Cat

Photo credit: Mike Deal aka ZoneDancer on VisualHunt

The cat is watching me.

He started doing it about a week ago. I suppose there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with a cat watching you. Normally cats ignore you unless they want something. Even the actions that appear to be affectionate have an ulterior motive. Rubbing their head on you? Marking you as ‘theirs’ with scent glands. Sitting on your knee? Warmth. Following you to the kitchen as you make a coffee?  You do know that’s where you also prepare food don’t you?

No. Cats seldom want you for you. For what you can do for them, certainly. But they feel no separation anxiety like dogs. No joy at your return. They aren’t pack animals.

So what does he want?

He’s pretty brazen about it. He sits or lies in odd places and stares unblinking at me. Not in my general direction, not casually, but continually. I’ve  taken to googling things like “why cats stare?” You get all sorts of weird answers from people purporting to be animal psychologists. Really? Is that where all the Freudians have gone? If so I’m pretty sure patients, or rather the patients’ theoretical owners are wasting their time, and let us not forget, money. I am pretty sure the cat is all id and no ego or superego. No-one is riding the id’s mad stallion. ‘Want, have, kill. But not until we’ve played a little’ is more the cat’s motto. Perhaps more Nietsche than Freud.

But given the cat’s will to power, what power is he seeking over me? Perhaps more worrisome yet is the thought that the cat has an even more basic philosophical grounding than Nietzschean will. A sort of Cartesian derivative perhaps; “Neco ergo sum”: “I kill therefore I am” is what drives a cat’s life.

So how worried should I be? Has he decided that in my dotage I am weakening to the point where it is worth ‘having a go’? Has he perhaps already tasted human flesh? Perhaps the kind old lady in the next road who fusses over any and all felines and gives treats as they pass through her domain has perished, as yet unfound? Now he, replete with her new bounty is seeking fresher fare. He is fastidious in his refusal of food that has been contaminated with fly eggs, so, let us assume she perished some days before he began his unusual attention manifested itself. She will be undoubtedly now be replete with maggots and he, seeking fresh supplies of his new favourite food. Should I call? Call on her? Notify the authorities?

‘And why are you worried sir?’

‘My cat is staring at me.’

No. There will be an ambulance for sure, but not one destined for A&E or the mortuary but a local mental health assessment centre for certain. Perhaps I’ll take a stroll past her house later and see if there is a light on? Maybe take a packet of cat food along and knock on the door and make a neighbourly joke about doing my bit for local catdom. I won’t ring anyone yet.

I’ve perused all the clickbait ‘what your cat is desperately trying to tell you’ sites, and his face is nothing like any of the litany of cat faces trying to tell you about diabetes, cancer or torn claws. His is more, appraising. More a sort of certainty that at last he has my measure. I have been making sure I shut the bedroom door at night and have checked under the bed and behind the curtains to make sure he is not in the room before I turn off the light. My wife keeps giving me odd looks as I do this and I made the mistake of explaining why I was doing it. She says she hasn’t noticed anything different. Maybe they are in it together? Can you train a cat to kill on command?  Why would she? I love them both. Where’s the motive?

Maybe I am a little overwrought about it. It’s nothing. Maybe he needs worming? Maybe I’ll ring the vet? How could I get them to see what I mean. I pick up the phone and get ready to take a picture to send. The cat looks away, rises to all fours, yawns and walks off, tail erect, confident and insouciant. He knows I know.

Why has the cat stopped watching me?

CLEAROUT: Alternative version

I drafted this version of Clearout to see what it felt like with most of the indirect speech and description turned into direct speech to see how it felt. On reflection I think I prefer this version in many ways. It lets the reader pull out what is going on from the conversations rather than telling them. It still has the lack of jeopardy and a cosy ending but changing that is going to involve more thought and considerably more effort to keep within the (rough) space constraints. A task for another day perhaps.

The sixteenth time it happened he decided he needed to do something.

‘Sixteen? That’s very precise.’ Doctor Lennox said

‘Since I started keeping count.’ Irvine told him.

Lennox took out his stethoscope and blood pressure machine and torch and started prodding and poking at this point.

‘Smoke?’

‘No.’

‘Ever smoked?’

‘No.’

‘Alcohol?’

‘Yes.’

‘How much?’

‘Not as much since we stopped that Napoleonic campaign.’

‘Yes that was nerve racking wasn’t it? Must do it again some time.’ He made a note. ‘Within guidelines then?’

‘Unless they’ve lowered them again to trap the unwary, like the speed limits.’

Lennox smiled.

‘Sorry, but I’ve got to ask, any recreational drug use?’

‘No.’

‘Sure? I’m not off to the coppers if you are.’

‘No Robin, I don’t.’

Lennox nodded and went through a whole set of other questions about any recent dizzy spells, headaches, fainting or flushes.

‘I’m not here about the menopause.’

‘Not worried about that. And that’s not a very appropriate comment these days.’ Lennox chided ‘Any other odd visual symptoms?’

‘Not that I’ve noticed.’’

‘Well, we’ll take a blood sample for a general MOT type thing.’

‘Brain tumour?’

‘That’s a bit of a leap under the circumstances. Just a general check up.’  Irvine presumed it was cancer cells they were looking for. Maybe liver function, although he couldn’t think why liver problems would give him visions. Lennox interrupted his chain of thought.’ And you should go and see an optician, as you’re seeing things.’ Doctor joke among friends. Except it had stopped being funny for Irvine well before he started counting the sixteen times.

The first time it had happened he’d blinked and sure enough it had gone away. It had always gone away. But more slowly of late, more reluctantly. Which was why he’d gone to Doctor Lennox. Lennox was a good man and Irvine had known him for years. Which was why it had taken so long to go and see him. It was a bit embarrassing going to someone you wargamed with and telling them you were seeing things. Especially when you didn’t know what it was you were seeing. And only seeing them in one place in the kitchen doorway to the hall was weird.

Irvine had struck while the iron was hot, or at least while his innate suspicion of medical types was overwhelmed and went into the optician’s. She hadn’t been much more help. He explained the reason for the out of schedule appointment and she went through the usual checks.

‘Well, your prescription is still good, we only changed that a few months ago. You still need glasses for seeing long distance, so you must wear them for driving. Reading is still good, no obvious problems.’ She flicked through a couple of screens on her computer. ‘The Field test was okay, and the puff test for eyeball pressure acceptable. No obvious signs of glaucoma. Nothing else obviously to worry about.’ She scrolled on down his notes. ‘Did you go and get that ballooned capillary checked at hospital?’

‘I’m afraid I haven’t got around to it yet.’

‘Under the circumstances I think I should make a referral, okay. It’s probably fine if you aren’t getting any other interference with vision, but it would be better to check in any case.’ She typed into the machine and looked up. ‘They might check a few other things while you are there under the circumstances.’ She sighed. ‘There is a waiting list of course.’

‘Of course. Covid. Post Covid.’

‘And the rest.’

He walked slowly home, reflecting all the worries this simple apparition problem was throwing up. Rhona didn’t appear too worried, although she vigorously supported his medicalisation of the problem.

‘Go and see Robin. He’s only a GP but it will start the ball rolling. And don’t forget what you’re there for and spend all the time talking toy soldiers.’ She understood the whole health care approach to things from the inside of course. From his outsider position it sometimes appeared as much akin to faith as anything. Something he had no understanding of. She had lightly murmured about a mental health aspect of course, but she would wouldn’t she? Experts liked to fit most things into their speciality, be they doctors, economists, politicians or plumbers. If you had a hammer, every problem had a nail like quality.

He reached the house and Rhona was already back.  He shouted as he entered, ‘Only me!’ and went into the kitchen. He’d left the laptop on the table. He sat and opened it to check his emails. He heard Rhona coming down the stairs and looked up.

There it was again. An impression of a figure. Not a shadow exactly but not quite a solid object either, nor an obvious wispy apparition you could see through. Just the hint, the feeling almost, of a person. An indistinct presence in the doorway into the hall. As soon as he looked directly at it, it began to disappear. It left him, not scared, not desperately worried, but oddly concerned as if there was something he should be doing and he had forgotten what it was. It always left him feeling like that, in addition to the bewilderment of seeing something that wasn’t there. Rhona walked into the room from the hallway.

‘All right darling?’

‘Yes, yes.’

Rhona looked behind her into the doorway.

‘Did it happen again?’ Not “Did you see it again?” but “Did it happen again?” Fair enough he supposed, he wasn’t sure what was going on himself. You picked the easiest explanation for you. Medics included no doubt.

‘Er, yes, just a flash when I looked up to see if you were there. I heard you coming down the stairs.’

‘Elephant feet eh?’

‘No love, you’re as light as a dove.’

‘Old flanneler’ she said smiling. ‘Right answer though. Coffee?’

‘Yes, thanks. The optician says there’s a wait for Ophthalmology.’

‘There is with everything since the Covid. I mean there was before but now…’ She raised her eyebrows and flicked the switch on the kettle. Her own department was snowed under. But mental health work had always been understaffed. ‘How long?’

‘Didn’t say. They’ll be in touch.’

‘I’ll see if I can have a word.’

‘I’m not urgent Ron, those in front of me will need it more.’

‘I was thinking of my needs, not yours.’

She sat down opposite him, the laptop between them, her head blotting out most of the site, and sight, of his worries.

‘It’s not going to be a physical thing is it?’ she said.

‘Don’t know.’

‘Does it happen anywhere else?’

They’d been through this a hundred times before.

‘No. Just when I’m sat here.’

‘Silly question, why not move? You’ve got a perfectly good study upstairs.’

‘I know but…’

‘You’re stubborn.’

‘I want to know what it is.’

‘It’s going to be an associative response to some particular light stimulation by something in there.’ She leaned over and tapped his temple gently.

‘I’m imagining it you mean?’

‘No, that’s simplistic, but if it helps you deal with it…’

‘It doesn’t actually.’

He got up and made the coffee. He brought the two cups back to the table and glowered at the computer.

‘Poor wee man.’ She said and stroked his cheek. ‘It will all be fine.’ She stood up and took her coffee away into the living room. ‘Get the tests run. It might be that capillary triggering it off with the angle of the light.’

He watched her through the doorway into the living room and then looked back at the hall. Nothing.

If it were simple mechanics, why didn’t it happen every time he looked up from the laptop? No there was something else going on. But he didn’t think he was going mad. Not that he’d put it like that to Rhona. But he didn’t.

He typed solidly for fifteen minutes. No stops, no corrections, no in line editing, just writing. Almost stream of consciousness. There was a noise at the front door and his daughter’s voice carried down the hallway.

‘Hiya, only me!

He looked up and there it was again. He wasn’t surprised this time, he’d expected it. He did wonder if it was the time staring at the screen that did it. Fifteen minutes, often more when he was working well, flooded his eyes with light and then looking up must mean he wasn’t getting a full picture in the relative dark of the room. Maybe it was simply an adjustment of light. He didn’t take his eyes off the doorway and sure enough it was fading now, almost gone as his daughter walked in.

‘Hi Dad. You okay?’

‘Hello love, yes thanks. You?

‘Yeah you should hear what Mara did today in the kitchen.’ She rubbed her arms, ‘Why is it so cold in here?’ She walked over to the kettle and switched it on. ‘Coffee?’

He waved his cup in the air.

‘Got one thanks.’ The last of the image faded.

Holly raced through the tale of Mara and the platter of chicken wings and he made a note not to eat there again. She sat at the table and that was the end of work for the day. He shut the laptop and they talked. He hadn’t told her about his problem yet. Wasn’t sure what to tell her. Alex probably knew because although five years younger than Holly he was a listener and cunning. If you wanted to know what was going on in the house, Alex was the one to bribe.

After dinner Irvine went for a stroll down to the village. Thought about going into the pub and decided against, just in case word got back to Lennox. There were shadows and odd lights aplenty on the walk but nowhere did he see any figures appear and then fade. Walking along the lane at the back of the house, overgrown with trees hiding the streetlights he could see dark forms and pools of shadow he was able to make into anything he liked should he choose. But if he didn’t choose they stayed as amorphous lagoons of darkness. Whereas he couldn’t make the thing in the doorway into anything or anyone at will, but he couldn’t stop it looking like someone when he wasn’t trying.

Holly was out when he got back. Alex was in his room, probably playing some game on his console and Johnny was of course at Uni. Rhona was watching the news on television. An activity which showed her age, and his. He sat down with her on the sofa.

‘Okay?’

‘Uh huh. You?’

‘Apart from this idiot.’ They spent a happy five minutes dissecting the Health Secretary’s lack of ability. A pleasant way to bond again after the worries about his eyesight, brain tumour, mental health.

‘I’m not crazy you know.’ He said. Rhona looked at him.

‘No-one said you were. And we tend not use that diagnosis these days. Just saying.’

‘Political correctness gone mad.’

‘Showing your age. Nobody says that anymore either.’

‘Really? I do.’

‘I may have to resurrect that diagnosis.’

‘Cheek.’

‘What are you going to do about it?’

‘Ignore it probably for the moment. I’ve done everything I can. Seen the GP, waiting for test results. Seen the Optician. Been referred to the Ophthalmology Department . Your lot won’t look at me until the physical defect lot have said not our problem. So not a lot else to do. Get an exorcist in I suppose if we can’t wait.’

‘I wondered if we’d get round to it.’

‘To what?’

‘The “more things in heaven and earth, Horatio” scenario.’

‘I’m not planning on ringing the local Jesuit priest if that’s what’s worrying you.’

‘Doesn’t worry me, you’re the committed atheist.’

‘Yes, I am aren’t I? Is it my Mum and Dad you’re thinking of?’

‘I did think originally we’d be leaving them behind somewhere rather than have them with us all this time.’

‘They don’t take up much space do they?’

‘Hardly the point Irv.’

‘Suppose not.’

The conversation moved on to generalities. They streamed a film. Holly arrived home during it, telling them as they watched what was going to happen in the next scene after every one that was on screen.  At the end Irvine thanked his daughter for the inline captioning otherwise he might have had to pay attention to the plot and the acting rather than listen to her. She flounced off out of the room.

Rhona congratulated him on his parenting skills and went after her daughter telling him she obviously wanted to talk. Irvine wondered why she hadn’t just said, “I’d like to talk Dad” in that case. Maybe no-one did that any more either. He turned the television off and went into the kitchen with his laptop, put the kettle on and opened the document he’d been working one earlier. Did it make any more sense now? Rhona shouted down she was off to bed. He spooned coffee into a large mug, although Rhona routinely advised him against caffeinated drinks so late. He poured the water into the mug and read through the last few hundred words he had written in that burst of creativity. Oddly coherent he thought.

Alex clumped down the stairs and burst into the room.

‘Dad. Don’t worry, it’s only me.’

‘Who else would it be?’

‘You’re joking right?’

‘About what? Irvine asked his teenage son as the boy opened the refrigerator with a crash and took out a chilled can of fizzy orange drink.

‘Not caffeinated. Mum says it’s okay.’ Alex waved the label at Irvine. ‘See?’

‘Not really, but that’s okay, I don’t need to if it’s okay with your Mum.’

Alex leaned against the central island and looked at his father and then at the door.

‘I know about your problem. You and Mum couldn’t keep a secret if you tried.’

‘Oh. Does Holly know?’

‘You are joking now right? Holly? Nice girl, not too involved with the rest of humanity?’

‘Harsh.’

‘You should hear what I say when I’m not being the caring sibling.’

‘You know I don’t think I should. Anyway, what problem?’

Alex rolled his eyes to the ceiling and took a long pull on the can of orange.

‘Well defended Dad. It would have been better if you’d opened with that rather than “Does Holly know?” don’t you think?’

Irvine conceded the point.

‘What do you think you know then?’ he asked.

‘About you seeing someone over there every time you look up from that old steam computer.’

‘My difference engine works perfectly thank you.’

‘You can joke all you like its ancient.’

‘It isn’t, and it works.’

‘Stop changing the subject.’

‘I’m not.’ He looked at his son and at the door. ‘Only a bit. How do you know?’

‘Apart from the doctor’s visits and optician and Mum clucking like an old hen trying not to say you’re crazy?’

‘That’s not a …’

‘…current diagnostic term. I know.’ Alex drained the can and put in on the work top. ‘Anyone else seen it?’

‘No.’

‘That’s not strictly true Dad.’

‘It’s not?’

‘No.’

‘You mean?’

‘Yeah. Me too.’

‘Are you all right?’

‘I don’t need an optician.’

‘No. I meant…’

‘Does she scare me?

‘She?’

‘Don’t you know who it is?’

‘Alex, all I see is a sort of shadow, not even that, something, and then it disappears.’

‘Makes sense. You don’t believe do you?’

‘In what?’

‘Anything. God, spirits, anything like that.’

‘No. There’s no way it could work.’

‘Well, that makes it hard for her to get you to see.’

‘Who?

Alex stared at his father.

‘You really don’t know?’

‘Do you think I’d be going through all this bloody medical palaver if I knew what I was seeing? Irvine said.

‘Okay. Don’t freak out Dad, but it’s Granny.’

‘Granny? You mean…’

‘Your mum, Granny Laidlaw.’

Irvine was stunned. He had expected Alex to have worked out there was something odd happening with him, Irvine. He hadn’t expected this.

‘Did your mother put you up to this? Is that what she did? All that going to bed early rubbish, feeding you this line to make me look daft. Is that it?’

‘Dad! Come on, be serious.’

Irvine took a deep breath.

I’m trying to be. Are you?’

‘Serious?’

‘Yes, all this ghost stuff, it’s not like you.’

‘It’s not like, you know’ Alex raised his hands in the air and waved them from side to side, ‘Wooooo! type of thing. It’s just granny. It feels okay.’ 

‘How do you know it’s her?’

‘Dad, I remember what granny looked like.’

‘Have you told Mum?’

‘I’m not in the nut house am I? Course not.’

‘I don’t believe I’m asking this, but, do you know what she wants?’

‘It’s not like she actually says anything. But I think she just wants to get your attention.’ Alex shook his head, ‘It’s not words, it’s just a feeling. Wanting to move on or something.’ Alex walked over and kissed his Dad on the head, something he hadn’t done for years. ‘I’m okay. You should be too. Take a chance and believe eh? I’m pretty sure you’re safe. Night Dad.’ And with that he walked off.

Irvine sat staring at the doorway where Alex left the room. There was nothing. He didn’t feel any chills, no tingling of the spine. No fears or disturbances in the force. He got up and went upstairs.

Holly’s door was shut, Alex’s light was on and there was a low rumble of something on his computer. Rhona was asleep already. Irvine opened the loft and pulled down the ladder and ascended. He turned the light on and went to the cupboard at the back of the. It wasn’t a traditional lumber room or anything, if had flooring and carpeting but there was he admitted an inordinate amount of rainy day material in boxes that had never been opened since he’d put them up there. Must have a clearout.

On a shelf in the cupboard, in velvet drawstring bags were two urns containing his mother and father. What was left of them after the crematorium. He hadn’t known what to do with them after the funeral. He’d hoped for inspiration to let him know what to do with them. It never came. As Rhona had said, months turned into years. On reflection it was perhaps a little unusual. He looked at them and apologised. He probably hadn’t been ready to let go. He lifted them from the shelf and carried them downstairs. They were surprisingly heavy for ashes.

He put them on the mantelpiece in the dining room and said goodnight. He’d take them both out onto the hillside overlooking the loch tomorrow and scatter them where sea and mountain could claim them He went into the kitchen and made sure all the taps were off and the implements unplugged. He sat at the table in front of the laptop, saved his work and turned the computer off. He looked up at the doorway. Was there a figure? He couldn’t see anything. Nothing.

He’d get his blood test results and get his eyes checked in hospital and he knew they would both be okay. He had a warm peaceful feeling.

CEAROUT: Visions – original draft

Photo credit: lamirlet on VisualHunt.com

This is the original version of Clearout, with the odd change of style part way through. I didn’t notice as I wrote it but reading back to edit and redraft it, it became very obvious. It isn’t the absolute first draft as I tidied it up and saved it before I decided which style to keep but the main shift in style remains as I didn’t touch that in this version. I have another where direct speech drives the narrative which I will put up later.

The sixteenth time it happened he decided he needed to do something. The sixteenth since he’d started keeping count that is, as he told the doctor. The doctor asked him lots of questions about his lifestyle. Did he smoke? Did he drink alcohol? How much? Difficult question he knew, but any recreational drugs? Not to worry he wasn’t off to the police for a bit of cannabis. No? Sure? Positive. He knew whether he took drugs. 

Any dizzy spells? Headaches? Fainting? Flushes? No he wasn’t worried about the menopause. Not very PC these days but we’re chaps together aren’t we? Yes. No other odd visual symptoms?

He’d taken a blood test for a “general MOT type thing”. Irvine presumed it was cancer cells they were looking for. Maybe liver function, although he couldn’t think why liver problems would give him visions. The Doctor also said to go and see an optician, “as you’re seeing things”. Ha ha. Joke.

Except it wasn’t.

The first time it had happened he’d blinked and sure enough it had gone away. It had always gone away. But more slowly of late, more reluctantly. Which was why he’d gone to Doctor Lennox. Nice man. Known him years, They’d played toy soldiers together for a while when they’d found out they were both interested in wargaming. Unusual hobby. Nice to find a fellow enthusiast. Lennox was busy these days, busier than Irvine. Still did get a game in occasionally but the whole Covid thing had been a nightmare and ‘still’ hadn’t happened for nearly three years now he thought about it.

The optician hadn’t been much more help. Still needed glasses for seeing long distance. Okay for reading, no obvious problems. Field test was okay, puff test for eyeball pressure acceptable. Did he know of anything else? Small purple spot left eye where there was a slightly distended capillary. Known about it since he was thirty six. Should have been back to hospital more often than he had but he’d moved around a bit and forgotten. No reminders from anyone had caught up with him. Okay, he’d make a referral.

Rhona hadn’t thought it an issue. Probably still didn’t, although she vigorously supported his medicalisation of the problem. It was easier that way. There were murmurings about maybe a mental health referral. He checked his emails. There was a note from the hospital. There was a waiting list. They’d be in touch. Arrange for transport after as he wouldn’t be able to drive for some time and don’t worry about odd vision effects afterwards. The chemicals they would put in the eye to dilate the pupil so they could photograph the retina would affect his vision. Don’t worry about odd vision effects! Ironic given the circumstances. He heard Rhona coming down the stairs and looked up.

Shit! There it was again. Just an impression. An impression of a figure. Not a shadow exactly but not a solid object, nor an obvious wispy apparition you could see through. Just the hint, the feeling almost, of a person. But indistinct, a presence in the doorway into the hall. As soon as he looked directly at it, it disappeared. When he looked away the impression was no longer there and when he looked through the doorway the only person was Rhona walking into the room from the hallway.

‘All right darling?’

‘Yes, yes.’

Rhona looked behind her into the doorway.

‘Did it happen again?’ Not “Did you see it again?” but “Did it happen again?” Fair enough he supposed, he wasn’t sure what was going on himself. You picked the easiest explanation for you. He looked at the email. Medics included no doubt.

‘Er, yes, just a flash when I looked up to see if you were there. I heard you coming down the stairs.’

‘Elephant feet eh?’

‘No love, you’re as light as a dove.’

‘Old flanneler’ she said smiling. ‘Right answer though. Coffee?’

‘Yes, thanks.’ Keep it grounded, medical. ‘The Opthalmology department have emailed. There’s a wait.’

‘There is with everything since the Covid. I mean there was before but now…’ She raised here eyebrows and flicked the switch on the kettle. Her own department was snowed under. But mental health work had always been understaffed. ‘How long do they say?’

‘They don’t. It says they will be in touch.’

‘I’ll see if I can have a word.’

‘I’m not urgent Ron, those in front of me will need it more.’

‘I was thinking of my needs, not yours.’

She sat down opposite him, the laptop between them, her head blotting out most of the site, and sight, of his worries.

‘It’s not going to be a physical thing is it?’ she said.

‘Don’t know.’

‘Does it happen anywhere else?’

They’d been through this a hundred times before.

‘No. Just when I’m sat here.’

‘Silly question, why not move? You’ve got a perfectly good study upstairs.’

‘I know but…’

‘You’re stubborn.’

‘I want to know what it is.’

‘It’s going to be an associative response to some particular light stimulation by something in there.’ She leaned over and tapped his temple gently.

‘I’m imagining it you mean?’

‘No, that’s simplistic, but if it helps you deal with it…’

‘No it doesn’t actually.’

He got up and made the coffee. Instant. Good quality but not fresh ground. He actually preferred it but he knew Rhona could be a bit demanding of her coffee.

He brought the two cups back to the table and glowered at the computer.

‘Poor wee man.’ She said and stroked his cheek. ‘It will all be fine.’ She stood up and took her coffee away into the living room. ‘Get the tests run. It might be that capillary triggering it off with the angle of the light.’

He glared at her back and then at the doorway to the hall. Nothing.

If it were simple mechanics, why didn’t it happen every time he looked up from the laptop? No there was something else going on. But he didn’t think he was going mad. Not that he’d put it like that to Rhona. But he didn’t.

He typed solidly for fifteen minutes. No stops, no corrections, no in line editing, just writing. Almost stream of consciousness. There was a noise at the front door and his daughter’s voice carried down the hallway.

‘Hiya, only me!

He looked up and there it was again. He wasn’t surprised this time, he’d expected it. He did wonder if it was the time staring at the screen that did it. Fifteen minutes, often more when he was working well, flooded his eyes with light and then looking up must mean he wasn’t getting a full picture in the relative dark of the room. Maybe it was simply an adjustment of light. He didn’t take his eyes off the doorway and sure enough it was fading now, almost gone as his daughter walked in.

‘Hi Dad. You okay?’

‘Hello love, yes thanks. You?

‘Yeah you should hear what Mara did today in the kitchen.’ She rubbed her arms, ‘Why is it so cold in here?’ She walked over to the kettle and switched it on. ‘Coffee?’

He waved his cup in the air.

‘Got one thanks.’ The last of the image faded.

Holly raced through the tale of Mara and the platter of chicken wings and he made a note not to eat there again. She sat at the table and that was the end of work for the day. He shut the laptop and they talked. He hadn’t told her about his problem yet. Wasn’t sure what to tell her. Alex probably knew because although five years younger than Holly he was a listener and cunning. If you wanted to know what was going on in the house, Alex was the one to bribe.

After dinner Irvine went for a stroll down to the village. Thought about going into the pub and decided against, just in case word got back to Lennox. There were shadows and odd lights aplenty on the walk but nowhere did he see any figures appear and then fade. Walking along the lane at the back of the house, overgrown with trees hiding the streetlights he could see dark forms and pools of shadow he was able to make into anything he liked should he choose. But if he didn’t choose they stayed as amorphous lagoons of darkness. Whereas he couldn’t make the thing in the doorway into anything or anyone at will, but he couldn’t stop it looking like someone when he wasn’t trying.

Holly was out when he got back. Alex was in his room, probably playing some game on his console and Johnny was of course at Uni. Rhona was watching the news on television. An activity which showed her age, and his. He sat down with her on the sofa.

‘Okay?’

‘Uh huh. You?’

‘Apart from this idiot.’ They spent a happy five minutes dissecting the Health Secretary’s lack of ability. A pleasant way to bond again after the worries about his eyesight, brain tumour, mental health.

‘I’m not crazy you know.’ He said. Rhona looked at him.

‘No-one said you were. And we tend not use that diagnosis these days. Just saying.’

‘Political correctness gone mad.’

‘Showing your age. Nobody says that anymore either.’

‘Really? I do.’

‘I may have to resurrect that diagnosis.’

‘Cheek.’

‘What are you going to do about it?’

‘Ignore it probably for the moment. I’ve done everything I can. Seen the GP, waiting for test results. Seen the Optician. Been referred to the Opthalmology Department . Your lot won’t look at me until the physical defect lot have said not our problem. So not a lot else to do. Get an exorcist in I suppose if we can’t wait.’

‘I wondered if we’d get round to it.’

‘To what?’

‘The “more things in heaven and earth, Horatio” scenario.’

‘I’m not planning on ringing the local Jesuit priest if that’s what’s worrying you.’

‘Doesn’t worry me, you’re the committed atheist.’

‘Yes, I am aren’t I? Is it my Mum and Dad you’re thinking of?’

‘I did think originally we’d be leaving them behind somewhere rather than have them with us all this time.’

‘They don’t take up much space do they?’

‘Hardly the point Irv.’

‘Suppose not.’

The conversation moved on to generalities. They streamed a film. Holly arrived home during it, telling them as they watched what was going to happen in the next scene after every one that was  on screen.  At the end Irvine thanked his daughter for the inline captioning otherwise he might have had to pay attention to the plot and the acting rather than listen to her. She flounced off out of the room.

Rhona congratulated him on his parenting skills and went after her daughter telling him she obviously wanted to talk. Irvine wondered why she hadn’t just said, “I’d like to talk Dad” in that case. Maybe no-one did that any more either. He turned the television off and went into the kitchen with his laptop, put the kettle on and opened the document he’d been working one earlier. Did it make any more sense now? Rhona shouted down she was off to bed. He spooned coffee into a large mug, although Rhona routinely advised him against caffeinated drinks so late. He poured the water into the mug and read through the last few hundred words he had written in that burst of creativity. Oddly coherent he thought.

Alex clumped down the stairs and burst into the room.

‘Dad. Don’t worry, it’s only me.’

‘Who else would it be?’

‘You’re joking right?’

‘About what? Irvine asked his teenage son as the boy opened the refrigerator with a crash and took out a chilled can of fizzy orange drink.

‘Not caffeinated. Mum says it’s okay.’ Alex waved the label at Irvine. ‘See?’

‘Not really, but that’s okay, I don’t need to if it’s okay with your Mum.’

Alex leaned against the central island and looked at his father and then at the door.

‘I know about your problem. You and Mum couldn’t keep a secret if you tried.’

‘Oh. Does Holly know?’

‘You are joking now right? Holly? Nice girl, not too involved with the rest of humanity?’

‘Harsh.’

‘You should hear what I say when I’m not being the caring sibling.’

‘You know I don’t think I should. Anyway, what problem?’

Alex rolled his eyes to the ceiling and took a long pull on the can of orange.

‘Well defended Dad. It would have been better if you’d opened with that rather than “Does Holly know?” don’t you think?’

Irvine conceded the point.

‘What do you think you know then?’ he asked.

‘About you seeing someone over there every time you look up from that old steam computer.’

‘My difference engine works perfectly thank you.’

‘You can joke all you like its ancient.’

‘It isn’t, and it works.’

‘Stop changing the subject.’

‘I’m not.’ He looked at his son and at the door. ‘Only a bit. How do you know?’

‘Apart from the doctor’s visits and optician and Mum clucking like an old hen trying not to say you’re crazy?’

‘That’s not a …’

‘…current diagnostic term. I know.’ Alex drained the can and put in on the work top. ‘Anyone else seen it?’

‘No.’

‘That’s not strictly true Dad.’

‘It’s not?’

‘No.’

‘You mean?’

‘Yeah. Me too.’

‘Are you all right?’

‘I don’t need an optician.’

‘No. I meant…’

‘Does she scare me?

‘She?’

‘Don’t you know who it is?’

‘Alex, all I see is a sort of shadow, not even that, something, and then it disappears.’

‘Makes sense. You don’t believe do you?’

‘In what?’

‘Anything. God, spirits, anything like that.’

‘No. There’s no way it could work.’

‘Well, that makes it hard for her to get you to see.’

‘Who?

Alex stared at his father.

‘You really don’t know?’

‘Do you think I’d be going through all this bloody medical palaver if I knew what I was seeing? Irvine said.

‘Okay. Don’t freak out Dad, but it’s Granny.’

‘Granny? You mean…’

‘Your mum, Granny Laidlaw.’

Irvine was stunned. He had expected Alex to have worked out there was something odd happening with him, Irvine. He hadn’t expected this.

‘Did your mother put you up to this? Is that what she did? All that going to bed early rubbish, feeding you this line to make me look daft. Is that it?’

‘Dad! Come on, be serious.’

Irvine took a deep breath.

I’m trying to be. Are you?’

‘Serious?’

‘Yes, all this ghost stuff, it’s not like you.’

‘It’s not like, you know’ Alex raised his hands in the air and waved them from side to side, ‘Wooooo! Type of thing. It’s just granny. It feels okay.’ 

‘How do you know it’s her?’

‘Dad, I remember what granny looked like.’

‘Have you told Mum?’

‘I’m not in the nut house am I? Course not.’

‘I don’t believe I’m asking this, but, do you know what she wants?’

‘It’s not like she actually says anything. But I think she just wants to get your attention.’ Alex shook his head, ‘It’s not words, it’s just a feeling. Wanting to move on or something.’ Alex walked over and kissed his Dad on the head, something he hadn’t done for years. ‘I’m okay. You should be too. Take a chance and believe eh? I’m pretty sure you’re safe. Night Dad.’ And with that he walked off.

Irvine sat staring at the doorway where Alex left the room. There was nothing. He didn’t feel any chills, no tingling of the spine. No fears or disturbances in the force. He got up and went upstairs.

Holly’s door was shut, Alex’s light was on and there was a low rumble of something on his computer. Rhona was asleep already. Irvine opened the loft and pulled down the ladder and ascended. He turned the light on and went to the cupboard at the back of the. It wasn’t a traditional lumber room or anything, if had flooring and carpeting but there was he admitted an inordinate amount of rainy day material in boxes that had never been opened since he’d put them up there. Must have a clearout.

On a shelf in the cupboard, in velvet drawstring bags were two urns containing his mother and father. What was left of them after the crematorium. He hadn’t known what to do with them after the funeral. He’d hoped for inspiration to let him know what to do with them. It never came. As Rhona had said, months turned into years. On reflection it was perhaps a little unusual. He looked at them and apologised. He probably hadn’t been ready to let go. He lifted them from the shelf and carried them downstairs. They were surprisingly heavy for ashes.

He put them on the mantlepiece in the dining room and said goodnight. He’d take them both out onto the hillside overlooking the loch tomorrow and scatter them where sea and mountain could claim them He went into the kitchen and made sure all the taps were off and the implements unplugged. He sat at the table in front of the laptop, saved his work and turned the computer off. He looked up at the doorway. Was there a figure? He couldn’t see anything. Nothing.

He’d get his blood test results and get his eyes checked in hospital and he knew they would both be okay. He had a warm peaceful feeling.

CLEAROUT

Photo credit: lamirlet on VisualHunt.com

The sixteenth time it happened he decided he needed to do something. The sixteenth since he’d started keeping count that is, as he told the doctor. The doctor asked him lots of questions about his lifestyle. Did he smoke? Did he drink alcohol? How much? Difficult question he knew, but any recreational drugs? Not to worry he wasn’t off to the police for a bit of cannabis. No? Sure? Positive. He knew whether he took drugs. 

Any dizzy spells? Headaches? Fainting? Flushes? No he wasn’t worried about the menopause. Not very PC these days but we’re chaps together aren’t we? Yes. No other odd visual symptoms?

He’d taken a blood test for a “general MOT type thing”. Irvine presumed it was cancer cells they were looking for. Maybe liver function, although he couldn’t think why liver problems would give him visions. The Doctor also said to go and see an optician, “as you’re seeing things”. Ha ha. Joke.

Except it wasn’t.

The first time it had happened he’d blinked and sure enough it had gone away. It had always gone away. But more slowly of late, more reluctantly. Which was why he’d gone to Doctor Lennox. Nice man. Known him years. They’d played toy soldiers together for a while when they’d found out they were both interested in wargaming. Unusual hobby. Nice to find a fellow enthusiast. Lennox was busy these days, busier than Irvine. Still did get a game in occasionally but the whole Covid thing had been a nightmare and ‘still’ hadn’t happened for nearly three years now he thought about it.

The optician hadn’t been much more help. Still needed glasses for seeing long distance. Okay for reading, no obvious problems. Field test was okay, puff test for eyeball pressure acceptable. Did he know of anything else? Small purple spot left eye where there was a slightly distended capillary. Known about it since he was thirty six. Should have been back to hospital more often than he had, but he’d moved around a bit and forgotten. No reminders from anyone had caught up with him. Okay, he’d make a referral.

Rhona hadn’t thought it an issue. Probably still didn’t, although she vigorously supported his medicalisation of the problem. It was easier that way. There were murmurings about maybe a mental health referral. He checked his emails. There was a note from the hospital. There was a waiting list. They’d be in touch. Arrange for transport after as he wouldn’t be able to drive for some time and don’t worry about odd vision effects afterwards. The chemicals they would put in the eye to dilate the pupil so they could photograph the retina would affect his vision. Don’t worry about odd vision effects! Ironic given the circumstances. He heard Rhona coming down the stairs and looked up.

Shit! There it was again. Just an impression. An impression of a figure. Not a shadow exactly but not a solid object, nor an obvious wispy apparition you could see through. Just the hint, the feeling almost, of a person. But indistinct, a presence in the doorway into the hall. As soon as he looked directly at it, it disappeared. When he looked away the impression was no longer there and when he looked through the doorway the only person was Rhona walking into the room from the hallway.

Yes he was fine thanks. Had it had happened again. Not “seen it again’ he noted. Happened. Nothing to see. All in his head. Fair enough, he wasn’t sure what was going on himself. You picked the easiest explanation for you. He looked at the email. Medics included no doubt. Yes, it had happened again. Just a flash when looking to see if Rhona were there. Heard her footsteps and looked up. There it was. Briefly.

Of course she hadn’t got elephant feet, she was as light as a dove, which was flannel apparently. But the right answer. Yes he would have a coffee please. Thanks. Keep it grounded. Medical. Grounded? Coffee? Maybe it was a brain tumour. The Ophthalmology Department had emailed. There was a wait. That was standard now, post Covid.  How long? Didn’t say. They would be in touch. Rhona would have a word and see if she could pull any strings. He didn’t want her getting in trouble. No real urgency. He’d be fine. She was thinking of her not him.

He was probably right though. Not a physical thing at all she didn’t think.  It didn’t happen anywhere else did it? No. Why not work upstairs in the study then? Possibly he was stubborn as she suggested but he wanted to know what it was, not avoid it. No he didn’t know why. Just a feeling. Just wanted to know what it was.

An associative response to some particular light stimulation by something in his brain was her response, as she leaned over and tapped his temple gently. No, not imagination, too simplistic. But if it helped to think of it like…It didn’t.

She made the coffee. She was a stickler for the right coffee. He was fine with a decent instant. She made sympathetic noises and took her coffee away telling him to get the tests done as it might be the combination of the capillary and the light in the kitchen. He glared at her back and then at the doorway to the hall. Nothing.

If it were simple mechanics, why didn’t it happen every time he looked up from the laptop? No there was something else going on. But he didn’t think he was going mad. Not that he’d put it like that to Rhona. Time for a little more work. He typed solidly for fifteen minutes. No stops, no corrections, no in line editing, just writing. Stream of consciousness. There was a noise at the front door and his daughter’s voice carried down the hallway. He looked up to greet her.

There it was again. He wasn’t surprised this time, he’d expected it. Maybe it was the time staring at the screen that did it. Fifteen minutes, often more when he was working well, eyes flooded with light from the screen, pupils closed down. Look up and his brain created figures in the relative dark of the room. Simple adjustment to different light levels. He didn’t take his eyes off the doorway. Fading now, almost gone. Holly walked in. Greeted him, rubbed her arms and complained about the cold in the kitchen. The image faded. She made coffee. Offered him some. He was fine thanks. Holly sat at the table and that was the end of work for the day. He shut the laptop and they talked. Mara had had a disaster with a platter of chicken wings in the kitchen. Irvine made a mental note not to eat there again. He wondered about telling her of his problem He hadn’t told her yet. Wasn’t sure what to tell her. Alex probably knew because although five years younger than Holly he was a listener and cunning. If you wanted to know what was going on in the house, Alex was the one to bribe.

After dinner Irvine went for a stroll down to the village. Thought about going into the pub and decided against, just in case word got back to Lennox. There were shadows and odd lights aplenty on the walk but nowhere did he see any figures appear and then fade. Walking along the lane at the back of the house, overgrown with trees hiding the streetlights, he could see dark forms and pools of shadow he was able to make into anything he liked should he choose. But if he didn’t choose they stayed as amorphous lagoons of darkness. Whereas he couldn’t make the thing in the doorway into anything or anyone at will, but he couldn’t stop it looking like someone when he wasn’t trying.

Holly was out when he got back. Alex was in his room, probably playing some game on his console and Johnny was of course at Uni. Rhona was watching the news on television. An activity which showed her age, and his. He sat down with her on the sofa. They spent a happy five minutes dissecting the Health Secretary’s lack of ability. A pleasant way to bond again after the worries about his eyesight, brain tumour, mental health. He told her he’d decided he wasn’t crazy. Rhona made it clear no-one had suggested he was and for future reference they tended not use that diagnosis these days. Although if he carried on she might have to resurrect it. In the meantime was there anything else he wanted to do about it?  Nothing to do. Waiting for blood test results. Waiting for an ophthalmology appointment. Could look on the internet for an exorcist if they couldn’t wait.

Rhona had wondered how long it would be before they got around to the “more things in heaven and earth, Horatio” scenario. He wasn’t planning on ringing the local Jesuit priest. It wouldn’t worry her if he did, it was him who was the committed atheist. He acknowledged that was true. He wondered if she was thinking of his parents. She acknowledged she thought they would be leaving them behind somewhere rather than carting them around the country with them. They didn’t take up much space he observed. That was hardly the point.

They watched a film until Holly arrived home and described each scene following the one they were watching. Irvine thanked her for the inline captioning otherwise he might have had to pay attention to the plot and the acting rather than listen to her. She flounced off out of the room.

Rhona congratulated him on his parenting skills and followed Holly upstairs. She had obviously wanted to talk. Why hadn’t she just said so then. Maybe no-one did that any more. Was it a social media thing? He turned the television off, went into the kitchen with his laptop, put the kettle on and opened the document he’d been working one earlier. Did it make any more sense now? Rhona shouted down she was off to bed. He spooned coffee into a large mug. Rhona advised against caffeinated drinks so late. He poured the water into the mug and read through the last few hundred words he had written in that burst of creativity. Oddly coherent he thought. There was a clumping of feet on the stairs. Alex shouted to his father not to worry it was only him. Who else would it be? Alex raised his eyebrows. Was he in denial or just with Alex? About what? Alex took a can of fizzy orange from the refrigerator. Not caffeinated. Mum said it was okay. Alex waved the label at his father to prove the point. Leaned against the central island and looked at the door.

He knew all about the problem. Secrets were not Irvine’s or Mum’s forte. Did Holly know? Holly? Nice girl, not too involved with the rest of humanity. Had Irvine met her? A harsh assessment. But accurate.

What was this problem? Bit late for that apparently. Shouldn’t have asked if Holly knew if he was going to try and deny it. Irvine conceded the point. What did Alex think he knew then? Again the look at the doorway. He did know. The figure, the worry, doctor and optician appointments. Mum trying not to admit she thought he was crazy. A phrase which was not a current diagnostic term Irvine reminded him. He knew. Yes all true, he was seeing something that wasn’t there that no-one else saw.

Not exactly true it turned out. Alex knew exactly what he was talking about. Was he okay. He didn’t need an optician. Nor a doctor. Was he worried? No why would he be. It was only Granny. Irvine’s mother? Yes Granny Laidlaw. How the hell did he know that? Had mum put him up to this? Alex didn’t know what he was talking about. Mum was the last person he would tell if he didn’t want a spell in a straitjacket. Chemical or otherwise.

But he could recognise his granny when he saw her. No worries, not scary. Just nice. Warm. Did he not see her? No just a vague impression. Well that was what came of not believing in anything. Hard for her to get him to see. Irvine had expected Alex to have worked out there was something odd happening. He hadn’t expected this. Was Alex serious? Yes. Did he know what she wanted? No. It wasn’t as if she said anything but she needed to get Irvine to understand. Something about moving on, letting go. Alex didn’t know. He’d just promised her he’d tell Irvine He gave Irvine a hug. Hadn’t done that for years.

Alex left. There was nothing. No chills, no tingling of the spine. No fears or disturbances in the force. He got up and went upstairs. Holly’s door was shut. Alex’s light was on, a low rumble of something on his computer. Rhona was asleep. Irvine opened the loft, pulled down the ladder and ascended. It wasn’t a traditional lumber room. There was flooring and carpeting but an inordinate amount of rainy day material in boxes that had never been opened since he’d put them up there. Must have a clear out.

On a shelf in the cupboard at the back were two velvet drawstring bags. Inside were two containers. One his mother and one his father. What was left of them after the crematorium. He’d hoped for inspiration after the funerals. Months turned into years. A little unusual. He apologised to the bags, to their contents. Hadn’t been ready to let go. He lifted them from the shelf and carried them downstairs. They were surprisingly heavy.

He put them on the mantelpiece in the dining room. Said goodnight. Hillside overlooking the loch tomorrow. Where sea and mountain could claim them. Into the kitchen.  All the taps off, implements unplugged. Saved his work and turned the laptop off. He looked up at the doorway. Was that a flash of a figure? He couldn’t see anything. Nothing. Just a warm peaceful feeling. He smiled. Blood test results soon, eyes checked in hospital as and when. Both results would be fine. He turned out the lights and walked out of the kitchen.

Perchance to Dream

I was in my bed. I glanced around the room. I was in my bedroom too. The absurdity of why the bed would be in someone else’s room didn’t occur to me immediately. I checked first, thought afterwards.

The dream, it had to have been a dream, seemed so vivid. In those few waking moments, more vivid than my bed and the reality of my room. I sat up and leaned over to twitch the curtain aside. The usual sliver of sky and hillside greeted me. Why wouldn’t it? Nobody had the means or the interest in building a replica of my room somewhere else did they?

I shook my head and got up.

Shower and shave, dressing, all went prosaically enough which seemed odd in itself for some reason, as if nothing should be quite that normal, that ordinary after what had happened. I walked, quite easily down the stairs, no lurching, no hangover, no signs of debility, and went into the kitchen. I hadn’t been drinking last night, hadn’t had a drink for over a week, not that I was counting thanks, so why was I surprised about not having a hangover?

The radio didn’t seem bothered about the day. The usual collection of misery gleaned from around the world blathered out of the speaker. Radio. I still had a radio. How old was I? People didn’t have radios anymore did they? News was on the phone, on social media, on the computer, at a pinch on the television but radio? Come on!

I turned it off. The sound died but the machine was still there, plugged into the wall. It even had an aerial.

I made toast and a black coffee. I always drank tea didn’t I? White no sugar? Non-NATO standard. A nightmare when drinking from a metal cup dipped in a Norge container of NATO standard white two sugars on an industrial or at least military scale.

Why would I do that? I wasn’t in the army. Or any other armed service. Why would I think about dipping a metal cup into a big green bucket of tea so sweet you could feel the dental cavities forming as you drank?

I looked at the clock on the wall, half past seven. I drained the cup.

I had to go.

I tried to remember the dream as I locked the front door behind me. It had been so vivid, so real, so alarming that it had woken me from my sleep, my much needed sleep and caused me to doubt where I was and who I was and my radio for some reason and yet I had forgotten it. In the manner of dreams the feeling of unease was still there but not a single detail of what had so engaged me remained accessible.

I pinged the car open with the electronic tag and got in. I turned the radio on. It was eight o’clock. I’d better get a move on. Someone had left it on a music station. I like music. Did I? When had I last put a record on? A record? I switched to the news station and put my seatbelt on. As I drove out of the driveway the announcer mentioned what I was listening for. Russia.

I’d told everyone who would listen, and a lot more who wouldn’t, not to ignore Russia. That had been what? Twenty five years ago? When Francis Fukuyama’s end of history had been all the rage. Even he knew it was a mistake now.

 Russia, our potential great ally again, no ideological differences to spike the deal, had been turned into a threat again apparently. Jesus what a mess. I went right at the roundabout. Five past eight. I should have left earlier. They’d have to wait for me. How many Russia experts did they have these days?

Putin. He’d been a KGB major in East Germany when I’d been over the wall in West Germany. Same rank. Not the same organisation of course. Alex Younger said there was no moral equivalence between us and he should know. I laughed out loud at that thought. The woman in the Audi next to me, turning right at the junction looked askance at anyone being so happy in the morning. Why was I happy? Was I happy? Where was I actually going?

I hadn’t looked at Russia professionally since about 1993. What the hell was I going to say? I crept up to the stop line, braked and changed into neutral. The junction was always difficult, even turning left at this time of day. No need to rush. Ten past eight, maybe a little rush to be there for nine. I looked right, past the Audi, all clear , first, clutch to biting point, up off the brake and away we went. Nine? Why nine?

Something in the dream, something about time and driving? What about tea and Norges? The man was saying there was going to be a war. Not us though. Someone else and Russia. Why hadn’t someone told me? I’d been the desk analyst for it after all? I could have told me if I’d still been on the desk I left in ’93 Or had it been ’89. What happened in those four years.

I was at the top of the hill now. It was 100 yards to the big roundabout and then 400 yards to the motorway junction. I’d need to step on it to make the meeting.  Twenty past eight. I must have been on autopilot. I didn’t remember driving from the village into town. Had I got enough petrol? I always filled up the night before if it was getting low. I looked at the gauge. Yes, I’d be fine. Full tank. I must be doing something right. Maybe Claire had filled it?

A moment of panic struck me. Where was Claire? She hadn’t been in bed with me! She hadn’t been in the house! And I was in the car so she couldn’t be at work. And the kids! I’d gone without telling them I was leaving!

Wait a minute. I did have kids didn’t I? And a wife. Claire yes. But where was she? And why was I in her car if… I arrived at the roundabout, checked the right, put my right signal on and coasted through into the traffic. Lucky to get a space immediately, one exit, two exits, check the mirror, left signal, clear, pull over and past that minor exit and down the dual carriageway to the motorway. No problem.

Where was I? Dream. Something familiar all of a sudden. Claire? Kids? They were at Uni of course, no need to worry about them. Actually no need to worry about Claire. This was my car of course. She must be at work. Mustn’t she? Why was I on my way to work, I’d retired hadn’t I? Some time ago from that job. I’d just go right round the motorway interchange and go home. Maybe pick up breakfast at the garage. I’d had breakfast though hadn’t I? It was all getting a bit confusing. Better concentrate on the interchange, everybody was mad there.

The lights hurt my eyes and there was a crushing pain somewhere. There were people pulling and pushing at me and people muttering to each other. There was a lot of sudden activity.

‘He’s breathing.’

‘Got that line in?’

‘Yes. In now.’

‘Heart beat’s too fast, thready.’

 Was that a Russian accent? No Polish.

‘Okay, induced coma then?’

‘Yes, go for it.’

I was in my bed. I looked round the room. I was in my bedroom too.

REMINDER

Growing down the centre of my ring finger, left hand, is a groove. A neat, one millimetre wide, one millimetre deep channel running from the cuticle to the distal edge or tip of the nail. In fact beneath the cuticle to the proximal fold. Its beginning, physically presumably lies just beyond this in the nail root under the skin at the base of the nail. Temporally it lies around sixty years in the past.

My cousins lived on the edge of the village. Where I had motor vehicle exhaust to breathe on the way to school or shops they had the odours of pig muck, silage clamps and occasional whiffs of grass and foliage. My back yard was flagged in part and cinders for the rest, surrounded by a six foot wall which, when rather than if, you climbed it and dropped down the other side, left you in cobbled streets lined with smoke blackened terraced cottages. You walked through their overgrown garden, hopped the slack wire fence and landed in ‘the field’. The field was a neutral space between habitation and country, a DMZ between village and farmers. From a child’s perspective a huge swathe of grassland swept up the hill to Mr Ward’s farm where the country proper started, cows grazed and splatted, pigs rooted, chickens clucked, a cockerel crowed and men with tractors and odd machinery still walked and worked the land before farming became the loneliest job in the world.

The grassland was mowed and managed off to the right of the field but the left was generally left long in a meadow, hide and seek played, dens made in it, wild flowers picked, but not Mother’s Die, just in case. You probably know this as cow-parsley, but where I grew up it was Mother Die or Mother’s Die and remains so in my head still.

Down the field from where Ward’s land began to the bottom road where my Auntie’s house stood ran a track.  It wasn’t paved or tarmac covered. At some stage someone had casually, lazily and without much thought for anything other than trying to get a grip in the wet for poor quality 1950s tyres scattered a thin intermittent layer of loose chipping over the sandy ground. Not the fine graded chippings you got on the driveways of the bigger houses lying off country roads in the distance, but the odds and sods left over from the process, ranging from cricket ball size chunks to tiny lentil sized grains.

Compaction by farm vehicles, cars and feet had, over the years, compressed this into some sort of  surface marginally more traversable for wheeled traffic than grass and mud and sand, but only marginally. What it did provide in summer was a fast, bumpy, exciting go kart track for the enterprising children of the village. When I say go kart, stop right there with the Lewis Hamilton visions and skip back a few generations to odd planks of wood hammered, occasionally screwed if there as an adult involved in the construction, together with filched pram wheels and, if you had a Barnes Wallace among your constructors, a steerable front axle! One of the locals was a revolutionary designer and had a steerable rear axle but this was felt to be a design flaw rather than a promising innovation.

If my Uncle John was around, the rules were, generally to stay in sight of the rear window and no off roading to gain more speed before hitting the track, and one driver, one passenger max at a time on the descent. This was more summer bob sleigh territory than motor sport. Power was leg and gravity. Approved safety wear was; boys in shorts and shirts, girls in summer dresses, no helmets, no elbow pads, knee protectors, or any other protection come to that. My uncle was in the house that day and so we should have been okay and obeying the track safety rules. But you know how it is, two people max meant people waiting at the top, a long wait as pushing and pulling the finely crafted machine uphill was much less thrilling than riding down. So driver, navigator, rear gunner and engineer/supernumerary noise maker rapidly became the standard crew. We were all getting tired and near to calling it a day but one last death defying ride seemed to be required. Pretty sure Peter was driving, I think I may have had the ‘brake’, it was a piece of wood you hauled on but frankly I don’t think it was connected to anything. We decided that just going a bit further up would be fine and perhaps to extend the experience for the probable last run of the day, a short(ish) pre track grass hill run in would be best.

It certainly got the speed going although there were ominous squealing noises coming from the axles almost immediately. Progress was held in check a little by the dry grass on the slope but as we negotiated, a loose term, the entry onto the track proper that residual braking disappeared and we seemed to leap forward. Not just the axles were squealing by now. I knew we were fine in a straight line, we would bump and trundle our way down the hill and come to a more or less dignified stop where the hill ran out, the chippings were deeper and the emergency brakes (feet) could be safely deployed. Unfortunately we had joined the track higher up than the position we normally started from and our recce had been faulty. This meant that we joined the track at an angle and had therefore to apply steering correction to stay on the track. This automatically set up a slight yawing motion on the loose surface , but in addition we had to immediately counter steer as the track took a sharp opposite turn to the place we normally began our descents.

All those fighter pilot films where they lose control and the camera is thrown from side to side for a bit before flicking into a slightly nauseous spiralling motion were what happened next, without the benefit of being in a padded cinema seat. I have no idea how far we got down before it all became blurry then scrapy and painful but it felt like section two of the descent went on longer than section one. We all had cuts, grazes, a bit of gravel rash and bruising but I remember thinking as my finger went under the rear wheel somehow, that that felt a bit worse than the rest.

We limped ignominiously into the house. I was most definitely crying. Cuts and bruises were nothing new, but I was most decidedly of the opinion that nails shouldn’t be sticking up like that and there seemed a bit too much blood to come out of one finger. My mother soothed most minor bumps and she was there, but I knew I’d been right that this was bit more than a simple plaster job when I was wheeled before Uncle John. John was a nurse and although by then very high in the local mental health hierarchy, retained enough of his wartime nursing to be quite capable of dealing with this. He always had a bit of a scary authoritarian feel to him for me, but that day he was so brilliant for a small child in pain and more importantly worried about things being different than they should be. It was only a nail of course but it had been ripped from the quick and bent back at a weird angle. He cleaned it without killing me, talked to me to distract me, flicked the thing back into place, which I can assure you hurt a tad, and dressed it.

My mother hovered wanting to ask all those questions mothers want to ask and that I was not sure I wanted to hear the answers to.

‘He’ll be fine. It might come off but I don’t think so. Keep an eye on it, but I think he’s probably going to have a bit of a minor mark grow down the nail. It might be permanent but nothing to worry about.’

He was right. The nail stayed on and the damaged bits grew out. All except for that little groove nobody except me notices, but which reminds me of sunny childhood summers long ago, and also reminds me that, even though it was scary at the time, it came from fun and childhood isn’t or shouldn’t about being cocooned in cotton wool.

LOST CLICHÉS

I recently found this short silly piece I wrote in response to a workshop talk on ‘Clichés. It wasn’t intended to refute the idea that we should avoid cliché, rather it was a paean of praise to those phrases which roll so well off both tongue and pen that they rise to the hallowed heights of universal usage; i.e. cliché. I think this is mildly amusing as it is and it was only ever intended as a short piece to loosen the atmosphere at the next meeting. But as I read it, neatly filed in ‘exercises’ I was filled with an unsettling feeling that this wasn’t really it. The more I ignored it, the more bits of the rest came back to me. There was definitely more. Indeed I can remember bits of narrative; going upstairs, a fight, emerging from the house now surrounded by police. But can I find a longer version?

No.

I’ve given up searching. I’ve checked my file records for this blog, I’ve had a trawl through it online, I’ve searched key sections on Google, I’ve racked my brains for what I might have called a longer version and looked through my electronic files but I can’t find anything even close.

It’s not something I’m going to work on to make a story, the plotting was entirely subservient to the form but I’d quite like to find it if only to see what other clichés I managed to think of and squeeze in.

In the meantime:

In a nutshell, the unvarnished truth was, the place scared the wits out of me. But as my father always said, I’m as stubborn as a mule, so I held my head up high and put my best foot forward. It was my moment of truth and I had to make the best of a bad situation. Girding my loins despite my knees knocking like a pair of castanets I raised the knocker and let it fall with an ominous thud.

Answer came there none, but taking my life in my hands I pushed open the door. It gave an eldritch scream and the hairs on the back of my neck rose on end.

‘Is there anybody there?’ I shouted into the echoing void. A deathly silence greeted my enquiry. ‘Nothing ventured, nothing gained.’ I thought, and taking the bull by the horns I crossed the point of no return. I let the door swing closed behind me and as I did so the guttering candle that lit my way sputtered into oblivion in the draught.

Icy fingers played along my spine, and an iron fist clenched around my heart, scaring me stiff. Not a second too soon I remembered it isn’t over ‘til the fat lady sings and in the nick of time I found my lighter. The candle once more cast an ethereal glow, chasing the shadows into far corners.

‘That was too close for comfort’ I said to myself and wished I had had the sense I was born with and hit the trail right there and then. It was no good. I was already in too deep and I had to push on. Staying still was going backwards and if I didn’t have the guts to find the cure, going forwards I’d find myself with full blown Acquired Politician Expression Syndrome all over me.

Lotus Eating (3)

The Head introduced the people on the dais and welcomed them and all the guests. There were a couple of Princes, a plethora of aristocracy from a Duke down to minor European types who would hardly have troubled the Almanac de Gotha and untold Oligarchs, Entrepreneurs and some artistic types hoping to buy connections for their offspring. First there was a homily from the Chaplain. As the Chaplain began Miss Li moved to Chan’s side. Bond noticed her slip him something compact and shiny, small with what looked like a short barrel. A Beretta perhaps? More likely an H&K VP 9mm. It was what all the cool kids were shooting people with these days.

Cool kids! All of a sudden it hit him. The Bar Mitzvah had been a mistake. He’d got a lead on the missing Freeze Ray from NATO development HQ. Now he realised his target Lee Chan Woo wasn’t Jewish, and wasn’t even one person. Miss Li, Chancer Chan, Coroner Woo! It was three evil geniuses and two of them were here!

Bond let his mind drift away from the Chaplain’s drone and his hand slide to the attaché case. As a result he missed his cue and he became aware of the Head, Miss Li and the entire audience staring at him leaning sideways to reach inside his case. The Head caught his eye and nodded imperceptibly towards the microphone. Bond pulled the notes from his case and carried both to the speaker’s position. He put the notes on the lectern and opened the case on the small side table. He poured himself a drink of water.

‘Good afternoon, your Highnesses, your Grace, my Lords Ladies and Gentlemen. It is a great honour to be asked to return to this ancient seat of learning. I was a boy when I entered these gates for the first time and though a man today I feel once again like that little boy as I think of the centuries of…’ A helicopter swooped over the trees at the bottom of Big Field drowning out even the amplified words of Commander Bond. The craft flared into a landing at the side of the reception marquee. Bond put his hand over the microphone and turned to the Head. ‘Are you expecting that?’ The Head nodded.

‘Yes, it’s our Governors’ legal advisor. Mr Woo.’

‘The Coroner?’

‘Oh! You know him then?’

‘No, but I think we should be better acquainted.’

With that Bond reached into the case and pulled out a black box, antennae sprouting from it. He pressed a red button and threw it overarm towards the helicopter that was still twenty feet in the air. The box emitted a loud “Beep” and all of a sudden all the electronic watches, the amplifier and a couple of pacemakers in the crowd ceased working. The helicopter’s electronics also died and the machine autorotated into the ground at speed.

In the crowd people were trying to calm those suddenly suffering from massive arrhythmias, and call ambulances, but no phones were working. Bond reached once more into the case and pulled a rather fetching Silencero Maxim 9 from the interior. Johnny Chan took one look and fainted, dropping the asthma inhaler Miss Li had given him, while Miss LI said ‘Ag and fish eh? Too slippery by half.’

Bond leapt from the dais and hurdled the rope surrounding the seating. He arrived at the helicopter just as the two pilots freed themselves from the wreckage and staggered out. The first one reached for a pouch on his belt and Bond shot him neatly in the chest. No fancy shooting James he told himself, aim for the biggest mass. Screams followed him as he rushed the next man and clubbed him to the ground. Woo was cowering in the rear of the machine. Bond grabbed him and hauled him through the shattered doorway.

‘Okay Woo. Where is it? Tell me now or there won’t be any more Limehouse Chinese Laundry Blues for you!’

‘What the hell are you talking about?’ Woo whimpered.

‘Okay want o play it that way huh?’ Bond raised the gun just as he sensed rather than saw something rushing towards his head.

 The Head came over and stepping over Bond’s unconscious form, patted Miss Li on the shoulder.

‘Oh well done Sara! What on earth was James doing?’

She shook her head.

‘I don’t know exactly Headmaster but he needs some help I think.’

‘But he’s…’

‘Ministry of Ag and Fish? Yeah I know.’ She fished a plastic card from a pocket and showed the Head. ‘Loretta Chen MI5 Psychiatric evaluation. We’ve had an eye on him for years. He’s completely unstable.’ She looked the Head in the eye. ‘You should know, you recruited him for Six. I’ve read your letter of introduction. And he’s been getting worse lately’ She stepped over to the pilot who was getting to his feet, fumbling for the mobile in his belt pouch. ‘Ballistic vest works then?’ she smiled.

‘Bloody hell that hurt! Thank God he didn’t go for a head shot.’

‘Have you read his marksmanship scores? He probably was going for your head.’

The man stared at her.

‘You didn’t say that in the briefing.’

‘A Commander Bond moment Miss Li, er Chen?’

‘My psychiatric profile is fine thanks Headmaster.’ She pointed at Bond,’ But I think even Six will have to agree that maybe he’d be better off dealing with Cod quotas now.’ She found Bond’s black box and turned off the jamming device.

‘Time to make a call I think’.

End

Lotus Eating (2)

‘The name’s Bond, James Bond.’ Bond said taking the woman’s hand and staring into her eyes. This time the band struck up the same tune with vigour as more guests assembled on Big Field behind the trees. The Head raised his eyes heavenward and left. Miss Li shook Bond’s hand and removed hers from his grip before he could raise it to his lips.

‘Yes Mr Bond, the Head just said.’

‘And you are the delectable Miss Li. What exotic pearl of the orient do you hail from my dear?’

‘Godalming. You?’

‘Around and about, here and there, citizen of the world.’ He affected a tired, world weary smile.

‘It says Glasgow in your school record.’

‘You can’t always believe everything you read.’ Bond said, his face hard, eyes like flints.

‘I’ve read quite a bit about you Mr Bond.’ Li smiled, ‘Ministry of Ag and Fish? You sure? It changed to MAFF in 1955. Dissolved 2002. Would you like to freshen up before the proceedings begin?’

‘Legacy department.’ He replied through gritted teeth.

Bond washed his face in a basin in the masters’ washroom. The last time he’d been in here had not been a pleasant time. He shook the water from his hands and grabbed a towel. He’d sorted that out shortly after. Wilkins had had to retire early from teaching PE after that meeting. Had to retire from everything. Bond smirked at the memory of the trip to the bell tower and Wilkins’ sudden realisation that Bond had a very different end to the evening in mind to the one he’d planned. Unfortunate accident the police had said. Wilkins would survive. All hushed up of course.

Bond finished drying his face. During his reverie another visitor had entered the washroom. It was the large person from the platform. The man nodded to Bond and removed his bowler hat.

‘Good afternoon Mr Bond.’

Bond knocked him to floor with the tackle which had got him sent off in three rugger matches in a row during his last spring term. High, hard, swinging arm.

‘But Sir, he had to be stopped.’ He’d pleaded to the housemaster who’d pointed silently to the touchline.

‘Bond, you’re a psychopath’ the Head had said as he trudged off the field. ‘See me in my study after the match.’ Where he’d given Bond not his marching orders but the number of someone in Whitehall who had a use for people like him apparently. For jobs like this, Bond thought as he pinned the stunned man’s arm behind his back and ground his nose into the less that salubrious tiling on the floor.

‘How do you know my name? Why are you following me?’

A mumbled bleating came back.

‘Oh sorry!’ Bond said and raised the man’s head so he could speak.

‘We know each other! Johnny Chan? We were at school together. I used to fag for you.’

‘Oh yes!’ Bond got off him and let go of his arm. ‘Chancer Chan! How are you?’

Chan pulled himself to his feet and leaned against the washbasins.

‘Good. Apart from being savagely attacked in the master’s washroom. Not a first for you I hear.’ He dabbed at the trickle of blood coming from his nose.

‘Sorry about that Chancer. You shouldn’t sneak up on people.’ Bond said, offering Chan a silk handkerchief.

‘I didn’t sneak, I just walked in.’ He waved a hand down his ample frame. ‘I’m not built for sneaking.’

‘No, you have filled out haven’t you? What were you doing on the train?’

‘I own it. I run the company that has the franchise for this region. Like to travel as an ordinary passenger now and again to see how we are doing.’ He offered the blood stained hankie back to Bond who declined, leaving Chan clutching it.

‘And why are you here?’

‘To listen to you giving the old boy’s address, and then to give the Governors’ speech.’

Bond’s eyes widened and his eyebrows nearly merged with his hairline.

‘You? You’re a governor?’

‘Chair actually. Since last December.’

‘What happened to Whittington?’

‘Cat attacked him. Ignored it. Too embarrassed to go to A&E for cat scratches and bites. Sepsis. Died a week later. So Mr Woo, the coroner said.’

‘Right. Well. Sorry about earlier Chancer. Good to catch up. See you on the dais eh?’ Bond pointed at the handkerchief in Chan’s hand. ‘Don’t bother having it washed eh, just stick it over there.’ He waved at the paper towel bin, grabbed his case and left.

Third and final part tomorrow

Lotus Eating

Part 1

It was going to be a cinch M had said.

‘Just pop down to Weton on the Hill, say a few words about the happiest days of your life, shake hands with the Head, have a cup of tea with a couple of parents and go home.’

‘Okay.’ Bond said, rose from the desk, sneering at the tacky pottery bulldog wearing a Union Jack waistcoat, currently being used as a paper weight. He had picked the dog up once while waiting for a briefing. The sticker underneath said “Made in China”. Bond wondered again about the new M.

After leaving M’s office he took the lift to the basement. He walked the length of the subterranean corridor. At the end was a door, which as he approached, slid into the wall, and stuck half way open.

‘Just kick the wall at the bottom.’ Q’s voice said from somewhere in the half of the room Bond couldn’t see. He did as directed and put a hole in the plaster.

‘No, about six inches higher, and not as…’ The door staggered fully open as more plaster dropped onto the carpet. Q sighed. ‘Hello Bond, what can I do for you?’

‘Hello Q.’ Bond said looking round at the technicians in the workshop. He lowered his voice. ‘I believe you have some new toys for me.’

Q tapped the keyboard in front of him and frowned as the screenwash lit his face in an unflattering green light. ‘Er, no Bond, nothing on file.’

‘But I’m going…’ he paused and watched a beautiful young Eurasian woman walk past.

‘007, we’ve talked about inappropriate workplace behaviour. Didn’t Moneypenny send you on a course?’

‘She did.’ Bond smirked. ‘But it wasn’t my appreciation of the female, sorry, whatever the appropriate term for that sexy, curvy form is, that made me pause. Have you noticed, there are a lot of Asian operatives around?’

‘Bond, there’s no place for lazy gender, sexual orientation or racist stereotypes in Six these days.’

‘But aren’t they…’

‘There’s no ‘they’ Bond. I haven’t got anything for you, you’re ‘on leave’ after that Bar Mitzvah incident, so you shouldn’t be here at all. Good day.’

Bond walked out onto the Albert Embankment. South of the river. It was going to be a bugger getting to Weton on the Hill on public transport.

Bond sat in the first class carriage of an old diesel heading north. He thought it a little petty of M to have removed his access to the Six garage. He hadn’t had his own car in years. What was the point in London? If you needed a car Six had a whole fleet of supercars armed to the teeth with machine guns, missiles and radar. All because he’d driven the wrong way down a one way street. At sixty. Past a Mosque. How was he to know that crowd was a Baraat? Who arrives at a wedding on a horse these days? Nobody died anyway. Not immediately.

The train juddered to a halt and Bond retrieved his attaché case from the overhead rack. It had the notes for his speech and one or two items Q had believed lost over several previous missions. One last look round the carriage and he stepped down onto the platform. Two carriages down Bond noticed a large oriental gentleman in a bowler hat descend from the train. Was ‘oriental’ okay Bond wondered? He searched his memory for hints from the awareness course he’d been on. East Asian perhaps? Or better yet no stereotypes. Okay big guy…gender presumption? Big person in male gender attire with bowler hat. Okay. No problem. Bond left the station.

The school looked as it always had, and the sight sent a shudder of something down Bond’s spine. A boy, sorry, young person, greeted Bond and ushered him to the Head. It was the same Head who had tried to tame Bond as a child before the unfortunate incident with the maid. They shook hands.

‘The name’s Bond, James Bond.’ Somewhere beyond a line of trees a band struck up a faintly familiar theme. The head smiled.

‘I know James, I invited you. We spoke at the Old Boys dinner in town last month?’

In the background the band stopped playing. Bond smiled a cold, ruthless smile.

‘I get invited to a lot of things.’

‘I’m sure you do James. As one of Her Majesty’s Food Inspectors for the Ministry of Ag and Fish, you must attend a lot of functions. Thank you for making the time to return once again to your alma mater.’ The Head turned to a slight figure at his shoulder,’ Miss Li could you make sure Mr Bond here has everything he needs and take him to the top table, we’re almost ready. James this is my secretary Miss Li, Miss Li, James Bond.’

Part 2 follows tomorrow