Present and Future were all happening at once, ie that ‘time’ was in fact a particle – a single point which, from certain points of view – notably that of the human brain – would appear to be a wave. This discovery was to have long-term and unexpected consequences.

For some humans the need for escape from the horrors or constraints of their physical existence remains as strong as ever. But all means of escape have now been closed off, apart from one: ChemFli. Instead of technology we now have a simple drug, based upon, but not identical to, what was once known as psilocybin or ‘magic mushroom’: Cybin7.

Having made the choice, and signed his consent, the subject permits himself to be injected with a carefully calibrated dose of Cybin7. Care must indeed be taken: a fraction too much will result in physical death, a fraction too little in madness. The subject’s body is then retained in stasis whilst he – or she – is freed from it, and from the unbearable present moment. He – or she – finds themselves able to move, as it were ‘sideways’ in time, in any direction, experiencing what would once have been thought of as Past or Future, or even, occasionally, both at once. However, he can never return to ‘now’; and he cannot control where – or rather ‘when’ he travels. He has become a cork bobbing on an ocean, a particle of dust in the air, forever the gypsy in ‘time’.

Some of you may be aware that I have a personal interest in this subject, since my own son chose to avoid a life sentence for murder by signing up to the ChemFli programme. The thing was done before I knew it.

I can follow his ‘visuals’ of course – flashes of experience, faces he sees, views – sometimes. I viewed an execution through his eyes once – a knife-like device released from a great height. These fragments of witness – from my son and thousands of other ChemFli volunteers – have proven invaluable to historians. They use them to piece together a new ‘history’ and predict our communal ‘future’.

For me it is different. I simply miss him.

(Flash fiction: 969 words)

Becalmed

It doesn’t flash, it drifts, whatever they say.

Images came to him, one after another. Lying on his back, he let them do what they would. They seemed in no particular hurry to play themselves out.

Sometimes he looked up at the sky, which was a livid purple, with streaks of orange. Back home, or down home, such a sky would have meant a cold wind, distant thunder, rain on the way. He would have been shivering. But here it was pleasantly warm. This was not home. He counted the many-sized moons and noted their by now all-too familiar arrangement in this all-too familiar sky.

That would be his first request. To lie once more beneath a blue sky and watch white, summer clouds drifting over the shallow hills and valleys of his boyhood: blue and white and green. He had made daisy chains, but out of buttercups. The stems of buttercups were different from the stems of daisies. They had little corners and angles to them. The juice got under your fingernails as you split the stems: blackish-green.

And then there was the time by the river. He had been sitting on the bank, high up, looking down, and a girl was playing in the water. His parents were there too, but taking no notice. The girl wore a black one-piece, slick with water. She was swimming with the green weed as the current pulled downstream. Her hair drifted downstream too. She was beautiful, but he was just the wrong side of puberty to know how or why he knew.

At Brixham, his aunt and uncle had taken him out in a shallow tourist boat, with a glass bottom to it. The water was so clear, you could see the rocks and the fish. It was like Australia, he had thought at the time. Like looking down at a coral reef, except not like that.

He had lost count of the days since he and the metal wreckage came down in this corner of a foreign ocean. There might be land. He might come to land. There might be creatures. To begin with he had hoped for that. Now he saw how he might look through their eyes – a whiteish sea-worm adrift in a puffy orange flower; some slug unaccountably tumbled from the sky. Maybe they would eat him. More likely they would dissect him. Work out how he worked, what structure might hold him together. Or maybe they were not there. Maybe there was no land, and nobody.

He looked up at the purple sky one final time.

With an effort he rolled himself over, surrendering to the dayglo embrace of an alien sea.

(flash fiction: 446 words)

 

Oddly, this little story was inspired by Edward Thomas’s poem ‘Adlestrop’. His railway journey, with its brief stop at Adlestrop, took place in 1914. Nothing, and yet everything, happens in the poem. Although there is no mention of war, it is generally thought of as a war poem in that is is a longing for a lost and quieter time.

Mary’s Folly

When Martha had the second stroke, Mary knew her folly-building days were over for the foreseeable future. The stroke robbed Martha of her speech and put her in a wheelchair. It was a disaster, because of the garden.

Their parents died within a year of each other, the one of dementia the other of a stroke, and the sisters had lived together ever since. Strokes seemed to run in the family. Martha was the eldest by three years. For reasons different but not discussed, neither had ever married. The arrangement suited them both, though Martha found Mary aggravatingly airy-fairy and Mary found Martha somewhat rigid and overbearing.

This difference was reflected in the garden, which they both loved. It was a huge garden, by modern standards, the sort that would nowadays have a five bedroom mansion somewhere in the middle of it, rather than a two-bedroom bungalow giving onto the street.

Martha was in charge of most of it. Mary had the bit at the back, where the garden path wandered through the damson hedge. The damsons made a nice screen, to Mary’s way of thinking; out of sight, out of mind. Here she could work on her folly, whilst Martha manicured the lawn, pruned the trees overhanging the fish-pond and weeded around the rose-bushes, expansive and military. Martha needed that order.

What Mary needed was to climb up her stepladder and glue on broken china and other bits and pieces – an old clay pipe, a blue scent bottle, a discarded medal with the Angel of Mons on it, charred in some long-ago bonfire. If anything like this turned up in the garden Martha it put by for her, in a shoe box in the greenhouse, although she never admitted to any ‘putting by’. Mary’s folly was the height of – foolishness and Martha ought to be discouraging it. Nevertheless, she saved things.

Mary would make herself available to act as gardener’s assistant if, for example, Martha wanted to prune the apple tree or dig out a new flower bed. Martha did not make many such requests, for Mary was a dilatory worker, prone to day-dreaming, and as soon as she was dismissed, she would slope back through the damson hedge.

After the stroke, there could be no more sloping. Martha sat about, a blanket over her knees if it was chilly, issuing instructions. It was difficult. Her speech was impaired but Mary was good at working out what she meant and, without exactly appearing to do so, acted as interpreter when they had visitors. And in spite of her dilatoriness and inefficiency, Mary did seem to be managing Martha’s ‘half’ of the garden quite well. She must have picked up more knowledge whilst acting as gardener’s assistant than either of them realised.

It took up all of her time, but she had anticipated that. The lawn remained mown, if not manicured. The apple-tree remained pruned, though she had had to ask a nephew to help her with the heavier branches. The roses, though not up to Martha’s standard, remained alive and pleasant-scented. Mary even planted a couple of new ones, to fill in gaps, and planted underneath them with hardy geraniums: a living mulch, according the man at the garden centre.

The day of Martha’s funeral dawned cold and rainy. It was what you would expect of early February. Mary put on a thermal vest under the black suit she had had to buy for the occasion. She wrapped a thick scarf around her neck, only wishing that a woolly hat had been appropriate. As the coffin clunked its way in through the silk curtains they played something by Bach, about sheep. Martha had apparently liked it. She had left a list of such details with her will. She had left Mary her half of the bungalow, as expected, and the contents of her deposit account: more than expected; the interest would cover the cost of a professional gardener once or twice a month.

After the funeral, whilst friends and family consumed sandwiches, tea and cakes upstairs in a hired venue, Mary slipped away. They might wonder where she was, but probably wouldn’t care over much.

It felt too dank for wandering up and down the High Street so she ducked into the tea-shop and had a coffee on her own: a little time to think. There was a charity shop across the way. She made a start there, coming out with a stack of mismatched saucers and an imitation Clarice Cliff teapot. She loved Clarice Cliff, and fake was just as good. In another shop she found a tiny, broken doll; in yet another, an ashtray with pink and blue flowers and ‘Gran Canaria’ painted in wobbly black lettering. The first shop had given her a bag-for-life, but after an hour or so it started getting heavy. Time to go home, where hammer and glue awaited her.

Spring was just around the corner.

(flash fiction: 833 words)

Featured image: Clarice Cliff Crocus Tea-set, 1931

A Day At The Seaside

It was a Monday morning and, since he was travelling the wrong way, he more or less had the carriage to himself. Somebody had abandoned a magazine. He flipped through the pages as the train clacked and jolted through the suburbs, scanning images of celebrities he’d never heard of; women with pink sausages for lips, men with broad shoulders, flat stomachs and daft little beards displaying themselves in their spotless mansions, along with their furniture, their chandeliers, their works of art and their glossy, unread books. He was longing for life to be grey, or sepia.

The sun glinted off something jammed down the divide between his seat and the next. It might just be a coin, of large enough denomination to buy himself a mug a tea when he arrived. He pictured himself in a seafront café, a steaming white china mug in front of him, the teabag string still dangling, he noticed. There appeared to be a red plastic tablecloth, a bottle of vinegar, a salt cellar and a dog-eared menu. He sensed a plate of fish and chips on the way and his mouth started watering at the thought of it.

But it wasn’t a coin, it was a mirror. The glass was filthy, as you might expect from something pushed between seats for a long time. It was the sort of thing a child would be drawn to: thick pinkish plastic round the edge and purple flower design, probably part of a set – the kind of tat down-at-heel grannies picked up in the Cheap Shop for birthday gifts and stocking-fillers.

He smeared it clean with his sleeve and, since no one was watching, glanced down at his reflection. He fully expected to see an old guy who hadn’t been bothering to cook much recently, a trifle emaciated, greyish stubble; expected also that death-by-boredom look in his eyes, that one-final-fling desperation, that nobody’s-going-to-talk-to-me expression.

Instead of that he saw a girl in a blue cotton dress with a band of complicated white embroidery across the bodice. It had those small puff sleeves with cuffs, like kids wore in the fifties. In fact her whole face was somehow antiquated – that fair, slightly greasy hair drawn up in a topknot and tied with a gingham ribbon, half-slipping down. She didn’t look at all like a kid might look like today. Was she was gazing at her own reflection, or back out at him? He ventured a smile. She smiled back, but whether she thought she was smiling at herself or back at him, he couldn’t tell.

He knew, of course, that vampires did not reflect in mirrors, and it would have surprised him less, somehow, if he’d been turned into one of those; but he’d never heard of an old man acquiring the reflection of a child, of the opposite gender and from way back in the past. If he’d been a character in one of his own crappy novels he’d no doubt have gasped, dropped the mirror, wrenched open the carriage door and jumped, breaking his neck in the process. His ghost stories or, as they called them nowadays, Supernatural Tales – didn’t sell well. Maybe he’d turn today into a story, if and when today was over.

The carriage had also changed. Above the seats were stylised, panoramic posters advertising Brighton. Pointy-breasted women in swirly skirts and woollen twinsets trailed little girls much like the one in the mirror; buckets and spades, bottles of pop, frilly sunshades – all so smug and wholesome. Everything was all right in their world.

Countryside flowed past, greener and less spoiled than it should have been. Steam clouded the windows in fits and starts. Of course, steam. Trains made a different sound in those/these days. He looked down at the unfamiliar body inside the blue dress, both of which he now somehow inhabited. He – no, she – had no breasts, which meant she would be nine or ten years old. There was a pocket in the side of dress. He/she slid the mirror into this. There was a button, and a buttonhole. He/she fastened the button carefully, and checked it. If it the mirror got lost, there might be no way back? There might be no way back in any case. He rather hoped not.

They could feel the sun on their arm through the window-glass. The window was open a crack at the top, and the smell the sea came through it –seaweed and salt from long ago. Up in the luggage rack – a string hammock – was a tin bucket shaped like a castle, with towers, and a red tin spade with a wooden handle. They would build a sandcastle, they thought. Warm sea-water would trickle between their toes. They would have fish and chips and penny cornets.

The sky would be blue all day.

(flash fiction: 805 words)

Twelfth Night

Soon after she left us, it began to snow. From now on my life would be all snow, and all falling. My husband cleared our driveway then dug a diagonal path across the lawn, starting at the back door and ending at his shed. The snow didn’t ease or stop as it normally would have; it crept up the glass in our patio doors; it piled up on our windowsills; icicles oozed down from the guttering.

It had been so very dark inside our house, and for so long. Twelfth night: the sixth of January, the day people in other houses would be taking down their decorations.

I had not crossed the threshold since it happened. I was frozen already: why would I want to be colder? But Twelfth Night made me realise I must. I couldn’t spend the rest of my days indoors. My maiden voyage would be this: I would exit by the back door, navigate the icy patio, cross the lawn diagonally via my husband’s snow-path, stand outside his shed for a minute then come back.

I wrapped my scarf around my face, covering my nose. Birds’ feet patterned the snow. What does it feel like to weigh so little? When – or if – Jesus walked on water, did he feel like one of God’s beloved sparrows, hopping about on snow?

The snow my husband shovelled aside this morning was already in the process freezing, forming a rough wall at the level of my elbows. Fresh snow was already settling on the cleared path between the walls, so I made footsteps.

Then I saw it – a small, honey-coloured arm poking out of the broken snow. In his narrow focus on the task in hand my husband must have overlooked it. He is a different man nowadays: something has been subtracted from us both.

There was no hand to grasp, only a familiar, frayed, mended, frayed-again paw. I eased the body out of the snow with care, afraid that the arm would sever itself in my hands. Touching it took me back. I was sitting by a lilac bush in my mother-in-law’s garden, with a needle and strong thread, an off-cut of yellow felt pinned to the thinning fur fabric. How warm it had been that day and how rich the scent of the lilac. Jessica must have been there that day, but somehow I couldn’t see her.

The bear had never had a name. He was just Bear. Did he know his owner had gone away? Could a stuffed bear sense that sort of thing? I stowed him inside my coat while I completed my journey to the shed. I held him close to my breast as I waited the minute or two I had promised myself to wait. We took a few quiet breaths together before setting off back to the kitchen. When I took off my coat, the jumper I wore beneath it was soaked and icy.

I washed him in soapy water, rinsed him in plain but warm. I wrapped him in a towel as if he were a child, folding the cloth carefully around his threadbare neck to keep out the draught.

I sat him in her little chair by the kitchen range.

I gave the chair a bit of a push, and it rocked as it used to do.

I sat down and cried and cried.

When he dried out, I wrapped him in a patchwork shawl and hid him in her room. I sat him on the bed with her favourite picture book. Sometimes, for variety, I propped him up in the window seat so that he could look out at the garden. Every now and then I would sit beside him, and together we watched the patterns black branches made against a grey sky. Sometimes he sat on my lap, while I knitted him a scarf. Jessica had liked pink, so I knitted her bear’s new scarf in many shades of pink.

Together we sat and waited for the spring.

(flash fiction: 671 words)

The Bag Lady

Pete scanned the atrium for a vacant seat. The hospital had recently invested in wider, squashier, blue ones: more comfortable. He had an hour to wait before the host-human’s annual physical; time to slow, then stop his second and third hearts. Human physiology has a certain lag to it. Best to adjust with caution rather than lose consciousness and have someone groping around with a stethoscope before one was ready.

The next thing he did was a mistake. He sat down next to a bag lady – a female human who either chose not to wash or lacked the opportunity to, and therefore stank to high heaven. She was old and obese, wearing layer upon layer of clothing, including a frayed, overlarge woollen item. Elastic bands above her wrists kept the garment from dangling over her hands. As he watched, she lifted her skirt to scratch her knee. It was grossly swollen.

“I saw a doctor about it,” she said. “He didn’t do nothing.”

Too late, Pete realised he had allowed her a conversational opening. The smell coming from her would have been rank, even to a genuine human. To Pete, whose olfactory nerves were ten or twelve times more efficient, it was unbearable. He switched focus from heart-slowing to the gag reflex, suppressing it, fast

“I was nanny to the stars, you know,” the old woman confided. All them Carry On chaps – I nursed all their kids…!

Force of habit, Pete accessed the supplementary database lodged just behind his pituitary gland. The names she was continuing to reel off were those of once-famous British stars but one of them, at least, had been gay. No record of progeny. If she was lying about him she was probably lying – or deluded – about all the rest. Not that it mattered. He was still sat next to her, with no alternative seating, and she was obviously planning to run through every single star of sixties comedy and tell him how affectionate they had felt towards her and how much they had admired her childcare technique. The next worst thing to a human stinker is a human bore.

“I see things,” she said, suddenly, half an hour later. He would have suppressed his hearing, but he would need it to hear his name called by the Receptionist.

“Yes?” Why had he said yes? A single word was encouragement to a human bore.

“Shall I tell you one of my visions?”

No, he thought. “What sort of visions?” his treacherous human host-mind was asking.

She leant in towards him. He suppressed the give-away nose-wrinkle of disgust. “I seed the world ending.”

“When?”

“In exactly three days and fifty-four minutes. We’ll all be blown to smithereens, my dearie.” Something about the way she said it alerted something in the alien part of his brain.

“Where did you see it?”

“In a dream, dearie.”

“But aren’t you frightened?”

“No,” she said. Something like sanity crept into her eyes. “If you were me, would you be averse to dying?”

Out of curiosity, he accessed his database again, instructing it to run on ‘future’ rather than ‘past’. To his horror, the human brain showed him image after image of fire and destruction. He saw buildings falling and people screaming, in their millions. Now that he had directed his attention to it he clearly felt the build up of forces deep within the earth’s crust.

He supposed, if he had been an actor in one of those films of the sixties – the sci-fi kind where asteroids headed towards the planet, monsters rose from the deep or killer vegetation took root and started to chomp their way through the population – he would at this point have been deciding to call the Prime Minister, or even standing up in this crowded atrium and shouting “You’re all about to die, and there’s nowhere for you to go. Your race, backward as yet, possesses neither star-ships nor space-charts, and even if you did you lack the ability to comprehend disaster and act fast enough to evacuate.

The bag lady was asleep, having slid down her blue plastic chair. The fat, grubby arms on the wooden rests were the only thing that stopped her from landing on the floor. An ancient mobile phone fell out of her pocket and landed on the floor between her feet with a clatter, cracking the glass. Human politeness dictated that he should pick it up and hand it to her, germs and all.

Instead, he reactivated both his supplementary hearts, diverted power to his ante-pituitary database, magnified power to paltry human muscle-tissue. His craft was concealed 25.7 miles from here, in an old factory on waste ground. He had a car, in the hospital car park, but he would leave it where it was.

It would be quicker, now, to run.

The Lion and Saint Jerome

If you prefer, you can imagine me in a darkly-panelled study. Imagine it similar to that which, many centuries later, will be engraved by a certain long-haired German artist. Here I am then, in my study amongst my books. As usual I am shown with a long beard, a quill pen and a ledger. This is because I lived to be old, and wrote a lot.

The German engraver has not included my eyeglasses. In the latter years of mortal existence my eyesight became very bad. After dusk I was unable to make out the letters in Greek manuscripts, even with the help of a candle. It greatly hampered my studies.

A skull gathers dust in the window-seat. This is what they used to call a memento mori, to remind us that life is short and we have only a limited time to earn our place in heaven. It is also meant to remind you that I have become very wise in my old age. Angels, apparently, whisper divine truths into my ear.

Closest to you, viewers, is my lion. He does not sleep but lies relaxed on the wooden boards, luxuriously extended within swiping distance of a plump German corgi. What a tasty snack that dog would have made for my lion, in the old days.

The artist is gifted but cannot, I think, have had a real lion in front of him as he worked. Before lions were available to view, in zoos and such, artists seemed to imagine them the size of extra-large dogs. In real life, my lion was an impressive sight indeed. He was taller than me when standing on his hind legs, and could have ripped me apart in seconds. I am eternally grateful that he chose to love me instead.

The musculature and the claws are excellent and the tail, if not quite accurate, is at least decorative. But he is too small, as I have said, and this Dürer fellow has given him the face of a domestic cat; those charming, bristled whiskers, those Siamese eyes. The ears appear to belong to another creature entirely – a bear, perhaps, or even a mouse’s, scaled up. And the creature is smiling to himself. Neither cat nor lion would be likely to do so, but we can allow him a degree of artistic licence.

They say I removed a thorn from my lion’s paw, and in fact I did. It was a very long time ago, when I lived in a monastery. He was limping badly, and made straight for me, as if he had been sent. The others ran away, in any case. He sat before me and lifted his paw, that I might inspect it. I fetched water and cloths and cleaned the wound, and then could see the great thorn he had in it. So great was it in size that I could grasp it firmly between finger and thumb, without resort to an implement.

“This will hurt, my Brother,” I said, looking straight into his eyes. He put his head on one side and gazed straight back into mine. I gave the thorn a quick, sharp tug and out it came in a gush of blood and infected matter. Afterwards I applied the same healing herbs as I would have used for my monastic brothers, binding them into a paste with spiders’ webs and wild honey. My lion sat patiently as I bound up that giant paw with linen strips.

How, what shall I say happened between me and the lion? From my vantage point I can see both past and future, and I know that my lion has become a kind of fairy-story. They say he was attached to me by mistake, centuries later. They claimed that my lion was but a fable for the entertainment of credulous pilgrims to Bethlehem, where I left behind the mortal shell that was Jerome or, as others called me, Hieronymus.

You may believe what you like. My lion died of old age some years before me. He and I are back where we began, in the All and the Everything. We are one, my lion and I. You may sense us around you; within, enfolding and permeating you. We lift up our paws to you in supplication. We rest our golden heads upon your frail human shoulders.

We purr, and yes, we smile.

durer 4

Fishnet Tights

It all started with Miriam. She was a suspicious woman, particularly when it came to a pair of tights in the glove compartment of Alfred’s taxi-cab. It wasn’t as if Alfred hadn’t strayed before, just that she hadn’t realised his tastes were so exotic. She knew immediately that they were his tastes, not those of some new mistress or tart. No woman in Alfred’s age bracket would have contemplated fishnet.

What went with the tights, she wondered; one of those teensy maid’s outfits with frilly petticoat beneath? Maybe Alf was into bondage and liked to be attired in fishnet and frilly petticoat whilst some giantess flayed him with a black leather thingummy.  Or perhaps he just liked to dress up in women’s clothes when she was out. He couldn’t be mincing around in her clothes, however. She was a good twenty-four dress size and Alf was – smallish. So where was the rest of the outfit? If he’d hidden it anywhere around the house she’d have found it by now. Miriam was a demon housewife.

Should she confront him, she wondered, or let sleeping tights lie? In the end, curiosity got the better of her. He went as red as a beet and confessed, after a lengthy pause. Yes, he said, he was a transvestite. He hadn’t liked to tell her. He didn’t sound entirely sure, so Miriam wasn’t entirely sure either.

‘Show us your dress, then, and your makeup and – all the other stuff.’ In spite of herself, she was fascinated. How did he manage the bosoms? Where did the willy go? Perhaps that didn’t matter in a frock.

And so it came about that next afternoon Alf was pacing around Marks & Spencer in the High Street searching for something long and glamorous in electric blue satin with high heels to match, this being what he imagined a transvestite – had he in fact been one which, in spite of his confession, he was not – might wear with fishnet tights. Miriam could have told him that Marks & Spencer was not the best bet for electric blue evening gowns, but she was at home making rock cakes.

That evening, having fortified himself with several of Miriam’s rock cakes washed down with a mug of strong tea, Alfred retired to the bedroom to transform himself into his alter ego. He was not an imaginative man and all he could come up with for a name, should he be asked, was Alfreda. The whole process was nerve-wracking since this was the first time he had done it.

He wasted quite a bit of time rearranging socks inside a black bra, which he had also purchased, anxious not to appear amateurishly lumpy. The fishnet tights were also a problem. His toenails, which he hadn’t considered at all, were in need of cutting and his toes kept getting snarled up in the net. By the time he’d got them on the tights had acquired several ragged tears rather than the ladders he had been half-expecting. Luckily the dress was ankle-length and would cover that.

He had gone for a rather swish emerald number in the end. It had slightly over-the-top puff sleeves and a lot of subtle “ruching” around the bodice, a technical term which the saleslady had explained to him in rather more detail than he had patience for. At her suggestion he had added a sea-green chiffon scarf – ‘so flattering to the mature décolletage’. He had not asked her to explain décolletage.

Finally, Alfreda’s makeup. Alfred was not so daft as to plaster it on and end up looking as if he’d escaped from the circus. Stroke of luck, he’d been into model-making some years back – battlefield dioramas, that sort of thing. An eye for detail and a steady hand were qualities he’d discovered then.

He was in the middle of his demonstration, wobbling up and down on the living room carpet in full kit whilst Miriam looked on, making short work of the rest of the rock cakes, when there came a knock at the door. Alfred froze – no time to run, and anyway how, in the unfamiliar heels? So it was Miriam who opened the door to the two uniformed police officers.

‘In planning to execute a bank robbery,’ said one, ‘your husband would have been better advised to go for Sun Mist, winter weight. Fishnet is somewhat…’

‘Transparent,’ said Alfreda, emerging from the living room with a sigh.

Might as well be hanged for a sheep

Janice was the bane of Miss Milligan’s life. Every teacher has at least one Bane, of course, but Janice – in Miss Milligan’s opinion – came straight from Hell equipped with her own pitchfork.

According to staff-room gossip – overheard, since for some reason Miss Milligan never seemed to be included in these gossipy huddles – Janice was some kind of genius in English and Art. On the other hand, the little beast failed abjectly in any subject that failed to engage her interest. Music was one of those subjects – the subject Miss Milligan had so far failed abjectly to teach her.

The child refused to read music. Miss Milligan was sure Janice understood perfectly well how to read music, because how could anyone not be able to grasp something so very simple? After a term with Miss Milligan every girl in class could read a simple musical score, could compose a pleasing sequence of four notes and then sing them back correctly upon request.

Janice scattered notes about the stave at random; true notes and psuedo-notes incorporating some design of her own with a hat or a smiley face. When asked to sing them back she would take a deep, shuddering breath and sing four completely different notes. The class would dissolve in laughter whilst Janice stared out of the window, seemingly having ascended to a higher plane.

It was Dumb Insolence: the child was putting it on, aiming to make a fool of her teacher. But put the little wretch up in front of the whole school and she’d have to get it right, or look like a fool. Miss Milligan flattered herself she knew a thing or two about teenage girls. Consumed with self-consciousness, they were, and Satan’s Daughter would prove no different.

Forced to turn the pages for Miss Milligan during assembly, Janice hovered by her side, perspiring, her hand trembling above the score for Jerusalem (the school song) as if hoping the exact moment to ‘turn’ might be conveyed by psychic wave or other mysterious means from Miss Milligan’s head to her own. When no such hint arrived she would make a wild snatch at the page, obliging Miss Milligan to make a similar wild snatch to turn it back.

When they were within a few bars of turning the next page, Miss Milligan waited for the girl to give in and turn it, but she did not. Miss Milligan resorted to a heavy nod. Janice did not appear to understand what was meant by the nod, and any case was now frowning at a stain on one of the floor tiles. Assembly hymn-singing proceeded in fits and starts, and with each fresh fit or start came a wave of stifled giggling. The Headmistress was also frowning at a floor tile.

Miss Milligan resolved to move the battle to an alternative field – left-handedness. Sinistrality might be an unavoidable defect in a small percentage of boys but was quite unacceptable in a girl. Miss Milligan was on the school dinner supervision rota, as were most of the teachers, and had spotted Janice lifting her dessert-spoon to her mouth with the wrong hand.

Today was jelly-and-custard, the ideal test. Miss Milligan positioned herself close to the Devil’s Spawn’s table. When it came to dessert, and the wrong hand started to convey the jelly upwards, Miss Milligan took a brisk step forward.

No, Janice – other hand.” Janice sat there, her mouth hanging slightly open, as if trying to process this perfectly simple instruction.

“In polite society, Janice, we eat with our right hands. So pick up your dessert spoon in your right hand, and eat.” Impossible to tell whether the surrounding brats were sniggering at the girl or herself.

Janice picked up the spoon in her right hand and carefully loaded it with red jelly. With equal care she lifted it towards her mouth, but failed to locate it. The spoon collided with her nose. She lowered the spoon, reloaded it, this time with a mixture of custard and red jelly, and tried again. Once again the spoon drifted wide. By now the whole room had fallen silent.

“Can I be of some help, Miss Milligan?” Miss Milligan had not been aware that the Headmistress was in the room.

“No, thank you very much. The situation is under control.”

“One more try, Janice.”

Janice was scarlet in the face and Miss Milligan scented victory. Any minute now she’d start to cry and that would teach the awkward, sullen brat. If she’s been in the WAAFS –

When the jelly – not just a spoonful but the entire plate – collided with Miss Milligan’s chest, she could not for a moment believe it. The jelly was cold, the custard even colder, and both were sliding downwards. Triumph arose in Miss Milligan’s soggy breast. Assault on a teacher: the girl would be expelled for this.

The same thought seemed to have occurred to Janice, for a whole tableful of jelly-and-custards were subsequently hurled, left-handed, with surprising accuracy. If only the girl played cricket –

And were the other girls actually passing jellies to her? Was she to be the recipient of a whole dining-roomful of red jellies?

“Headmistress!”

But the Headmistress seemed to have temporarily left the room.

The Wearing Of The Green

She found the green cloth in the market, on a stall run by an old woman. The other fabrics – greys and browns destined to make overalls and jackets for field workers, had been thoroughly picked through but this one remained neatly folded. It was of a green at once dark and bright, and reminded her of the wood beyond the village. At once she pictured herself in the gown she would make of it.

How much for the green? She hoped she sounded only mildly curious.

More than you have in your pocket, young lady.

And how would you know how much I have in my pocket?

I see through cloth to skin, said the old woman, through skin to bone and through bone to the very soul, and I know full well that you cannot afford my cloth.

Well, it was true, and the girl turned to walk away, but the old woman caught her arm. There seemed no shaking her off.

If I were to give you the cloth, she said, you would cut it askew and sew it with clumsy stitches. It would soon fall apart.

On the contrary, said the girl. If you were to give me the cloth I would cut it most carefully and sew it with the finest of fine stitches, for I have been indentured to Morwenna the seamstress since my tenth year, and will gain my freedom shortly. I plan to set up business on my own account; there is always plenty of sewing to be done.

A woman alone?

Maybe. Or it may be that I will find a husband.

Ah yes, the ploughman Aelwyn. His master’s lands are not so far from here. No doubt you pass them most days.

How did you know? Aelwyn has barely spoken to me and has certainly not mentioned marriage.

No, but he will. How could he resist that summer-fair hair of yours, those tumbling tresses? The dress would serve as both apprentice piece and wedding gown.

If Aelwyn were to ask me.

You may have the green cloth for a wedding gift, young lady. It is too fine for these bumpkins in any case. I would have been unlikely to sell it this side of Michaelmas and by then the sun will have faded it. Take it, but with a warning. Green is a fairy colour, and they believe that only they have the right to wear it. Do not, therefore, wear that dress into the woods.

The dress took many months to make, by which time the market was long gone, the leaves fallen from the trees and the old woman’s warning forgotten.

ploughman

 

When Aelwyn the ploughman became very old he was forced to rely on the kindness of his four sons. His wife had long since died and his once powerful muscles were knotted with pain. In winter a rocking-chair in the chimney-corner was his customary retreat, but when the weather was warmer he liked to get out, walk by the fields he had worked, feel the sun on his shoulders. When the sun became too hot one day, with the help of his stick he decided to venture a little further, into the cool of the wood.

It was not a large wood but by the time he got to the middle of it he found himself both weary and confused. I used to know these woods so well, he thought. Yet now the trees are dancing around me, and changing their places each time I look. So he sank down next to a comfortable-looking willow tree, half knowing that this was unwise and that he might not be able to get up again without help.

The ground here was damp. Willows thrive in damp places, he reminded himself, half asleep already. And there he remained; his aching back relaxing against the smooth, warm bark. And beyond the wood the sun was beginning to sink.

When I was a young man, he told the willow tree, there was such a pretty girl – a seamstress with yellow hair that fell all around her face. She often passed where I was ploughing. Once or twice she even glanced in my direction, but before I could get up the nerve to speak to her, she vanished.

It was fifty years ago. Before you grew here, probably. They say she was carrying a green dress over her arm, her apprentice piece, so proud of it that she was taking it over to show her cousin in Sawley. She would have come through here. Might you have seen her?

Trees do not have the languages of men, and the willow did not reply. But as Aelwyn sank into a deeper and deeper sleep she sighed, reaching down with her long and tangled tresses to stroke his beloved face.

The Hapless Hannah

Branston was concerned that Markie, her current hubby, was exhibiting certain retrogressive traits. He would occasionally seem to forget his gender and attempt to patronise her.

An example: Markie didn’t as a rule pay much attention to politics or economics, but on this particular day he must have caught the tail end of an aircast whilst loading the dishwasher. It had something to do with the PM’s decision to impose selective economic sanctions upon what little remained of the United States. When Branston came in, after a stressful day at the office, Markie had launched into an explanation of this complex news item – and in words of one syllable, as they might have said last century.

It was galling, especially as she had a Masters in Geopolitics and he had a – what was it? – certificate in “Green Cuisine” from some second-rate finishing school.

Worse, on that visit to the solicitors the other day to renew their annual marriage contract Markie had so far forgotten himself as to open the door for her, as if she might be too feeble to open it for herself. The boy on reception had been watching them, and tittered behind his black-varnished fingernails.

At that point Branston seriously considered not renewing their contract at all, but she worked long hours and selecting a mate was so time-consuming. Besides, she had grown used to Markie over the four years she had had him, and he was quite good at the sex part. Of course, when he ceased to be –

She was discussing this with her colleague and sometime-lover McKaig, over lunch. The waiter was tiresomely slow in coming over to take their order, and as he passed McKaig snapped her fingers at him, causing him to jump and drop the tray he was carrying. Whilst the fool was grovelling about in the gangway trying to clear up the mess he’d made, Branston asked McKaig if she had ever experienced anything similar. She had.

What did you do about it?

I purchased a Hapless Hannah, old girl. Some men have this residual sense of superiority and entitlement, a genetically-programmed need to protect their “womenfolk”. Can you imagine it? Something to do with their hormones. But it’s easily managed. Our Hannah lives in the cupboard under the stairs, easily stowed away when not in use. When I go out, if he feels the urge hubby can set her going. And hey presto! The cyborg can be as useless and/or dependent as ever he wishes. By the time I get home he is – satiated. You should get one. Here, this is their website.

The salesman suggested that Branston make an actual analogue visit to their out-of-town showrooms.

It sounds rather as if your – colleague – has the Hannah 2.1. All right in its day, Madam, but we’re now up to the Hannah 2.7. The 2.7, unlike the 2.1, is equipped with the replaceable oh-dear-please-rescue-me pheromone cartridge, in addition to the standard don’t-know-what-to-do psycho-wave generator. The two combine to make her devastatingly effective. We also have a range of alternative ‘bleatborgs’ – our affectionate nickname, Madam – the Silly Susan and the Foolish Freda, to name but two –

Branston summoned an autax, tapped in the destination code, swiped her payment card and off they set at a steady 120 mph. Even at that speed it was a good ten minutes before the autax purred to a stop outside a chrome-and-glass display space with a window full of borgs.

She left it to Markie to unpack the 2.7 from its crate – warning him to be careful when using a sharp knife – and to wade through the instructions. After all, it was to be his little toy, and she had a finance report to finish.

At first all seemed to be going to plan. Markie was noticeably more relaxed, had even started singing over the ironing board, but most importantly he made no further attempts to patronise her. One evening Branston asked him to demonstrate the Hannah.

Markie was somewhat bashful – understandably, since this was his private little peccadillo – but she insisted upon it, and the Hannah was wheeled out. It was remarkably lifelike in its little gingham apron, a pink lurex bow askew amongst those ditsy curls. Oh dear, it said. We haven’t been introduced. I’m Hannah. Markie, please help me. Should I have curtsied just then?

Markie cleared his throat, casting a furtive glance in his wife’s direction. Don’t worry, Hannah. You only need curtsy to royalty.

Royalty? I haven’t met any royal people yet, have I Markie? Oh dear, so much to remember. I’m not sure my head will hold it all.

Sick-making, but Markie was lapping it up. After that he relaxed a bit more, to the extent that he would sometimes neglect to put the borg away before Branston got in. There the little sap would be, in the corner of the living area.

Hello, hello? Carpet robot seems to have run out of electricity. Could you remind me how to plug him in? If you can spare the time, that is?

The problem began when Branston realised the Hannah was starting to affect her too, presumably an undisclosed side-effect of those all-singing-all-dancing pheromones. Even when the Hannah was safely tucked away out of sight, Branston would be getting these embarrassing urges – just to peek in and see if the poor dear was all right, alone in the dark, not crying softly to herself or in need of a hug. Hannah must actually be appealing to Branston’s – whisper it – maternal instincts – in addition to Markie’s patronising, protecting ones.

The bleatborg was headed for the scrapheap.

And so, she then realised, was Markie.

Cakes and Wine

It was after the war had ended. A time of black cars with mechanical indicators like tiny orange wings that popped out, or sometimes failed to, at the turn of a corner; a time of belisha-beacons and zebra crossings and war memorials with the names of my great uncles inscribed on them. And a time for visiting the graveyard.

I went there often with Nan, not only to visit the slaughtered uncles but to have a word with Sarah, her long-lost mother. Up against the church wall there was a little shed. It contained little trowels and forks, and a collection of vases and jam-jars in case you were in need. Next to it was a standpipe, ending in a tap, for watering.

One afternoon, we were surprised at the tap by the vicar. His name was the Reverend Silas something and he had a very large pointy nose. A black gown flapped out behind him like wings, which somehow went with the nose. He came out of nowhere and swept by the pair of us as if we were invisible. I flattened myself against the flint wall. Nan all but curtsied.

They say that a very few individuals are obnoxious to bees. It might be their bodily odour, an alcohol taint on their breath, their leather or wool clothing, their clumsiness, the loudness of their approach, their fear, their aggression, their anger. Whatever it is, the bees smell it and take umbridge. Looking back it seems not at all surprising that the Reverend Silas should have been one of these.

All of my stories came from Nan, and in due course she told me the story of Reverend Silas and the bees.

Well, as you know my dear, when a beekeeper dies it is most important to invite the bees to his funeral. I didn’t know, but I loved that she thus connected me to the rural past I longed for but hadn’t had. There should be cakes and wine.

For the bees? Do they eat and drink them?

It’s the gesture that counts, my dear. They require our respect.

How do they know when their beekeeper has died?

Someone will go and tell them.

Do they speak English?

They speak another language.

But then – how? I was at the stage of asking too many questions.

Anyway, old Silas – she wasn’t scared to call him that now he was no longer with us – was asked by the daughter to invite the bees to the funeral, at the same time as he made the announcement. She even gave him the words he ought to say. It made him hopping mad – as if people didn’t laugh at him enough already, what with his nose. And he happened to have been stung by bees a lot of times in the past. He was one of those ones – you know.

I didn’t, but I wasn’t going to interrupt again.

So the bees were not invited. The daughter went up to the hives and tried to explain. She told them how her father loved them, and it was just the vicar being the vicar, like. Begged them not to take offence.

But they did?

Well, it’s a bit of a coincidence otherwise.

So they had the funeral and his nearest and dearest turned up along with half the village, all in their Sunday Best. So many hats – like a flower-patch it was. That in itself was a worry.

You were there?

Of course I was. As I said, half the village –

All seemed to go well, in spite of the nervous glances. There was a few bees inside the church, like – perched on ledges, crawling about in the corners – but not more than you might expect on a summer’s day; got in through the holes in the stained-glass, probably. During the war, of course –

Nan, what happened to the vicar?

Well as I say there was a bit of buzzing. Not angry-sounding, like; just talking amongst theirselves, as you might say. The church service finished and out we all traipsed into the graveyard, following the coffin. The grave was already dug and the gravedigger was leaning on his spade, ready.

They lowered it in, all solemn, and the vicar started on with his usual stuff, Dust to Dust, Ashes to Ashes, droning through that pointy nose, and then the bees came, like, trillions of them. A lot, anyway, in a swarm.

Everybody scattered, hats and all. Gravedigger leapt for the hedge. Only the Reverend Silas didn’t move. Maybe he was petrified with fear, or too proud to. He stood his ground, and the bees settled on every single part of him. He was a swarm in himself, my dear. They stung him and stung him and stung him. Swelled up like a balloon, he did.

Did he pop?

No, he didn’t exactly pop, he just fell down dead. And serves him jolly well right, my dear; you must always invite the bees.

Pix

She had been sitting all alone in the window seat of this Lake District hostelry for what felt like an hour, though a quick glance at the screen of ‘her’ mobile phone showed it to be ten minutes. Alone, apart from the silent TV crew and their cameras. It was they who had brought her here in the second-to-last of a convoy of shiny people-carriers.

They wouldn’t even let her keep her handbag. It was in one of the people-carriers. She had never lost touch with her handbag before and felt naked and afraid without it. She had this prop, this mobile phone with her only because it was ‘salient’. Salient! She wanted her bag. What if it got stolen?

She had been ushered in here, on film of course, by the Host, Anchor, Chief Lady Bullshitter or however they might be describing her today. She was to be filmed waiting, preferably in extreme anxiety, for the Person she had been waiting for all her life, and who was about to walk through the door.

Person seemed to be taking their time, although they did like to build the suspense. The crew were getting restless. She could have taken a bite out of their boredom, it was so thick. Boredom with her plain, middle-aged self; with the faux cosiness of this inn – glass shelving, flock wallpaper, horse-brasses – and with the whole concept of engineering a collision between long-lost relatives and seeing what happened.

The worst part was that she was supposed to cry. Howl the place down, they told her, don’t hold back. The viewers will be living it with you, every step of the way. She just didn’t think she was going to be able to cry to order, for the entertainment of the world and his wife. She was accustomed to crying alone, and mostly in silence.

It was like standing on the edge of a cliff, waiting to be shoved off. It was necessary to occupy the time somehow so she began listing words and phrases to describe the Lady Bullshitter: unctuous, expensively-coiffed, super-fit, patronising, vivacious, bubbly, smarmy. Hateful.

No doubt they were filming her hands, twisting and twisting this electronic gadget. If only she’d thought to bring her pink cardigan. That was in a people-carrier too. Possibly not the same one as her handbag. She had been scattered to the winds, she felt. Forcibly redistributed. They’d placed her in this draughty window-seat so that she would be framed – and improved – by the wonderful Lake District scenery. Her upper arms had goose-flesh.

The phone was salient because it contained something the TV people referred to as a gallery or ‘pix’, which meant a collection of electronic photographs.  She hated the sound of pix. It was not the sort of word she would have said. When your Person arrives, they said, you will be able to show them pix of your extended family that they have never seen. Tearful, shared reminiscences. Lovely!

She’d never been interested in taking photos, even when it was proper cameras not telephones. If a picture isn’t vivid enough to stick in your head of its own accord, she thought, what’s the point of sticking it in an album? There had been nothing much to take photos of anyway. She’d lived a dull life and stayed single. No husband, children, dog, cat, budgie – rarely a friend, even.

Their researcher had been aghast when she told him this. But you must have some pix, darling. They’re part of our script.

There’s a script?

Well, story-boarding. Can’t have just any old thing happening, now can we? And we haven’t done a reminiscing-over-pix segment this series so it has to be you and your Person. Lighten up a little, darling. You’re the star of the show.

They had emailed-blitzed all her distant relatives asking for family snaps and ‘bio’. Once the pix arrived they had transferred them to the mobile phone which was, for the purposes of filming, her mobile phone. She had never once met any of them. The TV people had rehearsed and rehearsed her until she knew the bio behind those pix off by heart: who this grainy, black-and-white man was to her; whose pudgy, pink-faced baby this was; who this infant with the plastic trike and the chocolate-smudged face belonged to. She loathed them all on sight, the bastards.

The crew hadn’t met Person in the actual flesh. The plan was to whisk them from the airport up the motorway, in one final people-carrier, last minute. The travel budget for this series was blown, apparently, so it all had to be done via Skype, whatever that was. Where exactly were they flying in from? She got the impression it was a long way away – New Zealand, maybe, or Canada? How did Person get there? And why hadn’t they stuck around to do what they were supposed to do instead of skedaddling off abroad?

The crew lifted their cameras from her restless hands, retraining them on the door. It had glass panels and they could evidently see someone lurking behind it. Person! The door creaked as they pushed their way through. The phone dropped to the table with a clatter, creating a minor problem for the sound recordist. So this was it. Ah well, it would soon be over. Then she’d retrieve her handbag and go home. They could both go home.

A thin little man walked into the room, and stopped. Turning his head from side to side, he still couldn’t seem to locate her. Then she saw the white cane. So much for story-boarding. Hah!

Dad?

The man gasped and reached out in the direction of her voice. She hurried towards him and straight into his arms. Holding on tight and burying her face in his shoulder, she denied the whole world the entertainment of her tears.

Night Bus

After eleven I get on the night bus. I know all the routes by heart and which particular one doesn’t matter, only being in the dry. Often there’ll be a café at the end of the line, one of those workmen’s ones that open their doors at dawn. You might get a free tea. Egg and chips on the house if you’re lucky. But not always. Not by any means always.

It’s hard on the legs when you can’t lie down at night. Does your circulation in. Been carted off to hospital twice. Sally Army – they do that sort of stuff. I find a seat by a window, rest my head, close my eyes and sometimes drop off to sleep. Not always.

Sometimes I have dreams, but those special dreams you get when you’re neither asleep nor awake. Once I thought I was teaching in some posh private school. Up in front of the class, writing my stuff on the board with my back to the kids. But when I turned around the room was empty. And when I turned back what I had written was all, like, scribble. And why should that surprise me? All I could ever write was my name. What was I doing up there with my piece of chalk and my academic gown, me with the greasy dreadlocks and string-tied mac?

Nobody sits next to me, ever. I mean, why would they? It’s a mixed bunch: young and drunk after parties; shabby pensioners pretending they’re not just trying to save on the gas fire. You get those in libraries, too. Tonight there’s only me and the driver. He’s got his head in one of those free newspapers as I sneak past, tiptoeing to somewhere near the back. He often manages not to see me that way. ‘Course, if I was to start being disorderly he’d turf me off. Ditched in some East End thoroughfare, some hopped-up kid coming out of an alleyway, blade glinting in the streetlight. But I’m not disorderly. Always the quiet sort.

You don’t often get an angel in full regalia, but that’s what gets on next. I wonder if he’ll catch my eye and nod, but he doesn’t. Well, why would he? The lighting down this stretch isn’t too good, one streetlamp on, the next one off. Council economies. Driver slows us down, going gingerly. I am wide awake by now and watching as shadowy terraces slide by, broken factories, bits of waste ground. The angel has his nose in a big book, leather-bound with gold lettering, like they had in the olden days. He seems very taken with it.

On we trundle. Where might an angel be off to on a night bus, I wonder. Resting his wings for a bit maybe, like me. Next minute he snaps to attention. It’s as if he can see something or hear something that I can’t. He plucks a stray feather from one of his wings and bookmarks his book with it, lays the book down on the seat. He stands up and raises his arms. There’s a kind of swish, a roaring, kind of stars, kind of butterflies. I don’t know. I hang onto the rail in front as the bus shudders to a stop.

Whatthe…? This from the driver. It’s just bleedin’ stopped. The bus just bleedin’…

The angel and his book have disappeared. Well, why wouldn’t they? I get up and stumble down to the front where the driver is opening a metal compartment and groping around for a torch. We go outside together and shine it, and there is this monster hole in the road. We can neither of us see to the bottom of the hole, it’s just too deep and black. Nearer the surface, tangled cables, water pouring out of a severed drainage pipe. That hole would have swallowed this bus. Probably several buses.

Sink’ole, says the driver, that’s what it is. All that rain we been getting. Bloody bus did an emergency stop, all on its own. I never saw that ‘ole, mate, and I swear I never touched the brakes.

Nah, I say. It was the angel.

You saw one?

I nod. Sitting across the aisle from me, it was – wings, feathers, the works.

Bleedin’ell, mate! And we look back down the hole.

Things didn’t change much after that. Nobody came and put me into sheltered accommodation. I wasn’t learned to read or offered a job. I didn’t get clothed or washed or my hair cut short or converted to Jesus. I went on catching the night bus month after month, year after year, and sometimes there was teabag-tea or egg and chips at the end café.

Three things stayed with me, though. The driver let me on without a ticket, and when we were staring down that bus-sized hole he called me mate, spoke to me like a human, not a filthy tramp. And an angel put down his book to save our lives.

The Tempting of Aoife

Aoife observes that the Guide is bored, taking this group of people round the power station, and uncomfortable in her tight navy uniform. The Guide is a woman of a certain age, so flushing may be a problem; and it can’t help that the uniform was designed with lengthy, windswept winters in mind, but there’s a heat-wave going on outside. A primitive air-conditioning system is just recycling the hot air, distilling the stuffiness. There is a smell of metal and dust, and maybe something else. Would nuclear power have a smell of its own? The Guide has bristly, striped-greying hair like a badger and a sprinkling of tiny red dots on her upper lip, which would be needle-marks from a recent electrolysis session.

Aoife McKendrick notices details like this. Connections snap themselves together in her mind so rapidly and effortlessly that she long since gave up trying to trace them back to any logical source. She would have made a good Sherlock Holmes, she often thinks. What she does not think is that her thought processes are wild and unpredictable, like cables arcing out in a flooded tunnel. She does not think of herself as dangerous.

Aoife has never told anybody about Bub, partly because they would say she is mad, and she is not mad, or if she is mad it’s none of their business. Degenerates! And partly because it’s such a foolish name, the sort a child might attach to their invisible friend. She thinks she knows where Bub comes from – that faint, continual buzzing of wasps, or maybe flies – is another clue. But she doesn’t believe in Where Bub Comes From, and Bub is not a friend. Bub is not something that sits upon her shoulder and whispers in her ear: it’s more subtle than that.

Bub tells her that the human race is doomed, eventually, anyway, but that the process needs to be speeded up. In visions sometimes he shows her the whole world, and she sees how it is infested, gnarled and infected by these filthy apes with their overstuffed brains and their lack of moral perspective. She sees how they are polluting the seas and even the atmosphere around this planet, how their detritus will eventually spill out into the furthest reaches of space, how they and their waste products will be everywhere, soon. She sees the murders in back alleys, the addicts shooting up, the children raped and the animals slaughtered and mistreated. Bub shows her all, and it is true. Something must be done about it. Bub wants her to do it.

There have been rumours on social media, about a Red Button. The Red Button, here, in this power station. These stories started popping up on the net about a year ago; before that Aoife had not really thought of Britain as having a Red Button at all. But it made sense that any nuclear nation would have a Red Button, and that it would be hidden somewhere inside their own country, and what more sensible place to hide it than a nuclear power station? This one is particularly remote, in the middle of the Scottish Highlands surrounded by purple heather and rabbits, and the kind of game bird that turns a snowy white in winter. A beautiful place….

Until they built a power station in it!” The background buzzing is quite loud this time. It tends to get louder the angrier Bub was. He tends to get angry if he catches her thinking that things are beautiful, or that people are not so bad.

They have come up on a day trip from the University of Edinburgh, where Aoife has been working on her MSc in biochemistry. Of themselves, power stations are of little interest to her and of little relevance to her studies, but this one – this particular one might just possibly be the home of the Red Button. She had seen a small poster advertising the visit on one of many scruffy, overcrowded notice-boards at uni. It was partly covered over by newer posters, but the date was still visible, and hadn’t happened yet.

Time to further pursue our investigations,” says Bub. “An opportunity not to be missed, and one unlikely to arise again.” Bub can be wordy at times. He speaks like a civil servant, Aoife thinks, or a police officer giving a televised statement.

Aoife lingers towards the back of the group, looking from side to side rather than ahead, where the Guide leads them, perspiring whilst explaining about fuel rods, graphite powder, the purpose of the little blue badges they had been given to wear on their lapels, etcetera. Earlier they had been forced to watch a scratchy film in which protons and electrons were depicted as billiard balls of different colours and sizes, whizzing – but conveniently slowly – about one another. How many generations have passed since people stopped conceiving of atoms as slowly-whizzing, different coloured billiard balls, she wonders.

She’s looking out for a door left ajar, perhaps, or an unattended corridor that might take her closer to the rumoured Red Button. Even now she can scarcely imagine that there could be such a thing, and that if it really is here they can be so cavalier about it, when visitors are about.

The human ape, in its arrogance and conceit, has an amazing propensity for carelessness,” Bub reminds her, neither on her shoulder nor quite inside her head. Sometimes Aoife wonders whether Bub is male or female. It seems to be both, or neither; or either one, depending on its mood…

And then, to her left, she spots it. Down a narrow green-painted corridor a heavy door has been left open, and from it spills a faint, reddish light. It isn’t difficult to slip away from the group. There are cameras in the corridor ceiling, she notices, but they do not alter their position to follow her as she tiptoes towards the door. The floor is made of springy silver metal, with raised patterns.

And there it is, a small room with nothing else inside it but a plinth upon which sits the Red Button; an enormous button, to fit a giant’s hand. Will she even have the strength to push it, she wonders. Will she have the courage? She is suddenly very nervous. Pressing it will result in her own destruction as well as everyone else’s. What will it feel like to die in such a violent way? She finds she cannot console herself with a paradise flowing with milk and honey and endlessly available virgins, or angels perched on clouds and playing harps… she can manufacture no belief in such things. What will Nothing At All feel like?

No more of me whispering in your ear,” says Bub. Bub knows her so very well. Silence, peace and quiet, a rest from Bub is an attractive prospect.

Aoife is momentarily afraid to cross the threshold in case the heavy metal door slams shut behind her. In films, that’s what always happens. Whether it is a heavy metal door, a secret panel or a concealed stone door in a cave on some distant planet, it always swings shut behind you. But she can read what is stencilled on the button, even from the doorway. It says: DO NOT PRESS.

It is those words that make it easy. For who can resist the urge to press any button that says DO NOT PRESS? It just has to be done, just as cliffs have to be jumped off and ledges on skyscraper buildings become unbearably confining, so that one must take flight…

Aoife strides towards the button. Shutting her eyes very tight, she presses it.

fruitfly

Thinking about it at her leisure – and she is to have a lot of leisure – she realises that any actual nuclear missile would take time to be despatched towards – the enemy, whoever they currently are – and many more minutes for it to reach its target. And then there would be an interlude of forty minutes or so before the enemy’s retaliation arrived. But at the time she was expecting a blast of shrapnel to rip through her, or at the very least to be deafened by klaxons or sirens. She was expecting lights to flash and all hell instantly let loose.

She isn’t expecting crude masculine laughter. Nor is she expecting, when she does manage to unglue her eyelids from one another, to see that an unremarkable rectangular wall-panel has transformed itself into a window, and that behind the glass are three uniformed security guards in high-backed black chairs, laughing and pointing at her.

Gotcha!

Bagged us another one, Harry. That’ll be three this month.

And then the door clangs shut.

fruitfly

Two year later Aoife McKendrick is discharged from the secure mental health facility in which she has been being treated for paranoid schizophrenia. The authorities soon realised that she is not connected with the worrying phenomenon of Killer Queens, as the newspapers have started to call them – a surge in the number of young white women, seemingly unknown to each other, who have come to the conclusion that the human race is too vile to survive and that they are the ones to do the exterminating.
They have decided that Aoife McKendrick falls into a more familiar and explicable category: she is merely insane. Common or garden madness was normal in comparison to this mysterious, cold, destructive instinct that had arisen in women all over the globe. Aoife could be started on anti-psychotics. A bright young woman, by all accounts. No reason she shouldn’t return to her studies once her illness had been got under control.

Aoife is happy too, for she is finally free of the buzzing, and the insistent voice of her tormentor and companion, Bub.

She grew up a plain girl, fat and rather spotty, but during her two years in the facility the excess blubber has dropped off, without her even trying. The food was dull and there wasn’t enough of it for the old Aoife, but it was wholesome. Her acne gradually subsided. Towards the end of her sentence she selected as one of her therapeutic activities a few afternoons of Cosmetic Therapy, tutored by a visiting beautician. By the time she steps out into late summer sunshine at the end of her two years she looks like a new woman. In her bag is a letter from the University of Edinburgh, welcoming her back to finish the MSc in biochemistry.

And it is a beautiful day. The flowers in parks and gardens are somewhat past their prime, but the bees are buzzing. Honey is being made. Her past need not be spoken of, they have said, as long as she keeps on taking the tablets. There will always be a need for promising scientific minds like hers.

Of course, dear Aoife,” says Bub, resuming their dialogue as if he only paused it a second ago, “the Red Button is merely a metaphor.

It will have occurred to you by now that there is more than one kind of button, and that it doesn’t have to be red.

It doesn’t even have to be a button.

The Sewing Machine Mouse

Now, machines are notoriously grumpy. This is why the refrigerator elects to break down just before somebody’s birthday party. This is why the washing machine floods the kitchen floor on the very day you return from your holidays bearing suitcase after suitcase of unwashed smalls and sandy bathing costumes. Machines lead a boring life, on the whole, and they blame humans for this.

And this is why household appliances do not tell us that they can grant wishes. At least, selected wishes. An electric oven, for example, has the power to make it a nice sunny day for a picnic. If it chooses. It can cause a woolly blanket to wrap itself around the shoulders of an old lady who has fallen asleep on the sofa in Midwinter. If it chooses. But it will not choose very often.

A television can, if it chooses, happen to be showing your favourite soppy romantic film of all time when you are feeling particularly down and your boyfriend has just left you for some blonde floosie he happened to bump into in a supermarket car park, just by accident.

Except of course that it might not have been an accident. Cars can grant wishes, if they choose. Why, even supermarket trolleys have been known to grant wishes to passing strangers – if they happen to have woken up feeling full of beans that day. So your faithless boyfriend may just have happened to wish for a blonde floosie of some sort as he locked his Ford Fiesta with that funny little key thing that hardly ever works, or as he passed a trolley bay…

A fridge – ah, a refrigerator can only really do things to do with cold, or at any rate cooler. In a heatwave, say, it might cause a cool breeze to flutter across the heated brow of the plumber, quietly cursing under your sink to fix that awkward bit of piping. It might send a cold shiver up your spine to remind you that you have forgotten Auntie Gertie’s birthday yet again, and better get a card in the post right now.

And what can a sewing machine do? Well, sewing machines are a bit different. They do indeed grant wishes, but only to animals. Sewing machines prefer animals to human beings, you see, and I can’t say I blame them.

So when a funny little cloth mouse appeared on my sewing machine this afternoon, all crooked button eyes and wiggly stitching, with a piece of cord for a tail and ears that looked as if they might have been sewn on backwards, I knew… George, innocently asleep now in a basket of paper patterns for, of all things, aprons… George had just been dreaming of a mouse of his very own.

sewing mouse

 

When the alarm sounded…

When the alarm sounded we knew it could only be a minute or two so I took the tea-towels out of the tumble-dryer and folded them neatly (somehow I couldn’t enter Eternity without that being done) and

Pete went down the garden with a bucket to dig up the spuds for Sunday Lunch because that’s what he had been just about to do, and it wouldn’t be Sunday Lunch without new potatoes. Not that we’d get to eat them.

I thought about that Clause I’d put in my Will aimed at Cousin Julia who’d stopped talking to me in 1978 (or was it ’79?) but realised it was too late to have it taken out since all the solicitors would be down the shelters by now and anyway Armageddon was upon us and Julia was about to be toast along with the Will and all the rest of us.

Just time to let the canary out of its cage, poor dear, for one last flap around the living room.

Pete had been a very long time getting those potatoes.

new potatoes

Ah well…

(180 words)

From a Distance

It is a controlled fall from the ship. I have practiced it many times before, wings tightly folded on either side of my spine. As never before, I feel my own fierce strength, the glory of interconnecting mesh of muscles make it possible for wings and body to work together. I am tense. I must wait. There is a right time for wings to open, and I will sense that time as well as being able to read it on my wrist. A moment too soon and…

My ancestors had a tale of a boy called Icarus, who made himself wings of wax and flew too near the sun; hard to imagine not having wings, having to make them. What did he fasten them with, I wonder. Straps of leather? Straps of cloth? I have read of such substances, just as I have read of Icarus. The inevitable happened, of course. In the end he flew too close to Sol, the category 2 yellow dwarf now scorching my back as I fall – so very small, after our own, and so very hot. And why should this be a surprise? I have read a mountain of textbooks in preparation for this overflight of my home planet, seen pictures, viewed endless animations. I knew what it would be like. And yet I knew nothing.

What could that story have meant, really? Was it merely a tale of a foolish boy, designed to amuse an audience with a rudimentary sense of humour? Or was it more? Terra stories are known for a quality of symbolism so it might be that this one has a deeper meaning. A caution against arrogance, perhaps, and over-reaching.

The black chronometer on my wrist is set to Terra time. I must fall like this for six point five of their minutes. It feels like a lifetime.

I cannot believe I am finally here. I am so fortunate, to have been selected for this reconnaissance mission to my ancestral planet. My Terran genetic heritage would have helped, of course, though in training they warned me that I would need to set aside any false sentimentality about ‘the old country’.

‘Assessor Aiden, bear in mind that this is the planet that blasted your genetic antecedents out into cold space, in suspended animation and in a relatively primitive craft, on a mission to colonise Mars. Mars, of all planets – that hell hole! It was suicidal: those on the ground must have known it and those in the spaceship, as they stepped into their cryo-chambers and pressed the ‘freeze’ button, must at least have suspected it. It was mere political one-upmanship, vanity, showing off.

‘If our ancestors had not rescued your ancestors, studied them, bred from them and then, when it was proven safe to do so, interbred with them, there would be no Assessor Aidan. How many second-rate and failing races have we conserved in this fashion over the millennia? We are a long way towards gathering into a single race all that is best in the universe, whilst eliminating all that is worst. What an uncontrolled mess the universe be by now, without our Programme…’

Falling to earth. Like Icarus, I find myself thinking.

icaru-2

A sleek silver spaceship is in orbit around the planet known as Terra, a smallish satellite of star Sol. Ship’s Captain B’etal and First Officer Mata are able to see everything Assessor Aidan is seeing, via his implant. In the ship’s control room they witness again what they have both witnessed so many times before – and what a succession of other Captains and First Officers have been forced to witness before that. They watch as Aidan glides over that drought-ridden continent known as Africa. Village after village of scattered dead bodies, starvation and thirst. Dead cattle. Dead everything. Men with guns in battered trucks, almost as starved and thirsty as the villagers they patrol.

With Aidan they sweep over what were once known as the Americas – two great lumps of land strung together by a delicate land-bridge. They see a stone statue with a stone crown, holding aloft a stone flame; very little else but scorched earth. Everything disintegrated. Shadows of bodies etched into half-demolished walls. Their instruments record increased blood pressure, stress levels through the roof.

‘Contain any emotional response, Assessor. Remember your training…’

How fortunate that Aidan does not know he is the five-hundred-and-first Assessor to have performed this sweep. Had he been aware that his vote and his alone will be the one to decide the fate of this cesspit of a failed planet, had he known that this very day he will effectively be Judge, Jury and Executioner for many millions of years of history…

They are never told, so that none of them has to shoulder the burden of guilt. All are equally guilty, or equally innocent depending how you choose to look at it. An Assessor performs but a single mission before moving on to other work. He might be the first, he might be the last, or any intermediate one of the five-hundred-and-one. Or there may be more than five hundred and one. Or there might be just one. Not knowing, he is able to maintain the necessary professional detachment.

Except that this particular Assessor does not seem to be doing so. His blood-pressure is still rising.

Through Assessor Aidan’s eyes Captain B’etal and First Officer Mata are now viewing what was once known as Europa, and which the textbooks describe as a collection of individual nations, each with its own language and culture. They see War and, as the Assessor glides over a muddy, pockmarked battlefield on the eastern edge of that territory, they see a group of men in battered uniforms, gazing skyward, pointing, tracking the strange blue creature with their eyes. They exclaiming over its great muscular wings, its vast, exotic wing-span. And positioning what looks like an ancient piece of military equipment.

‘Abort. Pull him out of there.’

‘Aborting. Repeat, aborting. Maintain level flight whilst we position ourselves to tractor you out. Assessor Aidan, do you read us?’

From the ground arises a thud, a sudden explosion, an ominous hissing sound, a streak of fire.

‘What is that?’

Their displays are doing a wild dance, skimming through diagrams of Terran weapons at lightning speed.

‘Rocket-launcher.’

‘He’s hit. He’s falling. One wing…’

‘Assessor Aidan, give your report.

No reply.

‘Assessor Aidan, your decision, please, before you die. There is still time. Press Red or Green on your tunic panel.’

Still no answer.

‘Assessor Aidan, listen to me now. You have been hit. Give your report. Green for Save, Red for Cleanse.’

Green or Red, Assessor? It is your duty to report.

There is no sound in space as the half-human, blue-winged creature crashes to the ground. No sound as it lies on the ground with broken wings and neck. The ragged soldiers, though still a long way off, are running in its general direction.

icarus-blue

Captain B’etal and First Officer Mata exchange glances and know that they are thinking approximately the same few things.

That however accidental the death of Assessor Aidan may have been, the Captain and First Officer are likely to be held in some way responsible for it.

That there will be endless enquiries and inquests.

That there will be a forfeiture of bonuses and/or a docking of pay.

That this fiasco is bound to be noted on their service records.

And then there is the delay in completing this important mission. This particular planet is urgently required for Re-Seeding. The formalities have had to be observed, of course, due diligence carried out, but the Programme must go on. A Green verdict was never really on the cards. Terra has been degenerating year on year; noticeably worsening with each new sweep. No hope for the blighted lump of rock. Cleanse and Re-Seed is by far the better option: a new Eden.

Captain B’etal continues to hold First Officer Mata’s eye as, in slow-motion, he reaches towards the red button on his own console. He is asking her one final question, and silently, since all their conversations are recorded. Scarcely a nod and then she leans forward to place her hand over his. Together, they press the Red button.