MIDWINTER UNWRITTEN

This one short story has fought me mounted and standing – a description I once read of a novel that was giving its author a pretty hard time – on and off for the past twenty years, and I still haven’t pinned it to the field of battle with my trusty sword… to push the fantasy/archaic military imagery slightly beyond its usefulness.

It started out as a ballad – you know, one of those long poems with interminable four-line verses – and rather a good one, I thought. However, at some point I decided it had to be turned into a short story and then, various house moves and computer meltdowns later, discovered I had lost the poem and could no longer remember the words. Unfortunately I still have the character Midwinter in my head, and I still have the story behind the poem. If only I hadn’t lost the original poem, I might have been able to let go of the short story obsession. Midwinter still nadges at me for her story to be told.

The original beginning for this phantom short story, went:

The robes of Wizardesses are blue with stars. The robes of Wizards are green with stars. And there are still Others, of whom little is known and less is said, whose robes are beyond description being of all the colours of the rainbow, and none. But all have stars.

I just adored those four sentences, but didn’t get much beyond them.

Harry Potter put a spanner in the works. Pinched some of my (unwritten, unpublished) ideas, so she did.

I have made plot summaries for this short story. I have written various half- and quarter-versions of it – filed them, fished them out, had another go, filed them, fished them out. All those yellowing bunches of file paper held together with rusty staples or rusty paperclips. Recently I even conceived a plan for a quartet of linked short stories based on an ever-expanding (in my mind, only) saga of conflict, cruelty and retribution between an ancient race of wizards and an equally ancient race of men. Each element in the quartet was going to have the name one of the Celtic festivals – Samhain, Imbolc, Beltane, Lughnasadh – with the grand, overarching title of Midwinter. It was going to be the bee’s knees, this quartet of mine.

I had another go at it this afternoon. Maybe if I just start writing, I thought. Attempt to channel my inner wizardess…

The child had no name. Sometimes it was called It. Sometimes it was called You. Once in a while it was addressed as Wryshanks on account of its twisted legs and crooked back. In its head it was Midwinter, for the time it arrived at Castle Bellbroke, and for the first of its memories.

Of that day, it mostly remembered cold. Thin limbs, a think blanket, cold like a rat a-pinching its ears and gnawing at its face. Its fingers and toes were afire with the pain of cold and it waited for death. Death, so much better than cold.

Above it, a mouth full of iron teeth, like the teeth of an iron giant. Great chains on either side. Above that windows like slits for arrows to come through. What it rested on was wood, slatted, wet. Wet seeped through its blanket…

Gone. Now I know how men must feel.

What to do? I know this could be a good short story, maybe more than one short story – a novel, even. So why can’t I write it? I am writing this to find out why I can’t write it.

Um… I am wondering if it wants to be a poem again? Tell me, Midwinter, are you wanting me to re-materialise you, atom by atom, as an interminable ballad that no one will read? No one reads poems. I love poetry and even I don’t read poems. Not in blogs, anyway.

Is it because I’ve tried and failed so many times before? Is it possible to lose all interest in a character yet still not be able to let them go? Why can’t I just dump you, Midwinter? Hop on the bus, Gus…

Is it perhaps that you are me, Midwinter? What is it about you that both grieves and obsesses me, makes me reluctant to nail your sorry self to the floor and be done with you? Would I be repairing some great rent in my inner landscape in repairing you, my Twisted Child? Are my Archetypes even now engaged in mortal combat? And have they always been so? Sometimes I have this image of dragons entwining, warring dragons becoming one, metamorphosing. Am I ready for that battle, that becoming and that extinguishment? Do I want to be that powerful? Could I bear a happy ending, if I could write it?

Maybe I run on misery.

Would I be destroyed, if I was happy?

[If the thing ever gets written, believe me, you will know. I will trumpet it from the rooftops, I will tell it in Gath, I will proclaim it in the streets of Ashkelon: MIDWINTER WRITTEN – yay!]

EDEN (1)

I SAW it before it saw me, or at least so I thought at the time.

Daleth is the cycle in which the sun first begins to feel warm on one’s back and the birds start building their nests, and it was early one morning in Daleth that the Angel first appeared to us. Gideon had lost his favourite ewe and, he being sightless now, Sharma and I were accompanying him on the search.

Gideon, my father, The Elder, a shepherd, a shaman.

Sharma, a girl of sixteen summers, his brother’s child.

And myself, Marthe.

At first it was no more than a white speck moving a hundred cubits below, weaving a complicated path between the trees. I noticed, even from far above, that its long naked feet made no impression on the turf, as if they were out of sequence, the turf existing in one reality and it in another. As it came closer it resolved itself into exactly what you might imagine an angel to be, a flame-haired being, winged and robed. Ah, those wings! I felt such tenderness for those wings that tears started from my eyes and coursed down my cheeks. Glancing over at Sharma to see if she was similarly moved, I caught an expression I had not expected. For a moment I was sure I recognised it, but then, what could I know of such things? I told myself I was mistaken, for it had looked like lust.

Gideon stopped dead, scenting the air like a hind.

‘What is it, Marthe, what do you see?’

‘I believe it to be an Angel,’ I replied. Even to my own ears my voice sounding oddly prosaic, as if I was remarking upon an unusual moth or butterfly.

The Angel stopped and looked up, inspecting us with care. I could scarcely breathe. I felt engulfed by its attention, as by a wave of the sea. I swear that for a moment I sensed its eyes resting not only upon my face but in my blood, in my bones. Then it unfurled its wings and in a moment had risen up the sheer face of The Edge and was hovering. So close was it that I fancied I caught the hiss of air through feathers. All nature seeming to pulse to the beat of those glorious wings.

THE ANGEL returned with us to our village, home of the Seventh Tribe, where Gideon caused the horn to be blown in the age-old pattern, calling upon the people to prepare in haste a feast. One by one they began to appear in the doorways of their dwellings. When they caught sight of the Angel behind us, there was a moment of shocked silence as they tried to understand what they were seeing. Then they scattered, each to his own allotted task.

Before long every last member of the Seventh was gathered in the centre of the village. An ox was slaughtered and a bonfire built to roast it upon, and our children ran about in a storm of cinders and ash. The Old Ones set up a drumming, to call the Sixth from over the hill. Soon, by ones and twos, our cousins began to straggle in, anxious to catch a glimpse of, maybe even touch, the first Angel to visit us on Eden. Meanwhile the Angel sat by the fire, its eyes fixed on the flames, absorbing the heat as though long since starved of such.

The sun hung red and dying on the horizon as the moons began to rise. First Krista, the golden; then the twins Marta and Alph followed by indigo Shem and violet Shan. Finally, after an infinitesimal hanging-back during which you could not somehow help but to hold your breath, rose Menem the green, the smallest of them all. The first few rays of Menem’s light are of such poisonous intensity that they kill the unborn children, in any female child.

I, MARTHE, am thus accursed. Four and thirty summers ago, my mother having delayed too long in the fields that evening, Menem rose in the sky and I was born unsheltered into Eden. Ever since have paid the price for my mother’s carelessness, but the price she paid was greater. She gave birth alone in her hut, with none of the women to assist her. As soon as she was fit to walk she was given a small bundle of food and belongings and sent off in exile to the Ninth, the untouchables, those who have been cast out for their crimes, never to be invited to Feasts or communicated with in any way again. I think of her sometimes and wonder if she survived, and whether she would find another man to look after her. Maybe I have brothers and sisters.

Gideon’s father was the Elder then. Heartbroken at the loss of his young wife Gideon broke with tradition and begged to be permitted to follow her into exile. His father would not allow it.

OUR FEASTINGS last three days. The first day is to greet, the second is for the sharing of visions and the third is for saying farewell. On the second day Gideon and I set out for the Forest to pluck Fruit from the Tree. He had gone alone in the past but there was no question of that now. He needed my eyes, and my arm to steady him on the path and my body to make the descent of The Edge, which would be certain death to a blind man.

A descent of The Edge is always perilous. There are step-spirals hacked into the chalk with handholds only as nature happens to provide: an overhanging tree if you are lucky, or a tuft of grass. More than once I slipped and thought it would be the end of me, but although my shins were scraped raw and bloody I managed to save myself. Hastily I tore strips from my underskirt and bound up my wounds, covering all with my robe.

The foot of The Edge is a dark, dark place; it took all my courage to face those legions of trees stretching away, rank and file, as far as the eye could see. ‘In that place,’ Gideon had forewarned me, ‘the traveller has no choice but to sing. He must sing the Forest Song so that the Forest may know him. He trusts that, knowing him, the Forest will make him a path.’

It might not; and I was not a shaman. No woman could be.

My legs were weak from the strain of the long descent, still stinging from the vicious scrapes the path had inflicted; but worse, I found that my mind had become as white as a lamb’s back and I could no longer recall the words of the Forest Song that Gideon had taught me.

I cast around ever more desperately for any sort of path. The Edge stood at my back and no matter how I craned my neck, the top was invisible, lost in distance and clouds. And then, quite suddenly, a memory arose in me, of Gideon’s deep voice crooning lullabies as we returned from our long days on the hillside with the sheep. As I bumped along in the sling on his back in the summer twilight, my arms clasped around his neck, his words would drift back to me through a haze of sleep:

  • Three things are known to me,
  • Three things to compass by:
  • Menem the Green will rise
  • Sixth in a starry sky;
  • A shepherd will find his sheep
  • No matter how far he must fare,
  • And the forest will make a path
  • For a pure soul wandering there.

So I sang this, and without any awareness of having moved or travelled I found the Tree before me, so tall it reached right to Heaven, the trunk seeming to broaden even as I watched until all the Forest appeared to have melded into this one, single tree, whose leaves multiplied and multiplied again, a deeper and glossier green. As my song came to an end I stood trembling, with cupped hands, as the Tree itself reached down and dropped a great green globe into them. The Fruit rested heavy in my hand, warming, becoming part of me, then all of me, or I all of it.

Time to return to Gideon, and for both of us to return to the Tribe.

AS WE approached the settlement I saw Sharma coming towards us from the direction of the Angel’s hut. Gideon heard her greeting and stared ahead, smiling vaguely in welcome, but I had cause to give thanks that he could not see what I saw. We paused while she caught up to us; she looked, I thought, flushed and foolish.

‘He has been teaching me,’ she mumbled, the memory flittering across her face like a bat in the dusk, then a tiny, fearful, lascivious smile. ‘That is, the Angel has been teaching me, of the nature of the universe, and of Oneness.’ Sharma seemed scarcely to care whether I believed her or not, so lost was she in the throbbing afterglow of whatever had just taken place between herself and our visitor.

I thought of my Oneness with the Fruit, mirroring the Tree’s Oneness with the Forest. Seeing Sharma’s disordered clothing and inability to meet my eyes, I could not help suspecting that the Oneness Sharma spoke of was of another species. Gideon was now carrying the Fruit. Instinctively, without explanation, I reached across and placed my hand upon it.

This time it was different. It was as if I was being burnt, not so much in my flesh as in my soul. Sharma remained before me, but darkened and transformed. It was as if I was now dreaming her rather than seeing her. Her face was wreathed in cloud, infinitely high, and I saw that her feet were disappearing into the earth, as if taking root there. But what I saw coiled in her belly. O Menem! O Krista! Something writhing. No, no, many things, snakelike and bony and black, growing apace, clamouring to be born!

EDEN (2)

GIDEON BEING Elder and shaman both, it should have been he who ate of the Fruit that night, at the Second Feasting. But this could not be; for Gideon and I shared a secret from the rest of the Seventh Tribe. As the sight of his body had declined, so too had the other Sight. It had been taken from him so quickly, five cycles at most before both sight and Sight were gone as if they had never been, and the Fruit would no longer vouchsafe him visions.

As far as either Gideon or I knew, this had never happened before; none of the Stories, our usual source of wisdom, gave tell of it. But the fact that it had happened presented us with a grave problem for the Fruit is poisonous to all but the very few. And it maddens, may even kill, those who have not inherited immunity. Gideon possessed this immunity, but he had no sons. After my mother’s banishment he kept his oath to take no other woman in her place, as would have been his right. One child only Gideon had.

Marthe, myself.

Only sons had ever been permitted to eat of the Fruit, so we had no way of knowing whether I was immune, or even whether a daughter could be immune; but the visions were so important; they allowed us to see through the flesh, through the appearance of things, and so to the truth. It was in accordance with these visions that we planted our crops, decided when or whether to marry and divined the futures of the children born of those marriages.

And so, between us, we had decided upon a plan. At the appointed time we would retire into Gideon’s hut: no one would be likely to object to a blind man being assisted by his daughter in this most solemn of rituals. Once inside, hidden from the Tribe, I would lie down and take the fruit, with Gideon at my side. As the visions came to me – if they came – I would attempt to give voice to what I saw, whilst Gideon would listen carefully. When all was done, and whether or not I survived, Gideon would step out to the waiting Tribe and relate my visions to his tribespeople as if they were his own.

‘Are you sure that you want to do this, my child?’ Gideon’s voice, for the first time, was that of an old man: I heard the grief in it, I heard his fear. I raised to my mouth the bowl into which he had poured the juice of the Fruit. Pieces of the green flesh swam around in the juice. It appeared a harmless, everyday substance, like any other drink.

Gideon said, ‘I never told you, my dear, how much I have loved you.’

There was no going back, however much I might wish there could be. Until today I had merely been apprehensive of the effect of the Fruit; curious, even. I was a woman accursed of Menem. There could never be a man for my bed or children for my heart and I had nothing but loneliness and a barren life ahead of me. What could there be in death to frighten me so very much? But having seen the vision of Sharma, with her head in the cloud and her snake-children writhing, and that arising just from laying my hand on the Fruit, I found myself shaking violently in anticipation of the ordeal to come. Controlling it as best I could, and forcing a smile into my voice, swiftly I drained the bowl.

‘But I knew, Gideon. I always knew.’

THE HEAT of my own funeral pyre returned me to my senses. In my head I was trying to move, but my body refused to obey. Every part of me hurt so badly. A flame licked at my ankle, and then I caught the smell of my own flesh, roasting. I screamed, and screamed again. And then there was pandemonium. The voices, many. Hands gripping tightly. Arms reaching in to snatch at me, pulling me down from the pyre in a tearing of twigs, a tumbling of logs. Fire had caught at the robe I was wearing and someone was beating at the fabric with their hands, rolling me over in the dust. And finally, silence.

The Tribe arranged themselves in a circle around me, apparently waiting for me to speak. I opened my mouth and tried, but no sound issued forth; my throat seemed clogged with the dust of ages. Someone held a flagon of water to my lips and I drained it to the last drop.

‘Where is the Angel?’ was what I was trying to say, but still I could not make myself understood.

Finally, and all at once, it seemed, the Tribe started to talk to me, telling me what had happened. I had drunk of the Fruit and had lain as one dead, neither speaking nor moving. When much time had elapsed and he had been unable to revive me, his heart numb with grief and having received no intelligence from me as to what visions I might have seen, Gideon had stumbled out of the hut to confess what had been done.

‘Marthe has sacrificed herself for you, my people, and for me. She partook of the Fruit, and has perished for our sakes.’ And with that he ceased to be a shaman, or an Elder. Becoming my father again, he wept.

To all this they had listened in silence and then some of the older women had followed Gideon into the hut. One by one they stooped to discern a heartbeat, but there was none. Holding a mirror to my mouth, they saw that no breath clouded it.

‘WHERE IS the Angel?’ I screamed at them now, for the vision I had suffered under the Fruit was returning to me in full force.

‘Where is the Angel now?’

‘Why, he took all the children to The Edge for a special feast,’ said Sharma. ‘He thought to save them the sight of the funeral pyre. His only concern was for them. They followed him willingly enough, for he promised them games and laughter.’

I was up and attempting to walk now, but my legs buckled under me. ‘Carry me,’ I heard myself shouting, ‘carry me!’ An unfamiliar note of command seemed to have entered my voice, and they obeyed without question. And so we hurried to The Edge path, Gideon and I and the whole of the Seventh Tribe; but of them all, I was the only one who despaired, certain it would be too late.

I knew what I would find there: children hurled down one by one into the darkness of the Forest. On the very spot where I had so lately stood, casting around for a Forest Song to sing, we would be forced to gaze upon a heap of crumpled, bloodied bodies. And there, crouched amongst them, would be the creature. Angel no longer but a great carcass of a thing, brown and hideously winged, its hind legs hinged and long, out of all proportion to its carapace. It would be chattering to itself as it picked over the bones of our children, scrabbling at them with its long disgusting claws, some kind of insect being, equivalent in size to the Angel but different in every other way.

I looked down into the Forest as the dark images the Fruit had vouchsafed me translated themselves into reality, in our everyday, daylight, sunlit world.

It glanced up then and I swear that even from so far above I could hear it mocking me, a faint tinny cackle no Angel could have made. Then it recommenced its gnawing upon the tumbled limbs.

And at that moment a sound came from the village. A woman crying out in pain.

Sharma’s labour, even now, had begun.

A Tiger by the Tail

Now, this is going to be a prompt-and-three-quarters!

Dragonettes was intended to be the first of a series of linked fantasy short stories. The idea was that I would eventually have bamboozled myself into writing an entire novel, sidestepping the bitter anguish of sustaining a plot for a whole 100,000 words. Grandiosely, I had even christened the entire, never-to-be-written collection DRAGONISTICS.

I’m donating the first 1664 words of Dragonettes to any writer – or non-writer – maybe just someone looking for a challenge. They are in fact the only 1664 words, the rest having once been in my head, where no longer seem to be. You might decide to take up where Dragonettes ends. You might just take the basic idea and run with  it according to your own imaginings. It doesn’t even have to be dragons – it could be any shipment of any commodity that turns out to be so much more of a handful than the hapless – but not entirely blameless – buyer anticipated. A case of having a tiger by the tail.

Dragonettes

Astin had been looking forward with less and less enthusiasm to the delivery of his dragonette consignment the closer the time came. This was unexpected since they represented a multi-million profit-making opportunity, of which Astin was in desperate need.

He had been waiting five and a half months since he placed his order with Dragonistics on Ioflviea22, claiming to be ordering on behalf the University of North Anglia, but working from home in Brentwood. Fortunately Ioflevia22 was sufficiently remote from Earth for North, South or West Anglia to sound no less probable than East Anglia. Also fortunate that, between themselves, Ioflevians habitually communicated telepathically, and so had little interest in the primitive data-sharing electronics of what they regarded as the lesser alien races. Afire with his latest idea he had attempted to contact Dragonistics direct via the InterPlanet link in their VidAd. It took a long time to get through. Astin had a distinct sense of Governmental security being clicked through, of labyrinthine researches being done into his character and background, over and above what he had already supplied.

There was always an overlay of static, both visual and auditory, on visuals originating from such distant planets, but Dragonistics’ interference was more pervasive than most. The individual facing him on screen was large, he could see, somewhat odd-shaped and knobbly, and his, her or its voice combined booming feedback with a kind of underwater gurgling. Astin wasn’t particularly curious, and even if he had been he would have been careful not to show it. You got used to seeing all sorts, humanoid, android, serpentine, many-eyed, shape-shifting. To appear surprised or amused would have been unthinkable, a breach of InterPlanetary etiquette. Astin imagined that to who- or whatever that was at Dragonistics, he would appear like a small, pinky-browninsh worm with, at intervals, matched pairs of limbs or possibly antennae, only the upper pair of which was visible behind the desk, together with a smooth, round head incorporating a hole, from which issued guttural sounds.

The individual also seemed somewhat irritable, for a sales representative. Speaking through some kind of translation module it redirected Astin to a call centre operated by Dragonistics’ UK Agent located, unromantically, in Bristol.

There was a waiting list for this particular commodity, for it had to be harvested, and harvesting it was not at all easy. In placing his order he had been abundantly clear as to his requirements: dragonettes, not dragons; first-gen yellows, blues and reds only, none of your greens and your oranges and definitely no purples. Oranges he had been advised on good authority were unreliable, docile one minute, rampaging the next; purples were downright scary and aggressive and greens, possibly the most worrying of all second-generation dragons, were utterly devious but in such a charming and magical way that they would lull one into a sense of false security. And all of them were too big.

The dragonette idea had come to him in a dream, and an enchanting dream it had been. Astin’s dreams tended to be bog standard black and white, but this one had been in colour. More than that, it had glittered. It was jewel-encrusted, somehow. No, that wasn’t right. There had been no actual jewels on his dream dragonettes, but he had got the feeling of jewels, an impression of…value. The dream had inspired him as no dream had ever done before.

He had also been very definite about the way they were to be accommodated on their journey, stipulating the sturdiest possible crates, lined with lead sheeting. Even the breathing apertures were to be covered in lead-mesh. Astin would have preferred thicker sheeting and mesh than he was actually getting.

“For interplanetary freighting purposes, lightweight is the only option,” the bored girl on the telescreen informed him, followed by some monotone mumbo-jumbo about wormholes, stress-factors and hyper-flexibility.

Now, suddenly, onscreen was a small wincing man with a greasy comb-over, confirming arrival at Spaceterminal BetaZee. It was Dragonistics Earthside agent requesting immediate pickup.

Immediate? Ah, er, I wasn’t expecting them until next week. ”

“My client company contracted with you to feed and house the consignment on its journey to destination planet, sir, but from the moment they made touchdown Earthside they became your own responsibility. Sorry sir, but they’ve been in our warehouse a couple of hours now and to judge by the hubbub they’re creating they’re already getting pretty hungry.”

“Um, what do they eat?”

“You import a crate load of dragonettes without even knowing what they eat?” exclaimed greasy comb-over, momentarily shocked out of his customer-service persona.

“Well, I assumed – meat, of some kind…?”

“Hungry enough, good buddy, and they’d eat your dog, your cat or even your baby.” The man seemed to have abandoned his customer-service hat altogether now, laughing, but not entirely humorously. Astin simply could not tell whether he was joking. Pray God he was joking or he was going to shift a crate load of merchandise that turned out to eat pets and babies. He could not bear to continue the conversation.

“Give me a couple of hours and I’ll be there.” Transferring straight online, he was relieved to discover that there was a feedstock store selling something called Dragon Kibble. This appeared to be version of dog biscuits and was described as a Dietarily Complete in Every Aspect for the First Generation Dragon. The store displayed no advertisements for Second or Third Generation Kibble. Maybe there was no fooling the bigger ones with biscuits. No, it would be a similar sort of stuff, just maybe bigger kibbles, wider range of nutrients, larger portion per dragon. Irrelevant in any case since, providing all went to plan, the dragonettes would not be in Astin’s possession long enough to even think of breeding. The real-world store traded out of industrial estate only slightly off Astin’s route to BetaZed’s bonded warehouses. He paid over the odds for 15 x 30ltr sacks of the Kibble on the understanding that he could detour to pick them up.

“Sure, have it ready on a pallet for you. Sorry, but I’m legally obliged to confirm this with you, sir, though I’m sure you’ll be up to speed on the Import of Extra-Terrestrial Species Regulations. Dragons for the purposes of academic research only?”

“Oh, absolutely.” He lied. Astin’s plan was to be the first to sell the little beasties on the black market, but he was hardly going to admit that.

A crate of dragons, dimensions unknown, plus a pallet of 30 litre Kibble sacks – he would take the bigger of the two vans. Luckily Dolorez was not due back until tomorrow, which meant he would be able to get his contraband safely stowed away in his lockup facility before she got a chance to fasten her beady eyes on it.

Dolorez was his receptionist, though she referred to herself as his partner, which she was not, in either the matrimonial or the business sense. He wasn’t even sure if she qualified as “his” at all since the minute Martin Merriweather, his chief rival in the export-import business, insinuated a handsome, sparkly-toothed head around the door of the receptionist’s cubicle in Astin’s commercial premises, Dolorez disappeared. For all Astin knew, Merriweather and Dolorez had been together in the Bahamas for the past two weeks, indulging in unimaginable sexual shenanigans and converting their spray tans into real ones; she’d told him a girls-only trip but then she’d told him many things.

It was a nervous drive to BetaZed and an even more nervous one back. At the warehouse he had ripped the top of one of his newly-acquired sacks of Kibble, opened the feeding hatch and ladled some inside. The lead coating obscured his view. He caught glimpses of multi-coloured flashes and heard a miscellaneous kind of roaring-growling as his dragonettes scrabbled for their food. What was really unsettling was the violent way in which twenty smallish, seething creatures were making the crate jump; it was an earthquake-in-a-box. Excruciatingly delayed by rush-hour traffic he was forced to pull off at a service station and throw in more Kibbles. He now saw that there was a tube connecting the outside of the dragonette container to what appeared to be a dispenser tank of some sort on the inside. Online in the driving seat he typed Do dragons drink water? He got through to some kind of academic chat line in which he learned that they did, though it might be said not to be their preferred tipple, LOL. There was obviously some kind of crusty in-joke going on here but Astin was way past figuring it out. He locked the van and scuttled into the service station, emerging with several plastic bottles of warmish still water to pour down the tube. Best not to risk carbonated, he decided.

By the time Astin and his cargo got back to the rented factory unit on the outskirts of Brentwood he was hot and tired, the dragonettes were restless and dusk was on its way. Worse, the Merriweathermobile – the latest of a series of shiny, expensive, vehicles acquired on finance, which Merriweather changed on such a regular basis that it was easier to think of them as a species – was parked outside. This one was so long it covered the whole length of the front wall. Astin’s car was only as long as the window. Through the window, unsurprised, he spotted both Merriweather and Dolorez. They were not exactly entwined, but looked as if they might have been, fairly recently.

He supposed it had been too much to hope that Dolorez either wouldn’t notice the dragonettes or wouldn’t be interested in them. Her eyes narrowed as she watched him, with the unwelcome but unfortunately necessary assistance of a tanned and toothsome Martin Merriweather, decanting the little, jewel-like, rainbow-hued creatures into the heavy-duty cage he had bought some time ago. Her surgically retrousséd nose positively quivered. He had no problem in recognising that look. Dolorez wanted.

 (Over to you now…)

Rupert-land

Every Christmas for years and years I was given a Rupert Book, and this was the one present I would look for among all the things I didn’t particularly want – the plastic doll with the pink skin and the wiry orange hair; the tin telephone exchange, the sugar mice with tails of string and the inevitable 5 shilling postal orders from Great Aunts I was never sure I had met.

rupert

I always knew which present the Rupert Book was because it was heavy and flat, and you could feel the ridge of the spine down one edge, the hollowness of the opposing edge, where the pages would open. I always thought I might save it all year just to think about unwrapping it, a preserved pleasure like bottled cherries. But Christmas night, alone in my room, escaping at last from the gross overeating and generalised squabbling of the day, I would always open it. Reading the Rupert Books showed me that there were in fact two worlds, not one.

To start with I would be absorbed into the story, fallen among black-clad, pointy-hatted imps in their subterranean laboratories or being punted along a dark river by a Chinaman in embroidered silk and a pigtail. Those strange barges, clad in hoops and canvas like the wagons in Wild West films. I imagined that when you were tired you would retire to sleep amongst the cargo in the tea- and rope-smelling darkness. In Rupert-land all good things were possible. One minute you would be safe at home with Mummy Bear in her flowery apron, and Daddy Bear with his pipe and slippers; the next minute you’d fallen through a trap-door in a hillside, discovered a secret stairway in the middle of a thicket or been kidnapped by pirates.

Then I would look up. There would be rain on the window, stars in a navy-blue sky and my father coughing after his once-a-year cigar. For a moment, suspended between the two realities, I would know that I could fly. This was how I felt, and still occasionally feel, about the world. Reality is a precarious affair. At any moment things might cease to make sense. I still come home from work sometimes and expect the plants in the front garden to have rearranged themselves, or a brass fox’s-head door-knocker to have materialised on the door, and it is both a relief and a disappointment to discover that everything is exactly as I left it.